“In Iran we have big deserts — when it rains the ground cannot absorb the water quickly, so the land becomes blue like the sky,” a retired government official from the foreign ministry of the Islamic Republic explained to me. “The nuclear issue is also a mirage. It is not real. It is not about uranium. It is not about proliferation. It is not about the atom bomb. It is about America’s fight with us and our fight with America.”
Perhaps no international news story has been shaped by as much deception and wrong-headed analysis as the Iranian “nuclear crisis.” The average Western news consumer is under the impression that Iran has been secretly building a nuclear weapon under the cover of a civilian energy program, but is now being forced to change course due to sanctions and military threats. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s fatwa against nuclear weapons and the Islamic Republic’s assertions that it simply seeks to develop the civilian power program it inherited from the Shah are both roundly dismissed as sophistry at best and, at worst, deceitful.
The politically motivated narrative, willfully adopted by much of the press, of a duplicitous Iran posing a regional and even global threat has been manufactured — often deliberately — to serve security and bureaucratic interests in the West.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitors Iran’s enrichment program with regular inspections, closed-circuit television cameras, electronic seals on uranium stocks, and intelligence from Western spy agencies that have spared little effort in hunting for evidence of foul play. None has ever been found. No trustworthy evidence detailing an Iranian nuclear weapons program has emerged, and Iran has never diverted nuclear material from its civilian program.
‘Iran has to be identified as Enemy No. 1.’
“The Americans had no issue with us developing nuclear energy before the revolution so we wouldn’t burn our oil,” Mohammad Ali Shabani, a doctoral candidate at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies who is conducting research in Iran, told me. “But now they do, so it is clear that the problem is not proliferation but our government.”
The two most recent National Intelligence Estimates in 2007 and 2011, representing the best judgments of 16 US spy agencies, concluded that the Islamic Republic is not pursuing nuclear weapons. Perhaps wary of politicians playing fast-and-loose with the facts after the debacle over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, summarized the 2011 estimate by affirming that he had a “high level of confidence” that Iran had not decided to develop the bomb. His confidence was not based on an absence of evidence but on, among other intelligence, intercepted communications — reportedly between Iranian military commanders — that indicated Iran had stopped researching nuclear weapons in 2003.
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Although the US does not have evidence detailing the pre-2003 research, it is probable that prior to America’s ousting of Saddam Hussein — whose forces killed 20,000 Iranian troops with chemical agents during the Iraq-Iran War (1980-1988) — the Islamic Republic was seeking to deter a neighboring threat.
There is, however, considerable evidence to suggest that non-proliferation is being used as a convenient political tool to keep pressure on Iran to maintain a security configuration in the Middle East favorable to US and Israeli interests.
Origins of the crisis
In the decades preceding the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Israel and Iran — both principle beneficiaries of US political and military support in the region — cooperated deeply against the growing threat of Iraq. After 1979, when American relations with Iran became hostile and Iran broke off official ties with Israel, Israel still held out for Iranian cooperation, providing covert support to the Islamic Republic in its war with Iraq and discouraging America from providing Saddam with logistical assistance.
But in 1992, in the wake of the Cold War and under domestic pressure to end the first Palestinian intifada (1987-1993), Israel elected Yitzhak Rabin, who adopted two mutually reinforcing security policies: pursuing detente with the Palestinians and casting Iran as a nuclear proliferator seeking to sow “murderous Islamic terror.”
“Israel wanted to convince the US that both Israel and the US are facing a major strategic threat in the Middle East, and the source of that threat was an Iran which was embarking on a program of WMDs,” Peter Jenkins, a former British ambassador to the IAEA, explained to me. “They were worried that as the Cold War was ending, Israel would cease to be seen in the US, as it had been up to 1990, as a valuable partner in an unstable part of the world.”
“Iran has to be identified as Enemy No. 1,” Yossi (Joseph) Alpher, a former Rabin adviser, told the New York Times in 1992.
Israeli officials used their influence to aggressively persuade the US that Iran was re-arming itself after its war with Iraq and getting Russian help to develop missiles that could one day reach the US.
In fact, Iran at that time was exhausted by the war and decreasing its arms purchases, according to World Bank figures. In 1993, Iran spent 16 times less than Saudi Arabia and nearly nine times less than Israel despite having a population about three-times larger than both of those nations combined.
Israel also spun Iran’s purchase of rudimentary nuclear equipment from China as evidence of a nefarious nuclear program that would produce a “Shia bomb” in a decade, and invoked the “existential threat” posed by Iran to justify its threat of airstrikes. In 1992, Benjamin Netanyahu, then an MP, said that Iran would get the bomb in three to five years.
The “Iran threat” was an easy sell to the US intelligence establishment and the political right.
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“At the end of the Cold War you have intelligence agencies that are a little worried about how they are going to justify their existence,” Jenkins said. “They can still spy in China and a little bit elsewhere, but Russia had been their bread and butter for 45 years. They needed some new sexy threats.”
CIA director Robert Gates — who reportedly told his staff, “The only moderate Iranian is one who has run out of bullets” — was one key figure pushing the narrative of Iranian post-war rearmament. Others such as Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, and Dick Cheney, who would later emerge as the biggest proponents for regime change in Iran, were instrumental in making the nuclear threat a mainstream concern in US politics.
The laptop of death
No twist in the nuclear tale better exemplifies the dubious case against Iran than the emergence of alleged evidence of the “possible military dimensions” (PMD) of its nuclear program.
PMD remains the only major “outstanding nuclear issue” on the IAEA’s file on Iran after a decade of allegations were investigated and dismissed by the agency. The entire documentary evidence for PMD comes from one purloined computer that found its way to intelligence officials in 2004. Dubbed the “laptop of death,” it contained over 1,000 pages of documents allegedly from 2001 to 2003 concerning the redesign of a ballistic missile’s re-entry vehicle, high-explosives testing for a nuclear weapon detonator, and a uranium conversion system.
‘Was this salted in there for someone to find?’
This questionable material was essentially ignored for six years while the highly politicized IAEA was run by Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who frequently stymied Western interference. Following ElBaradei’s replacement by Yukiya Amano — who by his own (leaked) admission is “solidly in the US court” on the handling of Iran’s program — discussion of PMD formed the backbone of a splashy IAEA report in 2011. The report was cited by the US and EU as justification for the most draconian sanctions ever imposed on a nation, which have disproportionately affected Iran’s poor.
Iran has never had a chance to review the original copies of the documentary evidence against it, but responded to the charges with a 117-page document after reviewing electronic versions of the material.
Journalists and respected think tanks like the Institute for Science and International Security have pointed out gaping “technical flaws” in the laptop documents. For example, the 2002 re-entry vehicle drawings were bizarrely based on Iran’s older Shahab-3 missile design and not the Shahab-4, which CIA testimony had indicated was being developed at least as far back as 2000.
Informed commentators also asked why a laptop, supposedly from the heart of Iran’s covert nuclear weapons program, contained documents on three completely disparate parts of the project with no rational connection between them.
After inspecting the cache, Robert Kelley, a former IAEA inspector in Iraq (and no stranger to doctored WMD documents) asked himself, “Was this salted in there for someone to find?” He added that the IAEA’s presentation of the allegations produced a “sickly sense of déjà vu,” reminding him of the skewed Iraq WMD intelligence that misled public opinion.
“Only this time the IAEA is generating the dodgy theories instead of analyzing and testing them,” Kelley told me. “The 2011 weapons annex is conveniently broken into numbered paragraphs. If you make a simple spreadsheet and look at dates and contents you quickly see that most of the information is old, released many years ago, and of very uneven quality.”
Secretary of State Colin Powell first referred to the laptop evidence against Iran in late 2004, asserting that he had seen “information” that revealed Iran was working to adapt missiles to deliver a nuclear weapon. The timing of his comments — just three days after Iran had reached a deal with Britain, Germany, and France over its nuclear program — was designed to block progress toward a detente with the Islamic Republic.
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Days later, Karsten Voigt, the coordinator of German-North American relations in the German Foreign Office, publically disputed Powell’s remarks, stating that Europe “shouldn’t let their Iran policy be influenced by single-source headlines” and noting that the laptop had in fact come from “an Iranian dissident group” — a veiled reference to the exiled, eccentric Mujahideen al Khalq (MEK) group.
Despite or perhaps because of the question marks floating over the veracity of the laptop documents and their links to the MEK, contradictory accounts were leaked to several US newspapers suggesting that the laptop had come from an Iranian asset or from Iranian assets linked to German intelligence.
Voigt expanded on his 2004 assertion in 2013, telling investigative reporter Gareth Porter that his contacts in the BND, Germany’s intelligence agency, had informed him that the agency considered the MEK source “doubtful” and that Germany was concerned that the US was acting on dubious evidence, as they had done in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The MEK is an Islamist-Marxist group that helped overthrow the Shah of Iran during the Iranian Revolution but lost out to Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamist bloc. It resorted to a campaign of assassination inside Iran (killing Iran’s prime minister and several senior clerics) and fought with Saddam against Iran in the war. Reports suggest that Israel used the MEK to leak satellite photography of Iran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment facility in a much-publicized scare back in 2002. The secrecy of the site alarmed many observers; the fact that IAEA safeguards did not require Iran to announce Natanz until 180 days prior to the introduction of nuclear material was lost in the media’s coverage. (Iran is reluctant to announce such plans early because the US actively blocks its procurement of civilian power technology.) According to reports from NBC News and the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, Israel financed and trained MEK units that assassinated five Iranian nuclear scientists in between 2007 and 2012.
A nuclear explosion simulation diagram leaked to the Associated Press and described as having more than triple the explosive force as the Hiroshima bomb has also been roundly debunked.
In a critique of the alleged simulation that was posted at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, nuclear physicists Yousaf Butt and Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress pointed out what they called a massive error in the correspondence of the two illustrated curves. “This diagram does nothing more than indicate either slipshod analysis or an amateurish hoax,” they wrote.
“I think the hype surrounding Iran’s nuclear program has been manufactured,” Dr. Butt, who is a senior scientific adviser to the British American Security Information Council, told me, adding that the simulations would still not contravene IAEA rules even if they were real. “We’ve analyzed quite a bit of the evidence that has come out on simulated explosions and magnets, and there is a lot of smoke but very little fire.”
“For any country pursuing nuclear power, there’s always a concern they will weaponize,” he went on. “But I would not see Iran being ranked higher in any way than any others. For example, Brazil and Argentina also enrich uranium and have even had weapons programs in the past, but are not pursued as vehemently as Iran.”
Avoiding the worst
The July 20 deadline for the current round of nuclear talks, in which Iran is negotiating more nuclear transparency for sanctions relief, is fast approaching. Iran’s nuclear myths have ended talks before, empowering radicals both in the West and in Iran and increasing the chance of war.
The Gulf of Tonkin incident, which misleadingly sold the US on a full-scale war in Vietnam, and the claim of “mobile biological weapons labs” by the “Curveball” informant that helped selling the world on the Iraq War, are but two examples of falsehoods willfully interpreted as truth by a supine press and a public conditioned to believe the worst.
The West cannot allow a similar travesty to unfold in Iran. Its leaders should accept that the case against Iran is political, not technical, and work to end this long and burdensome affair.
Arron Merat covered Iran for the Economist.
Arron Merat, Vice News