In all the discussion of Iran’s nuclear program, the consequent international economic blockade directed by the United States, and the ongoing negotiations to resolve the issue, Washington’s official history of the program has rarely been challenged. In Manufactured Crisis, The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare (Just World Books), award-winning investigative journalist Gareth Porter traces the true history of the program, as well as how and by whom the official narrative was constructed. I put six questions to Porter about his book.
1. Although the Iraqi nuclear “threat” was discredited as an utter fraud years ago, the idea that across the border Iran has sought, at least in the past, to build a nuclear weapon has long been widely accepted in political and media circles. Are you saying that the claim of secret work on nuclear weapons is equally fraudulent, and that the Iranians have never had a nuclear-weapons program?
Yes. In Manufactured Crisis, I show that the claim of an Iranian nuclear-weapons program has been based on false history and falsified records. The description of the Iranian nuclear program presented in official documents, in commentaries by think-tank “experts,” and in the media bears no resemblance to the essential historical facts. One would never know from the narrative available to the public over the years that Iran had been prepared in the early 1980s to rely entirely on a French-based company for enriched uranium fuel for its Bushehr reactor, rather than on enriching uranium itself. Nor would one learn that the Reagan Administration sought to strangle Iran’s nuclear program, which was admitted to have presented no proliferation threat, in its cradle by pressuring Germany and France to refuse to cooperate in any way. The significance of that missing piece of history is that Iran was confronted with a choice of submitting to the U.S. effort to deprive Iran of its right to a peaceful nuclear program under the Non-Proliferation Treaty or else acquiring its own enrichment capability.
Not surprisingly, the Iranians chose the latter course, and went to the black market in defiance of what was by that point a unilateral U.S. policy. Their decision is now described in the popular narrative as evidence that Iran was seeking nuclear weapons early on.
The other relevant historical reality that has been systematically excised from the story of the Iranian nuclear program is what happened in regard to chemical weapons during the Iran–Iraq war. Contrary to disinformation issued by the U.S. Defense and State departments, which suggested that both sides had used chemical weapons in the Iraqi city of Halabja in 1988, the evidence is very clear that Iran never used chemical weapons during the war. The only explanation consistent with the historical record is that Ayatollah Khomeini forbade the use of such weapons, on the ground that both the possession and use of weapons of mass destruction are illicit under Islamic jurisprudence.
This policy, maintained despite the terrible losses Iran was suffering from Iraqi chemical attacks, represents powerful evidence that Shia jurisprudence is a fundamental constraint on Iranian policy toward weapons of mass destruction. It also makes credible the claim that Iran is forbidden by a fatwa from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei from possessing nuclear weapons. But senior Iranian officials, including a former president of Iran, Hashami Rafsanjani, have been making cogent arguments against nuclear weapons based on strategic grounds since the early 1990s.
2. The U.S. produced various items of evidence over the years to demonstrate the felonious intent of the Iranian program. Where did this evidence come from, and how well does it stand up to scrutiny?
The evidence adduced to prove that Iran secretly worked on nuclear weapons represents an even more serious falsification of intelligence than we saw in the run-up to the war in Iraq. I tell the real story behind a large collection of intelligence documents that appeared mysteriously in 2004 and have been crucial to the Iran nuclear narrative. They supposedly came from the purloined laptop of an Iranian participant in a nuclear-weapons research project, but a former senior official with the German foreign office told me the real story: the documents were provided to Germany’s intelligence service by an occasional source who was part of the Iranian-exile terrorist organization Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK).
The obviously self-interested MEK member was thus the Iranian equivalent of the now-discredited Iraqi source known as “Curveball,” whose tales of mobile bioweapons labs in Saddam’s Iraq became the centerpiece of the Bush case for invading Iraq. It is well documented, however, that the Israeli Mossad was using the MEK to launder intelligence it didn’t want attributed to Israel, with the aim of influencing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and foreign governments. Further pointing to the Israeli origins of the documents is the fact that Israel was the only country in the world known to have a special office responsible for influencing news coverage of Iran’s nuclear program.
Some key points in the documents give away the fact that they were falsified. The most important example is a set of studies, supposedly done in 2002 and 2003 on the Shahab-3 missile’s reentry vehicle, with the purported aim of allowing the missile to accommodate a nuclear weapon. Evidence from the U.S. intelligence community and authoritative independent sources shows that the Iranians had already abandoned the Shahab-3 by then, and were far along in developing an improved missile with a reentry vehicle that bore no resemblance to the one depicted in the studies. And we now know from Mohamed ElBaradei’s 2011 memoirs that in 2009 Israel provided a new series of intelligence reports and documents to the IAEA that offered further claims of Iranian work on nuclear weapons both before and after 2003.
Those claims were ultimately published in an IAEA dossier of intelligence reports in November 2011. The most sensational assertion made there was that Iran had constructed a large metal cylinder for testing nuclear-weapons designs at its military-research base at Parchin in 2000. This led officials from the IAEA and some of its member states, including the United States, to charge that Iran was altering the site to eliminate evidence. But as I document in the book, Iran had allowed the IAEA to carry out inspections at ten sites of the agency’s choosing on two different occasions in 2005. Furthermore the IAEA obtained satellite images of the site covering February 2005 to February 2012, and found no indication that Iran had been concerned about hiding anything. Finally, a former chief IAEA inspector in Iraq, Robert Kelley, has said that the agency’s description of the alleged cylinder made no technical sense.
3. How did the IAEA end up endorsing the notion that the Iranians have had a covert bomb program in the past and may still have one today?
The IAEA was crucial in legitimizing claims of a covert Iranian nuclear-weapons program, because it was seen as a neutral actor. That image was largely the result of the independence of its former director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, from the Bush Administration. In 2005, when the IAEA received the documents that had come in through Germany’s intelligence service, ElBaradei was deeply skeptical of their authenticity and warned publicly against using them as evidence in a case against Iran.
But his control over the Iran issue was eroded starting in 2008, when the head of the IAEA’s Department of Safeguards, Olli Heinonen, began collaborating with U.S. officials on how to treat the documents. Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, when read against the background of 2008 IAEA reports, show that Heinonen and his Western allies came up with a strategy to falsely portray Iran as having conceded the authenticity of some of the documentation. Their aim was to justify IAEA demands for highly classified information on Iran’s missile and conventional-weapons programs. When Iran predictably refused, the IAEA and a U.S.-led coalition cited this as evidence of a cover-up.
The IAEA came to play an even more partisan role after Yukia Amano of Japan replaced ElBaradei in November 2009. A WikiLeaks cable from July 2009 reveals that Amano promised U.S. officials he would be firmly in their camp on Iran in return for American support of his election as director general. “In their camp” could only have meant that he would support the publication of the intelligence dossier — based entirely on intelligence reports and documents from Israel — that ElBaradei had refused to authorize. The dossier’s November 2011 publication date was timed to provide a political boost to the U.S.-led campaign for crippling international sanctions against Iran.
4. The U.S. intelligence community became a global laughingstock when its assessments of Iraqi WMDs were revealed as entirely bogus. Yet its pronouncements about the Iranian nuclear program are treated with deferential respect. How do you compare the performance of the U.S. intelligence community on Iran with its record on Iraq?
The same political and institutional dynamics drove both failures. The March 2005 Robb–Silberman Commission Report cited analysts who worked on the Iraq WMD file as admitting freely that they had effectively reversed the burden of proof, refusing to believe that Iraq didn’t have WMD unless a highly credible human source said otherwise.
The same thing happened on Iran. It began in 1991, when then CIA director Robert M. Gates singled out Iran as the premier assessment target for the agency’s new center for proliferation issues. Not surprisingly, analysts immediately began interpreting even the most ambiguous evidence as indicating Iran’s intention to develop nuclear weapons. This predisposition just happened to be in line with American policy of forbidding its allies from providing nuclear technology to Iran. In other words, the intelligence followed the policy, not the other way around.
CIA brass apparently went so far as to suppress WMD intelligence obtained by one of its best covert agents in the Middle East because it didn’t fit the conclusion they knew George W. Bush’s administration wanted. I reveal for the first time in the book that a former undercover operative who brought a lawsuit against CIA leadership in 2004 claimed that a highly respected source in Iran had told him in 2001 that Iran had no intention of “weaponizing” its nuclear program. The CIA apparently never informed the White House of that information, and refused to circulate it within the intelligence community.
National Intelligence Estimates in 2001 and 2005, and a draft estimate in mid-2007, all concluded that Iran had a nuclear-weapons program. Paul Pillar, a former National Intelligence Officer for the Near East who participated in the 2001 and 2005 exercises, has recalled that no hard evidence of weaponization informed either estimate, and that their conclusion was based on inference. In the 2005 estimate and the 2007 draft estimate, the conclusion was influenced by the intelligence documents that had come from Israel by way of the MEK. The failure of the CIA’s well-staffed weapons-proliferation center to detect the fraud paralleled its failure to notice the obvious signs that the “Nigergate” document offered as evidence of Iraqi uranium-shopping in Niger was a rather amateurish fabrication.
The final 2007 NIE, which was issued in November, asserted that the 2005 NIE and the mid-2007 draft had both been dead wrong in their assertions that Iranian still had a nuclear-weapons program at the time of their writing. It concluded, rather, that based on intercepted “snippets of conversation,” Iran had had a nuclear-weapons program as of 2003, then stopped it. This finding, which gave additional credibility to the official narrative of Iran’s nuclear intentions, is itself highly questionable. It is very likely that the 2007 NIE authors interpreted evidence of one or more individuals’ work as confirmation of the existence of a full-fledged program — a belief in which they had clearly acquired a strong vested interest.
5. The news media generally disgraced itself in its coverage of the Iraqi nuclear issue. How has it comported itself with respect to Iran?
With Iraq, there was at least dissent over issues like its alleged illegal importation of aluminum tubes, which reflected debates within the intelligence community. Coverage of Iran, on the other hand, has been virtually unanimous in reporting the official line without the slightest indication of curiosity about whether it might be false or misleading. The closest we got to investigative work in the commercial media were hints, buried inside longer stories in the Washington Post, of skepticism in the intelligence community about the 2004 laptop documents.
Some of the most egregious misinformation came in late 2007 and early 2008, in stories in the New York Times and Washington Post about two IAEA reports containing the final results of a major agency investigation. Rather than reporting the fact that the agency had been unable to challenge any of Iran’s explanations of the six issues under investigation, the Times and Post stories simply quoted Bush Administration officials and an unnamed IAEA official as dismissing the Iranian responses.
When the media challenged the official line, it was only because that line wasn’t hawkish enough. David Sanger of the New York Times carried out a relentless campaign in innumerable articles after the 2007 NIE attacking its conclusion that Iran had ceased work on nuclear weapons in 2003.
It creates serious obstacles. For one, it makes the Obama Administration much more vulnerable to the arguments of Israel and its followers in Washington that Iran cannot be allowed to have any enrichment capacity. But then, the administration itself has absorbed the essential elements of the narrative into its own analysis, notably via the creation of the “breakout” concept.
“Breakout” is defined as the time it would take Iran to enrich enough uranium to weapons-grade level to allow it to construct a single nuclear bomb. But it was a bogus idea from the beginning, because it assumed that Iran had the desire to rush-build a nuclear weapon. Furthermore it was based on highly unlikely worst-case scenarios for very rapid Iranian enrichment of uranium to a level sufficient for a bomb. According to the worst-case scenarios conjured up by conservative U.S. think tanks and others promoting the myth, Iran has had the same theoretical capacity for breakout — a month or two — since 2010. But rather than racing for a bomb, it has instead converted much of the uranium it enriched to a concentration of 20 percent uranium-235 (the enrichment level that has most worried the United States) to an oxide form that makes it unavailable for enrichment to weapons-grade level.
Nevertheless, the Obama Administration has been so intimidated by the breakout drumbeat that it has now adopted a policy of limiting Iran’s breakout period to between six and twelve months. That translates into a demand that Iran agree to be stripped of 80 percent of its centrifuges, which is all but certain to ensure the breakdown of the talks. Unless the administration changes its posture — which became less likely after it publicly cited that goal as a baseline — fear-mongering propagandists may well succeed in pushing the United States into a situation of increased tension with Iran, including the possible mutual escalation of military threats. That, of course, would be the result that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long sought.