Made in Washington: How the US manufactured Iran's nuclear threat

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David Morrison and Peter Oborne's picture
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Despite engaging with Iran on the nuclear issue, Obama continues to push the contradictory narrative that Tehran poses a threat to regional stability

As talks about an Iranian nuclear deal stretch into a second week, this article is an attempt to provide context to the dispute, how it arose in the first place, why it wasn’t settled a long time ago, and why a settlement is possible today.

The primary international treaty regulating nuclear activity by states is the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran is a “non-nuclear weapon” state party to the treaty and has been since its inception in 1970. Like other non-nuclear weapon state parties, it has an “inalienable right” to engage in nuclear activity for peaceful purposes under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA).

This includes the right to enrich uranium on its own soil. We have that on the authority of John Kerry, the present US Secretary of State, who, in an interview in the Financial Times in 2009, said: “They [Iran] have a right to peaceful nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose.”

Despite this, the US has been trying for the past decade and more to coerce Iran into ceasing uranium enrichment. In recent years the US and the EU have applied ferocious sanctions on Iran in an attempt to force it to do so, damaging the well-being of millions of Iranians in the process.

Manufactured dispute

That is the origin of the present dispute about Iran’s nuclear activities. The dispute was manufactured in Washington: had the US accepted from the outset that Iran had a right to enrichment, as Kerry stated, there would have been no dispute at all, let alone one that has lasted for a decade, and no need for the present negotiations to resolve it.

The dispute could also have been settled on amicable terms in 2005 before the US-orchestrated sanctions, when negotiations were going on with the EU3 (UK, France and Germany). Iran’s enrichment programme was then in its infancy and no centrifuges were enriching uranium in Iran. Today, more than 19,000 centrifuges are installed, around 10,000 of which are operational.

At that time, in exchange for the EU3 agreeing to its right to enrichment, Iran offered to agree limits on the volume of production and to put in place unprecedented measures – over and above the safeguards required under the NPT – to reassure the outside world that its nuclear programme was for peaceful purposes. A settlement wasn’t reached because the US insisted that Iran must not enrich uranium on its own soil, and the EU3 shamefully acquiesced.

The present negotiations have the potential to resolve the dispute precisely because the US has given up its attempt to coerce Iran into ceasing enrichment. That was made clear in the initial Joint Plan of Action agreed in Geneva on 24 November 2013.

Retaining enrichment facilities on its own soil has always been Iran’s bottom line and it has been prepared to endure years of wholly unjustified sanctions in order to defend that principle.

Sanctions threat

Now, although the US has conceded the principle, it is insisting that for the next 10 or 15 years Iran must agree to severe restrictions on its enrichment capabilities and on other aspects of its nuclear programme, under threat that the present sanctions would be maintained or even intensified.

There is no justification for imposing such restrictions on a sovereign state. As a non-nuclear weapon party to the NPT, Iran is forbidden from acquiring nuclear weapons, but the treaty places no limits on civil nuclear activity under IAEA supervision.

Iran may agree to accept restrictions on its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, but they are doing so under duress and the restrictions are an infringement of Iran’s rights under the NPT.

The stated reason for the US imposing these restrictions is to eliminate, or at least severely reduce, Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons. To this end, the US asserts that Iran’s enrichment facilities must be limited so that the “the breakout time”, that is, the time needed to enrich enough uranium to weapons grade for one bomb, is increased to around a year from what is said to be two or three months at present.

This in turn assumes that Iran has the ambition to develop nuclear weapons, as Israel did many years ago, or will acquire such an ambition if the opportunity to do so arises in the future.

Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and his allies in the US Congress purport to believe that Iran has had that ambition and has been actively trying to realise it for many years. In 1992, he predicted that Iran was three to five years from being able to produce a nuclear weapon and said that the threat had to be "uprooted by an international front headed by the US”.

In his book Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare published last year, the American investigative journalist Gareth Porter demonstrated meticulously that the intelligence on which assertions that Iran has or had a nuclear weapons programme was either misinterpreted or simply false. As for the IAEA, it has never found any evidence at Iran’s nuclear facilities of the diversion of nuclear material for possible military purposes.

Iran has repeatedly denied that it has any ambitions to develop nuclear weapons. What is more, in 2005 Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, issued a fatwa saying that “the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons”. He has repeated that message many times since then.

Bush ‘angry’

In the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities, produced in November 2007, the 16 US intelligence services expressed the consensus view that Iran did not have an active nuclear weapons programme at that time, having in their view halted a programme in 2003.

The reaction of President George W. Bush to this good news is instructive: it made him “angry”. We know this because he says so in his memoir, Decision Points.

One might have thought that the president would have welcomed intelligence that Iran wasn’t developing nuclear weapons. After all, preventing the country acquiring nuclear weapons was supposed to be a major objective of his foreign policy.

But instead he was angry – because it cut the ground from under his efforts to gain international support for what he termed “dealing with Iran”, which clearly went beyond ensuring that it did not possess a nuclear weapons programme. Specifically, it made it impossible for him to take military action against Iran.

“The NIE didn’t just undermine diplomacy. It also tied my hands on the military side,” Bush wrote. “There were many reasons I was concerned about undertaking a military strike on Iran, including its uncertain effectiveness and the serious problems it would create for Iraq’s fragile young democracy. But after the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons programme?”

Could there be a more telling demonstration that the Bush administration was not concerned that Iran actually had a nuclear weapons programme? Rather its concern was that it would become obvious that Iran did not have one, and that as a result the US would no longer be able to maintain international support for “dealing with Iran”.

Let us suppose that the present negotiations conclude successfully (despite opposition in Washington, Riyadh and Jerusalem) with Iran establishing its right to enrich uranium, albeit with unjust limitations, and with the lifting of sanctions against the country. Let us suppose also that Iran takes a decision to put this substantial achievement at risk by attempting to develop nuclear weapons, which according to its Supreme Leader are “forbidden under Islam”.

To that end, it would have to attempt to enrich uranium to weapons grade. Since it has been agreed that IAEA inspectors will have continuous access to the Natanz enrichment plant, an operational change to enrich above the agreed maximum of 3.67 percent would soon become known to the IAEA and to the world.

Complete destruction

It is absurd to believe that it would take a year for the US and/or Israel to mount a response to clear evidence that Iran had breached the agreement and was hell-bent on producing weapons-grade uranium.

The likeliest response would be the complete destruction by military means of the nuclear infrastructure that Iran has devoted so much effort to building up over many years. Iran is not going to take that risk.

Despite engaging with Iran on the nuclear issue, the Obama administration hasn’t changed the basic US narrative about Iran, namely, that it is an aggressive power and a destabilising force in the Middle East which acts contrary to the interests of the US and its allies and threatens Israel’s very existence; that it is a malign influence in various parts of the Middle East (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and latterly Yemen) which, if given the opportunity, would develop nuclear weapons and then be in a position to further destabilise the region. Because of this, it is a power that the US and its allies must seek to contain and keep down rather than dealing with as a legitimate player who could help to sort out the region’s problems.

This narrative hasn’t changed despite Iran fighting alongside the US in Iraq against the Islamic State group. This is not an unprecedented development given that Iran was of great help to the US against al-Qaeda in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 in Afghanistan. It is fighting against IS, despite not being part of the grand US-led anti-IS coalition, the vast majority of whose 60-plus members are doing no fighting at all.

Obama has therefore argued for a nuclear agreement with Iran as a means of containing it and preventing it developing nuclear weapons – and not as a first step on the road to a comprehensive rapprochement. His narrative doesn’t differ fundamentally from that of Netanyahu and his allies in the US Congress, who question the sense of lifting sanctions against a state which you wish to keep down and wonder whether the removal of restrictions will only reduce Iran’s “breakout time” to develop a bomb to a month or two.

Obama’s reply has been that maybe Iran will have “changed” in some way by then. But that is not a line with which he deserves to win the argument against his detractors in Congress.

- David Morrison and Peter Oborne are the authors of "A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran" (published by Elliott & Thompson, 2013). Morrison has written many articles on the US-led invasion of Iraq. Oborne was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013, and he recently resigned as Chief Political Columnist of the Daily Telegraph.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif pose for a photographer prior to a bilateral meeting of the closed-door nuclear talks with Iran at the Palais Coburg in Vienna on 23 November, 2014.