The Iranian Nuclear Threat That Never Was

Does Iran really want nuclear weapons?

If you take politicians and the mainstream media seriously, you believe that Iran wants a nuclear weapon and has relentlessly engaged in covert efforts to build one. Even if you are aware that Iran signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and is subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections, you may believe that those who run the Islamic Republic have cleverly found ways to construct a nuclear-weapons industry almost undetected. Therefore, you may conclude, Democratic and Republican administrations have been justified in pressuring Iran to come clean and give up its “nuclear program.”

But you would be wrong.

Anyone naturally skeptical about such foreign-policy alarms has by now found solid alternative reporting that debunks the official narrative about the alleged Iranian threat. Much of that reporting has come from Gareth Porter, the journalist and historian associated with Inter Press Service. Porter has done us the favor of collecting the fruits of his dogged investigative journalism into a single comprehensive and accessible volume, Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

A grain of truth can be found at the core of the official story. Iranian officials did indeed engage in secret activities to achieve a nuclear capability. But it was a capability aimed at generating electricity and medical treatments, not hydrogen bombs.

Porter opens his book by explaining why Iran used secretive rather than open methods. Recall that before the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran was ruled by an autocratic monarch, the shah. The shah’s power had been eclipsed in the early 1950s by a democratically elected parliament. Then, in 1953, America’s Eisenhower administration sent the CIA in to foment civil discord in order to drive the elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, from office and restore the shah’s power.

During his reign, the shah, a close ally of the United States and Israel, started building a nuclear-power industry — with America’s blessing. Iran’s Bushehr reactor was 80 percent complete when the shah was overthrown.

When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became Iran’s supreme leader in 1979, he cancelled completion of the reactor and stopped related projects. But “two years later, the government reversed the decision to strip the [Atomic Energy Organization of Iran] of its budget and staff, largely because the severe electricity shortages that marked the first two years of the revolutionary era persuaded policymakers that there might be a role for nuclear power reactors after all,” Porter writes.

The new regime’s goals were “extremely modest compared with those of the shah,” Porter adds, consisting of one power plant and fuel purchased from France. Take note: the Iranian government did not aspire to enrich uranium, which is the big scare issue these days.

Iran brought the IAEA into its planning process, Porter writes, and an agency official, after conducting a survey of facilities, “recommended that the IAEA provide ‘expert services’ in eight different fields.” Porter notes that the IAEA official said nothing about an Iranian request for help in enriching uranium, “reflecting the fact that Iran was still hoping to get enriched uranium from the French company, Eurodif.”

Had things continued along this path, Iran today would have had a transparent civilian nuclear industry, under the NPT safeguard, fueled by enriched uranium purchased from France or elsewhere. No one would be talking about Iranian centrifuges and nuclear weapons. What happened?

The Reagan administration happened.

Continuing the U.S. hostility toward the Islamic Republic begun by the Carter administration, and siding with Iraq when Saddam Hussein’s military attacked Iran, the Reagan administration imposed “a series of interventions … to prevent international assistance of any kind to the Iranian nuclear program.” Not only did President Reagan block American firms from helping the Iranians; he also pressured American allies to participate in the embargo. This was in clear violation of the NPT, which recognizes the “right” of participating states to acquire nuclear technology for civilian purposes.

No wonder Iran turned to covert channels, most particularly A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani who “was selling nuclear secrets surreptitiously.” This would have been the time for Iran to buy weapons-related technology — however, Porter writes, “there is no indication that [Khan’s Iranian contact] exhibited any interest in the technology for making a bomb.”

This is indeed a manufactured crisis.

This column originally appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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  • Francisco d'Anconia||

    After the most powerful country in the world decides to preemptively invade Iraq, I can't imagine why the Iranians would want a nuclear capability?

  • Cytotoxic||

    They were after the bomb before Iraq.

  • Francisco d'Anconia||

    I can't imagine why?

    Must be they just want one to nuke Israel with. Has nothing to do with the fact that imperialist powers pretty much leave those countries with nukes alone.

  • Cytotoxic||

    Or they don't let the nutty countries get nukes. Even if Iran gets nukes, we'll still fuck with them and we should.

  • Francisco d'Anconia||

    Because we were willing to go to war to prevent Pakistan and N Korea from getting nukes. Kim Jong-il/un arent nuts?

  • Free Society||

    Pakistan is the most stable and safe nuclear power that ever was. And you have to know that Korea's Dear Leader would never get nutty with nukes! But Iran get nukes? I'd rather kill every brown person on the Iranian plateau before I let that happen! Murica!

  • blcartwright||

    Pakistan developed nukes to counter those of their arch-enemy India. North Korea developed nukes to give it protection form a US invasion. Iran is developing nukes (their current enrichment rates are much higher than what is necessary for electrical generation) to destroy Israel and establish an Islamic hegemony in the Middle East, and if that brings on WW3, so be it as that will hasten the return of the Mahdi.

    In short, because Iran has shown that it might use them preemptively on it's neighbors.

  • mtrueman||

    "Iran is developing nukes to destroy Israel"

    They don't need nukes to destroy Israel. It's a tiny country closer in size to Monaco or the Vatican than the USA. One sustained conventional attack and it's goodbye Israel, hello diaspora 21st century!

  • equsnarnd@gmail.com||

    So you think Greenland, Peru and Sweden are in imminent danger?

    We pretty much leave countries alone that aren't trying to screw with us or fomenting fascist regimes. This is bad?

    When a country takes a verbal line that is hostile and aggressive towards its neighbors, we should trust that they are peaceful in their intentions, by what means?

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    Fuck their neighbors.

  • mtrueman||

    "I can't imagine why the Iranians would want a nuclear capability?"

    Iran already has a nuclear capability and had it long before America's 'preemptive' adventures in Iraq.

  • SugarFree||

    The Sisterhood of the Traveling WMD. Where will they be this week, folks? Why they'll be wherever we need them to be.

  • Cytotoxic||

    Sheldon Richman

    And that's as far as I'm going. I know the rest will be derp and lies.

    The only reason the nuclear threat has not come to be is because of covert efforts largely by Mossad to keep it that way.

  • ace_m82||

    Considering how many times we've messed with their land, could you blame them for wanting to be one of the countries that were "free" from foreign interference? Does anyone think that Russia would have taken Crimea if Ukraine had nukes?

    And yes, their govt is evil and illegitimate.

  • Cytotoxic||

    Considering how many times we've messed with their land, could you blame them for wanting to be one of the countries that were "free" from foreign interference?

    Yes, because they are a sponsor of terrorism and we have every right to 'mess with their land'.

  • Francisco d'Anconia||

    No, you don't.

    You have the right to mess with them only after they've messed with you. PERIOD.

    Is there a "terrorist" exception to the NAP that I missed somewhere?

  • equsnarnd@gmail.com||

    Wrong...and this is a blind spot in Libertarian thinking. A known thug is terrorizing everyone in the neighborhood.
    A Libertarian walks in and says 'Well, we can only get involved if they attack us.' BS! As Rand noted, any country that is initiating force against anyone has no rights to anything. They are free game to be attacked by anyone who chooses to. Now, you can play the game of who started this and go back a few thousand years in history but that's pretty pointless. How to they govern in their own country? Are their own people free? If not, they are open to whatever the hell we want to do with them.
    Bullies, thugs and terrorists don't get to plead special circumstances for anything.

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    The neighborhood analogy fails. American tax dollars are for Americans.

  • ace_m82||

    We didn't the first time, ergo, we violated NAP.

    I wouldn't blame them if they wanted to protect themselves in the only way that seems to work.

  • PapayaSF||

    That is sort of like saying that someone who got roughed up by the cops is justified in becoming a serial killer. Hey, he needs guns to "protect himself"!

    That's bull, as is this article. The Iranian regime is a major exporter of terrorism, responsible for the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of people around the world. They don't just want electricity and medicine, they want to nuke Israel, and they are apocalyptic nuts who have stated publicly that they are willing to sacrifice their country to do so.

  • ace_m82||

    Measure the US by the same ruler and you get bad implications. Look at the stupid things McCain and McConnell said and the "wars" we've started. By your own measure the US shouldn't have nukes either! (Or the Brits, French, Chinese, Russians...)

    The US has a history of messing with their country. The US DOESN'T have a history of messing with nuclear powers. In order to prevent meddling, get a nuke. Problem solved.

    That your "American exceptionalism" POV prevents that reasonable explanation is quite telling.

  • Ken Shultz||

    This article is ridiculous.

    "Not only did President Reagan block American firms from helping the Iranians; he also pressured American allies to participate in the embargo. This was in clear violation of the NPT, which recognizes the “right” of participating states to acquire nuclear technology for civilian purposes."

    Never mind blaming what Reagan did during the Cold War for what Iran is doing today, first Richman cites the NPT saying that participating states have the right to acquire nuclear technology for civilian purposes--but earlier he admits that Iran covertly enriching its own uranium was a clear violation of the NPT.

    If Iran had wanted to procure uranium from Russia, they could have done so--under the auspices of the NPT. In fact, they might still purchase uranium from Russia under the auspices of the NPT. But that isn't what they decided to do. Once the world found out about their covert enrichment program, they decided to continue it--in total flagrant disregard for the NPT.

    That was in 2003, as I recall! Is Richman going to blame Reagan for that, too?!

  • Juice||

    They tried to buy a couple of light water reactors from China in the 90s, but the US strongarmed the Chinese into abandoning the project. No matter what, the US wasn't going to allow Iran to have nuclear power.

  • ||

    The US actually offered Iran a civilian light water nuclear reactor, back in 2006 - the bad old days of BUSHPIG cowboy diplomacy. They told us to stick it up our ass.

  • Ken Shultz||

    And, anyway, the question now isn't whether Reagan should have done something differently in 1981.

    The question is whether we should lift sanctions now--and agree to let Iran enrich its own uranium.

    The question is how Saudi Arabia and others in the region are likely to react to Iran's nuclear program--and whether that will lead to nuclear proliferation.

    The question is whether Iran's nuclear enrichment capability--in conjunction with Iran's long range missile/ICBM program represents a credible threat to American security.

    The question is why Iran would suffer crippling sanctions rather than comply with the NPT--if their intentions have nothing to do with nuclear arms.

    The question is whether we can head off all sorts of terrible risks for the U.S. and the world--if only we stick to our guns now and insist that Iran procure their enriched uranium from elsewhere.

    Why MUST they enrich their own uranium? They gave up that right when they violated the treaty--like a armed robber gives up his right to own a gun, certainly while he's in prison for armed robbery, doesn't he?

  • mtrueman||

    "The question is whether we should lift sanctions now--and agree to let Iran enrich its own uranium."

    I think the answer is clear. If America wishes to enjoy good relations with Iran, lifting the sanctions is inevitable. You can't have your cake and it eat.

  • AndrewR||

    Why should America want good relations with a fascist theocracy run by crazies?

  • Juice||

    The more that markets are opened and people trade, the less likely it will be that war will happen. The adage about goods crossing borders in lieu of armies is true.

  • equsnarnd@gmail.com||

    It's an adage, not a law, and needs to be tempered by common sense, sanity and wisdom. It needs to take into account who you are dealing with. Religious fascism is not amenable to the niceties of freed trade and goods. These things appeal to people rooted in reality and offend those rooted in the supernatural. They will use the lifting of sanctions against us and the idea that trade will temper their aggression is just wishful thinking. If the leadership in Iran said that Israel as a state has a right to exist, I would be willing to change my assessment of their state of mind.

  • mtrueman||

    "Religious fascism is not amenable to the niceties of freed trade and goods."

    You don't know what you're talking about. The small time merchants of Iran have long been the 'base' of Islamist political movements. Conservative outfits like the Fraser Institute have written that post revolutionary Iran had a better, more business friendly climate than it did under the shah.

    Just out of curiosity, have you come across a leadership of any country anywhere that has said Israel as a state has the right to exist?

  • OneOut||

    Less likely. But not an absolute.

    Did Russia have trade with Ukraine ?

  • mtrueman||

    "Why should America want good relations with a fascist theocracy run by crazies?"

    Because good relations are better than bad ones? With over 30 years of bad relations under American belts and Iran every bit as fascistic and theocratic as it ever was, you'd think there would be impetus to re-examine policy. You don't seem to agree.

  • Jack Spratt||

    Yes, there should be a re-examination of policy but not a capitulation to blind stupidity and wishful thinking.

  • mtrueman||

    Good relations with Iran would give USA greater leverage over other anti-Iranian power centers in the middle east especially Saudi Arabia and Israel, and others besides. US has done Iran a great favour already its acceptance of Shia theocratic Iraq, and many regard this as a great blunder. I get the feeling that nothing lasts forever. It's a turn in the wheel of fortune and for some time now, fate has been guiding US and Iran together more and more as friends. The US has also taken out the hateful Taleban out in Afghanistan, even with some measure of support from Iran, so the history of US/Iranian cooperation didn't stop with the fascists.

    By the way, this fuss over nuclear weapons is foolishness. The US doesn't give a damn about whether Iran develops nuclear weapons, any more than they cared about North Korea, Israel, Pakistan and India doing so.

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    Why should America want good relations with a fascist theocracy run by crazies?

    They have oil and I want to make money.

  • Ken Shultz||

    "If America wishes to enjoy good relations with Iran, lifting the sanctions is inevitable."

    Do you understand that the only reason Iran is at the bargaining table now is because they're burned through all their foreign reserves, and if they don't get access to international credit markets soon, their economy is going to go from slow implosion into free fall?

    Do you understand that Iran has been officially in breach of the NPT for more than ten years now?

  • mtrueman||

    "Iran has been officially in breach"

    Hmmm, well as long they're not simply in breach, but 'officially' in breach then I have to admit I'm impressed. Have you notified the NPT police?

    Don't understand your take on Iran's credit troubles. Perhaps the bargaining table is the best place for them to be, even though they were driven to it by American sanctions. You seem to be implying that there is something dodgy about the thing.

  • Omni||

    While I've come around to the realization that Iran isn't perpetually "Just 6 months away!" from getting a nuke, I do think it's the height of stupidity and naivety to think that they aren't trying to acquire one.

  • mtrueman||

    "I do think it's the height of stupidity and naivety to think that they aren't trying to acquire one."

    But you obviously don't appreciate the fact that Iran, armed only with conventional weaponry, has the ability to deter attack. During the last dustup between Israel and Gaza, Hamas managed to land a few home made missiles in Tel Aviv. This resulted in many thousands of frightened Israelis hunkering down in shelters until the hostilities were over, or put on pause at least. Imagine the turmoil and disruption Iran could cause if they were to release a serious missile barrage against the handful of Israeli population centres.

  • ||

    Imagine the turmoil and disruption Iran could cause if they were to release a serious missile barrage against the handful of Israeli population centres.

    At which point Israel would bombard Iran with conventional and possibly even nuclear weapons in a retaliatory strike. A move Israel would be much less likely to make knowing Iran has its own nuclear weapons ready to deploy.

  • mtrueman||

    "At which point Israel would bombard Iran with conventional and possibly even nuclear weapons in a retaliatory strike"

    That not may be enough to put a stop to the missile barrage. Were you following the shining victory of Israel over Gaza a few years back? Despite being the focus of the entire Israeli military machine Hamas militia members were able to maintain a thin barrage of missiles into Israel over the entire course of the conflict. How much better do you expect of Israeli forces against a bigger enemy, a properly armed one?

    I think the nuclear issue is a red herring. There is already enough wrong with Israel pursuing a war with Iran. I don't think the nukes add all that much in the balance. Their strategic value is over-rated, 'cold war romanticism', is a nice sounding phrase for the mindset. This Iranian nuke business is a cudgel to isolate Iran and retard its economy and growth in regional influence. I think when they did that whole embassy thing back in the Carter years, they touched a nerve that many Americans are still smarting from.

  • ||

    How much better do you expect of Israeli forces against a bigger enemy, a properly armed one?

    They've got a pretty good track record prosecuting multi-front wars with disproportionate arms and personnel. That wasn't my point though. The deterrent value of nuclear weapons for Iran is high.

  • Juice||

    I do think it's the height of stupidity and naivety to think that they aren't trying to acquire one.

    Or it could be the height of ignorance to think that they are despite all evidence pointing to the fact that they aren't.

  • equsnarnd@gmail.com||

    What evidence???

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  • PH2050||

    Nothing like an Iran article to bring out the derp and warboners.

    If the UN had any officials with brains they would have given Iran the chance to develop a thorium-based MSR program - it's not conducive to weapons manufacturing and Iran's true intentions would then be laid bare: do they really want electricity and medical isotopes, or bombs? Definitively answering this question gets us to the next point.

    It also doesn't take a genius to figure out that if you have nukes, you usually don't get invaded by ground forces. I can't help but think about how many resources are wasted in this endeavor that could be applied to advanced research programs - programs that could enable the construction of defenses that render current delivery systems such as ICBMs practically useless.

  • ||

    Iran's true intentions would then be laid bare: do they really want electricity and medical isotopes, or bombs?

    I think they went a long way toward answering that question when they rejected an offer of light water reactors from the US in 2006.

  • MarkinLA||

    Given the history, why would they want anything from the US - especially when the CIA and NSA could install back doors into their computer systems.

  • MarkinLA||

    Iran has uranium deposits.

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  • equsnarnd@gmail.com||

    This story seems far more wishful thinking than investigative journalism. Are we supposed to believe the rulers of Iran are sane and rational when everything they say and do indicates otherwise?
    I expect more of Reason magazine.

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    What are they going to do? Throw sand from flying rugs of Islamofascist doom?

  • american socialist||

    its pretty awesome to watch the usual "libertarians" here argue for more neocon foreign policy. hilarious and extremely revealing.

  • Redmanfms||

    Cyto is a militant chickenhawk and gets called out for being one routinely, including in this very thread.

    Cute attempt at guilt by association, though.

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    Anyone's whose been here for at least five minutes knows that 70% of the commenters here disagree with the writers at least 50% of the time. I agree with the writers far more often than not, including this time. I'm not afraid of ten foot tall wife-beating desert warriors riding magic rugs of Islamofascist doom.

  • Kevin Bjonrson||

    Iran's mullah regime most certainly is pursuing nuclear technology appropriate for bombs. Making a nuke is mostly a matter of enriching the fissionable materials. Once a sufficient quantity is obtained (a few pounds), making into a bomb requires just a well-equipped machine shop, about $100,000 in expenses, and a few months at most.

    Iran most certainly is enriching uranium, in fact, they aren't even denying that. How else do you suppose Iran imagines it can wipe out Israel and get a world without America?

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  • ||

    Had things continued along this path, Iran today would have had a transparent civilian nuclear industry, under the NPT safeguard, fueled by enriched uranium purchased from France or elsewhere. No one would be http://kikkipruse.over-blog.com/ talking about Iranian centrifuges and nuclear weapons. What happened?

  • Volunteer||

    This analysis fits the usual liberal (and in foreign policy, libertarian) meme: anything that other countries do that we don't like is ultimately our fault. That doesn't disprove the analysis, but it's a reason for skepticism.

    If I were the Iranian government, I'd be trying to get nuclear weapons as the one sure prevention against armed intervention -- just ask the Ukrainians, who gave up a huge nuclear weapons stockpile in return for, apparently, meaningless guarantees of their borders from the US, Britain, and Russia. What makes that different from most other countries having nuclear weapons is the revolutionary nature of the Iranian regime, with its involvement in neighboring countries and its support for Islamic revolutions elsewhere and the destruction of Israel. Counting on the regime's anti-Israel position being empty rhetoric is a risk that the Israelis can't afford to take -- especially given the possibility that the Iranians could use intermediaries for an actual attack to try to prevent massive nuclear retaliation from Israel.

  • Las Vegas SEO||

    "If you take politicians and the mainstream media seriously, you believe that Iran wants a nuclear weapon and has relentlessly engaged in covert efforts to build one."

    I couldn't say it better.

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