The Roots of Iran's Nuclear Secrecy

They weren't building warheads.

For years we’ve heard the steady drumbeat of news stories like this:

Over 18 years, Iran secretly assembled uranium enrichment and conversion facilities that could be used for a nuclear energy program or to construct an atomic bomb. [Washington Post, Nov. 16, 2004]

And this was among the least alarmist stories. The thrust of the sensational coverage, instigated by hawkish American politicians, has been that for almost two decades, beginning in the mid-1980s, Iran secretly enriched uranium in order to make a bomb.

What’s the real story? For that we have to turn to Gareth Porter’s definitive Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

In fact, Porter writes, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported in 2003 that during those 18 years, Iran had enriched uranium only briefly in 1999 and 2002. “Instead of referring to the brief few months of experiments testing centrifuges,” Porter writes, “news coverage of the [IAEA] report suggested that Iran had been continuing to enrich for nearly two decades.” The Bush administration was happy to encourage this false belief.

But truth be told, Iran did not tell the IAEA about everything. As a signer of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it has obligations to notify the agency of certain activities. Porter acknowledges that Iran did not always keep the IAEA fully informed. Is this proof that Iran was preparing to make nuclear warheads? Porter provides overwhelming evidence that the answer is no. Moreover, some things, like the Natanz enrichment facility in Isfahan province, did not have to be disclosed at the point others revealed them. In the case of Natanz, no nuclear material was yet present.

What possible reason could Iran have had for working in secrecy? Simply put, from the 1980s onward the U.S. government was determined to thwart Iran’s efforts to build even modest a civilian nuclear program. Why? Iran was regarded as an enemy of America because its 1979 Islamic revolution had overthrown a loyal U.S. client, the repressive shah of Iran, whom the CIA had undemocratically restored to power a quarter century earlier.

In violation of the NPT, U.S. diplomats stopped other countries from supplying Iran. With no open channels from which to obtain what it needed for its nuclear program, Iran turned to covert channels.

Specifically, why did Iran keep Natanz under wraps? “Iran’s secrecy about Natanz,” Porter writes,

was linked to both the continued US political-diplomatic interventions to prevent Iran from having an independent enrichment capability and the initial threats Israel had made, in the late 1990s, to use military force against the Iranian nuclear program. Iran’s decision-makers were clearly calculating that notifying the IAEA about the Natanz facility would trigger hostile responses by the United States and/or Israel that would put the successful opening and operation of the facility at risk.

Iran’s fear of attack was not paranoia. In 1981 Israel had attacked Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, which was “explicitly designed by the French engineer Yves Girard to be unsuitable for making bombs,” according to Harvard University physicist Richard Wilson, who inspected the reactor after the attack. (Emphasis added.) Porter adds, “Israeli officials circulated rumors through diplomatic channels and planted stories in the news media of plans for a strike against [Iranian] nuclear targets.”

But, Porter comments, “The Natanz facility was too big, and located too close to a main highway, to remain covert.” This is not consistent with nefarious intentions. Besides, U.S. satellites were watching, and the Iranians knew it.

Similarly, Iran strove to keep uranium and equipment purchases from China and others secret: “Each of the previously unreported nuclear experiments that Iran finally declared to the IAEA in 2003 involved supplies of nuclear technology or material, or both, that Iran knew would come under heavy US political-diplomatic pressure if the suppliers’ role were to be discovered by the United States.”

Yet, even with Iran’s concealment, the IAEA concluded in 2003, “To date, there is no evidence that the previously undeclared nuclear material and activities referred to above were related to a nuclear weapons programme.”

Comments Porter, “But the Bush administration ridiculed that conclusion, and news media coverage tended to support its skepticism.”

However, in 2007 the U.S. intelligence community declared that whatever weapons research the Iranians might have been engaged in had ceased four years earlier.

This column originally appeared on the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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  • Palin's Buttplug||

    The Bush administration was happy to encourage this false belief.

    Lucky for Iran that Iraq derailed the Cheney Doctrine before Iran itself was "liberated"

  • John||

    But, Porter comments, “The Natanz facility was too big, and located too close to a main highway, to remain covert.” This is not consistent with nefarious intentions. Besides, U.S. satellites were watching, and the Iranians knew it.

    That is the dumbest thing you have ever written Sheldon. Maybe the Iranians figured out the US wasn't going to bomb them and the world wasn't going to do anything and just build the damned plant? The fact that "we can see it" says nothing about what they are doing.

    Simply put, from the 1980s onward the U.S. government was determined to thwart Iran’s efforts to build even modest a civilian nuclear program. Why? Iran was regarded as an enemy of America because its 1979 Islamic revolution had overthrown a loyal U.S. client, the repressive shah of Iran, whom the CIA had undemocratically restored to power a quarter century earlier.

    And that is just an outright distortion that Reason should have edited out. You completely leave out the fact that Iran kidnapped our diplomats and declared itself an enemy of the United States and that by the early 80s every moderate who had been involved in the revolution was either in prison or in exile and the place was run by complete fanatics whose stated goal was making war on Israel and the United States.

    Why do you think saying obviously distorted and untrue things helps your case Sheldon?

  • ||

    Why do you even read this guy's shit? He seems to be using PressNews as a source. There's many good cases to be made for nonintervention, so why just regurgitate Iranian propaganda?

  • IceTrey||

    So the CIA didn't undemocratically restore the Shah a quarter century earlier?

  • Ken Shultz||

    Just for the record, Gareth Porter has also argued 1) that when the North Vietnamese took over the south, there wasn't a "bloodbath" and 2) that the notion that the Khmer Rouge had, "a policy of physically eliminating whole classes of people" was "a myth".

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gareth_Porter


    Broken clocks tell perfect time twice a day, but this guy looks like a serial denialist.

  • Ken Shultz||

    "But truth be told, Iran did not tell the IAEA about everything. As a signer of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it has obligations to notify the agency of certain activities. Porter acknowledges that Iran did not always keep the IAEA fully informed. Is this proof that Iran was preparing to make nuclear warheads?"

    Way to completely miss the point.

    Some people find it hard to believe that the NPT is meant to lower the risk of nuclear proliferation.

    Whether they're actually building bombs isn't exactly pertinent. If Iran gets nukes, Saudi Arabia and other players in the region (including Egypt) will definitely want them, and, once again, the purpose of the NPR is to lower the risk of nuclear proliferation.

    It does that by requiring signers to notify the IAEA of "certain activities", which seems to be a...um...creative way of not writing "enrichment of uranium", which is specifically what the NPR requires Iran to do. Furthermore, Iran was found to have broken the treaty--more than ten years ago--and has remained outside compliance with the treaty ever since.

    The question, here, isn't whether Iran is making warheads. The question is whether they're in violation of the treaty and, hence, are making a world where nuclear weapons proliferate much more likely--by making the NPT, moot.

    Punishing Iran for violating a treaty within the auspices of the treaty they violated is not aggressive or unusual.

  • Ken Shultz||

    "The purpose of the NPR is to lower the risk of nuclear proliferation."

    I wish NPR had such a useful purpose!

    Let me fix that:

    The purpose of the [NPT] is to lower the risk of nuclear proliferation.

  • John||

    I really don't understand why Reason thinks the way to make the case against going to war with Iran is to publish this crap.

    And good call on Porter. Why do I get the feeling that if it were 1975, Sheldon would be writing about how the evil hawks are slandering the peaceful Khmer Rouge?

  • ||

    I really don't understand why Reason thinks the way to make the case against going to war with Iran is to publish this crap.

    Fewer typos than Lucy.

  • Ken Shultz||

    "I really don't understand why Reason thinks the way to make the case against going to war with Iran is to publish this crap."

    I'm not sure it's fair to project one guy's opinion on all of Reason, but as far as why there are so many people who seem to be enthusiastic about what looks like a appeasement to me?

    Neville Chamberlain didn't know what was going to happen in the future, but people were so traumatized by World War I, that were willing to do tolerate...

    There's no question the Treaty of Versailles was terrible as far as reparations--clearly stupid. But Germany violated the treaty in a number of aggressive ways that weren't primarily related to the reparations:

    ----In March 1935, under the government of Adolf Hitler, Germany violated the Treaty of Versailles by introducing compulsory military conscription in Germany and rebuilding the armed forces.

    ----In March 1936, Germany violated the treaty by reoccupying the demilitarized zone in the Rhineland.

    ----In March 1938, Germany violated the treaty by annexing Austria in the Anschluss.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T.....Violations

    The French occupying the Ruhr Valley was extremely stupid--they took extreme measures to enforce the stupid part of the treaty!

  • Ken Shultz||

    But what about the smart part?

    What if the Allies had been willing to enforce the part of the treaty that prohibited conscription in 1935? Wasn't that the time to enforce the treaty? Why didn't they do so?

    Because they didn't want another war like World War I.

    And I think this appeasement stance we're seeing people take towards Iran is just about trying to avoid another Iraq.

    But it just doesn't work that way.

  • Robert||

    If they'd gotten another war like World War 1, that would've been worse than World War 2, right? So things didn't turn out so bad.

  • John||

    They would have humiliated Germany and Hitler would have been thrown out of power. Maybe the guy who came after would have been worse. We will never know. We do know that they could have easily stopped Hitler in the late 30s and chose not to do so because they just couldn't believe that Hitler was as bad as he was.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Hitler might not have been able to build the Wehrmacht.

  • Ken Shultz||

    There is another open question, which is why Iran must enrich its own uranium.

    Why can't they buy enriched uranium for civilian use from France or Russia--as the NPR gives them the right to do?

    Enriching uranium without informing the IAEA is a violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty like robbing banks is a violation of the law against armed robbery. Once someone has been convicted of armed robbery, generally a couple of things are supposed to happen:

    1) The robber is made to stop robbing banks by the authorities.

    2) The robber's gun is taken away.

    Why would we let Iran keep robbing banks violating the treaty?

    Why would we let them keep their gun in jail keep enriching their own uranium?

    Is this all because you don't want to go to war with Iran? I don't want to go to war with Iran either! But that's no reason to pretend the facts are other than they are. Surely, we can oppose war with Iran without burying our heads in the sand, can't we?

    Ever heard the expression that we're always fighting the last war? Is everyone so afraid of another Iraq that we're willing to embrace a strategy that amount to appeasement? You can't hold up treaties as a superior solution rather than war--and then ignore treaty violations. Treaties are meaningless if treaty violations are insufficiently punished, and appeasement doesn't always lead to peace!

  • jmomls||

    The Iranians are being secretive for the same reasons the Iraqis were being secretive and the Syrians were being secretive. Their bombs are meant to kill Israelis and they know the Israelis will blow them up first if they get the chance.

    Next stupid question?

  • IceTrey||

    Won't the Israelis blow them up second too? Surely the Iranians know this.

  • ||

    They've been quite clear that if a few Israeli nukes hit Iran, the country will survive. If a few nukes hit Israel, the country will no longer exist.

    Israel's worry, not ours.

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