America's Fear of Iranian Nuclear Power Is Overblown

U.S. hawks aren't telling the full story about Iran's agenda.

When the Obama administration refused to grant a visa to Iran's designated ambassador to the United Nations, Hamid Aboutalebi, it was continuing a long-running hostile U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic. After the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, a group of Iranians held 52 Americans hostage in the former U.S. embassy for more than a year. Aboutalebi served as an occasional translator for the hostage-takers, but this hardly makes him "an acknowledged terrorist," as anti-Iran hawk Sen. Ted Cruz has alleged.

One can condemn the hostage-taking and still recognize that the American government did terrible things to the Iranian people from 1953 to 1979. And it has kept on doing them. There have been far more aggrieved Iranians than Americans in the two countries' relationship.

The visa denial seems strange considering that the Obama administration is negotiating with Iran about its nuclear-power program. Progress is being made, despite the vigorous lobbying of those in America who apparently will stop at nothing to scuttle the talks.

But even with the hopeful negotiations, the Obama administration refuses to talk straight about Iran's nuclear intentions.

For example, in 2007 and 2011, America's 16 intelligence agencies issued national-security estimates finding that any research the Iranians had been doing on nuclear weapons was terminated in 2003—perhaps not coincidentally, the same year the U.S. military overthrew Iran's archenemy, Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and the mainstream media never tell the American people this. Wouldn't you think that's a critical piece of information for evaluating the U.S.-Iran relationship?

This is not all that American officialdom and the media are quiet about. But thanks to investigative journalist Gareth Porter and his new book, Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, much more of this important information is now available to all.

For example, did you know that Iran's two supreme leaders since the revolution, Ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, each in his time issued fatwas against weapons of mass destruction? Khomeini specifically addressed chemical weapons, while Khamenei's declaration was aimed at nuclear weapons.

The story behind Khomeini's anti-chemical-weapons fatwa, which Porter relates, is worth knowing. In 1980 Iraqi President Saddam Hussein launched an attack and a brutal eight-year war against Iran. Among the weapons Saddam used against Iranian forces — with the help of American intelligence relevant to targeting and damage assessment — were chemical agents.

Yet Iran never responded in kind. It certainly could have. "Iran's chemical sector was quite advanced and perfectly capable of producing the same range of chemical weapons that Iraq was using in the war," Porter writes. He continues, "The real reason for Iran's failure to use chemical weapons was not the inability to formulate the necessary mix of chemicals but the fact that Ayatollah Khomeini had forbidden it on the grounds of Islamic jurisprudence." Porter notes that, according to a senior foreign-ministry officer, military leaders wanted to discuss a chemical retaliation against Iraq, "but Khomeini refused to allow it on the ground that it was forbidden by Islam."

How is this relevant to today? Porter writes,

The fact that Iran was constrained by Khomeini's interpretation of Islamic law during the duration of the war sheds light on the role of Khomeini's successor as supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, in declaring nuclear weapons also forbidden by Islam.

Porter points out that Khamenei had it easier than his predecessor because there was already political opposition to the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Long before Khamenei took office, Khomeini had condemned nukes on the grounds that they were signature weapons of the superpowers he disdained: the United States and Soviet Union.

Moreover, Iran's leading politicians realized that nuclear weapons would be useless. "Those two points—the inutility of nuclear weapons, which implied their irrelevance to regional politics, and the fact that other powers would still have many times more such weapons — represented the core elements of a 'realist' strategic argument against possession of nuclear weapons that would later be articulated in greater depth."

In early 2003, Khamenei "began to couch his anti-nuclear weapons stance in terms of Islamic principles." Of course this was entirely consistent with his predecessor's fatwa against chemical weapons—as well as with all the hard evidence anyone has been able to produce.

Americans should know this.

This column originally appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    For example, did you know that Iran's two supreme leaders since the revolution, Ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, each in his time issued fatwas against weapons of mass destruction?

    If you like your leader's public vow you can keep your leader's public vow.

  • OneOut||

    I wonder if all Americans know that foreign countries regularly hire publicity firms in the US to massage their public persona (personi ?)

  • ||

    That's not his tough look, that's his self-sacrificing philosopher

  • Rich||

    Iran's leading politicians realized that nuclear weapons would be useless.

    *** meekly raises hand ***

    Then why do *we* have them?

  • Raven Nation||

    You commie!

  • Rich||

    Just *asking*! Sheesh!

  • Raven Nation||

    Hmm, maybe. We will be keeping an eye on you.

  • Rich||

    Good thing *I* have nuuu, uh, nothing to hide, then.

  • pan fried wylie||

    Jobs? Keeping IBM/SGI/HP in the supercomputer business? ZOMG Russia?

  • steedamike||

    We have them for the same reasons that we have personal firearms - because 'they' have them. I imagine that Ukraine wishes that they kept their stockpile. Even if we/they never use them, it's a bargaining chip that carries a lot of weight.

  • John||

    What an exercise in question begging.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    did you know that Iran's two supreme leaders since the revolution, Ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, each in his time issued fatwas against weapons of mass destruction? Khomeini specifically addressed chemical weapons, while Khamenei's declaration was aimed at nuclear weapons.

    Did you know that Islamic eschatology believes that signs of the apocalypse include: Mecca will be attacked and the Kaaba will be destroyed, a pleasant breeze will blow from the south that shall cause all believers to die, a huge black smoke cloud will cover the earth, and
    that the sun will rise from the west; all of which many modern-day Muslims believe to be references to nuclear weapons?

    And did you know that the state religion of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Twelver Shi'ism, argues that the faithful should do all they can to increase strife in the world so that the Day of Judgement comes that much sooner, leading to the revelation of the 12th Imam, the Madhi, whom they believe to have been in occultation since 873?

    See Richman, we can play Islamic Trivial Pursuit all day and it doesn't mean a damn thing in reality!

  • Rich||

    Beautiful. Thanks, HM.

    A side-by-side comparison with the eschatologies of other religions would probably be rather scary.

  • Raven Nation||

    Good point. I do think there is an overblown fear of Iranian nukes in some quarters but to say, "Oh, this Iranian leader opposes them to we have nothing to worry about," seems, um, simplistic?

  • wareagle||

    the last Iranian president couldn't stop talking about a desire to use them. That alone makes Iran unusual in the nuclear age; most everyone else is clear about having them for deterrence.

  • sarcasmic||

    You can pull out some obscure and odd teachings of Christianity as well. That doesn't mean that every Christian believes those things.

  • ||

    That doesn't mean that every Christian believes those things.

    Not every Christian has to believe those things as long as a handful of them have access to the reigns of institutional power. "NOT ALL MUSLIMS R TEH TERRORIST!!!!" is a retarded bumper sticker anyway (gee, no shit; not all Muslims have to be terrorists in order for most terrorists to be Muslim -- leaving aside whether that's true or not), but it's especially irrelevant when you're talking about a handful of authoritarian theocrats. Not every Muslim is an authoritarian theocrat either. Per capita, very few are, actually. What difference does that make to the mindset and behavior of the authoritarian theocrats?

  • Francisco d'Anconia||

    Because in reality, it's nothing more than a neocon scare tactic to fight another war.

    Yeah, Iran is going to commit suicide over a story in a book because they are crazy.

    Just like the USSR and the Norks. That's some of the most stupid scaremongering I've ever heard. Iran wants nukes because the US, for some reason, doesn't invade nuclear powers.

  • Marshall Gill||

    Well, if there are really no suicidal regimes out there, we could certainly cut the defense budget, right?

    Why do we need new fighters at a billion a piece if no one is really willing to face our nukes?

    Can't have it both ways.

  • ||

    Just like the USSR and the Norks.

    The USSR and Norks aren't, in point of fact, theocracies, which would indeed seem to indicate perhaps a lower level of crazy and/or suicidal. In the pantheon of communist sainthood, there aren't a lot of martyrs.

  • wareagle||

    the Obama administration refuses to talk straight about Iran's nuclear intentions.

  • Stilgar||

    But but... TERROR!

    How else can team Red win an erection?

  • Ted S.||

    Why did the AM Links show up briefly in 24/7?

  • Raven Nation||

    Because Kennedy didn't host The Independents some nights this week. EVERYTHING is connected.

  • PH2050||

    EVERYTHING is connected.

    I read that in a book, I think it was titled Cloud Atlas Shrugged.

  • Raven Nation||

    Heh, heh, heh.

  • Hawk Spitui||

    Q: How does a libertarian solve a problem?

    A: Problem? What problem?

  • Rich||

    Exactly. The Market takes care of *everything*.

  • sarcasmic||

    Because libertarians don't want to use violence as the first resort to every perceived problem in the world, we don't recognize that any problems exist. Sure. Whatever.

  • OldMexican||

    Q: How does a Statist solve a problem?

    A: By creating two new problems.

    Q: How does the Statist solve the two new problems?

    A: By creating four new problems.

    Q: How does the Statist solve the new four problems?

    A: By creating eight new problems.

    Q: How does the Statist fix the eight new problems?

    A: By creating sixteen new problems.

    Q: How does the Statist fix....

    You catch my drift.

  • Francisco d'Anconia||

    Q: How does a republican solve a problem?

    A: Premptively kill everything that moves and the figure out what the problem was later.

  • OldMexican||

    Since Tony is not here, I guess he agrees with everything that was said here.

  • The Last American Hero||

    When he read that Iran had a Supreme Leader, he started packing his suitcase.

  • steedamike||

    +1(heavy breathing)

  • ||

    It's always refreshing to get the PressNews/PressTV propaganda recycled for us.

    Does Reason actually PAY Richman to write this shit? Or is it subsidized?

  • lap83||

    I figure they can't afford someone who knows any history.

    I really can't recall an article of his that involved anything more than just regurgitating quotes from one person he agrees with and using it as the sole argument against some strawman.

  • ||

    So basically, he's a sock puppet of Thomas Friedman?

  • Marshall Gill||

    Ouch, that was a low blow.

  • c5c5||

    lap83,

    Very true. Richman does a pretty good job of writing about micro libertarian thought and issues, but he tends to place all of his eggs in one basket concerning macro issues such as war. I also have noticed many of his articles only use one source to back his claims.

    I think Richman also has an issue with anything military related. While he is capable of making reasoned arguments on one hand, I have witnessed him making completely emotional arguments on the other.

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    What evidence do you have that suggests that he got his information from one or both of those outlets? Do you get your information from MSNBC/Fox? You sound like someone who watches HLN.

  • ||

    I don't watch TV, other than Netflix and NFL. So you might want to get your hearing checked.

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    Bitch where's my evidence?

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    Neocons and Israel-firsters are out in full force today in the comments.

    Go ahead get a stroke over worrying about ten foot tall wife-beating desert warriors who drool acid and shoot lasers out of their eyes while flying magic rugs of Islamofascist doom.

  • ||

    Neocons and Israel-firsters are out in full force today in the comments.

    Don't forget TEH SOCONZ!!!!!!(!!!!)!!!!!

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    While most socons are also neocons and vice-versa I wasn't talking specifically about socons as many of the posters in question are secular or casually/progressively religious neolibertarians or objectivists.

  • ULOST||

    Hawk: Babaaawk babaaawk. The domino effect. Iran gets it and then Israel won't sleep and the rest of the middle east will build them too. Who cannot see these neo-con truisms. Inaction is no action and Iran cannot be trusted.

  • ||

    Iran gets it and then Israel won't sleep and the rest of the middle east will build them too. Who cannot see these neo-con truisms.

    I'm not sure if "Israel is the most dangerous country in the middle east, nukes are groovy, and anyway, Iran is a stable, peaceful religious commune" is much of an alternative, as truisms go. Maybe dueling bumper stickers isn't such a great approach to foreign policy.

  • ||

    Every Sheldon Richman piece on Iran has been exactly the same since at least 2008-ish. I wonder if he's too stupid to realize he's writing the same shit over and over again, or so mentally ill he actually thinks each new copy is oozing with fresh insight.

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