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.