Demonising nuclear Iran

How did a false Iran nuclear narrative come to dominate global politics?

Some misconceptions about Iran's nuclear programme are based on false evidence, argues Porter [AP]

As the crucial phase of the nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran began in Vienna recently, the fate of the agreement hangs by a thread. A wide chasm separates the declared positions of the two sides in regard to the enrichment capabilities that Iran would be permitted to keep, as has been widely reported.

What has gone unnoticed, however, is that the US negotiating demand for a deep cut in Iran’s enrichment capabilities has been shaped by Obama administration’s firm belief that Iran has been deceiving the world by hiding its firm determination to obtain nuclear weapons. That view of Iranian nuclear policy has come to dominate the international politics of the Iran nuclear issue over the past decade. But it has not emerged as a result of straightforward evidence. 

As documented in my book, Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, the narrative of a secret Iranian nuclear weapons programme is the net result of a combination of strong political predisposition in US administrations and the intelligence community to believe it and a falsified intelligence dossier that has been foisted on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – and on world opinion. 

The wrong kind of missile

The false Iran nuclear narrative began when the CIA set up a new centre for WMD proliferation in 1991 staffed by specialists on the subject who were pointed toward Iran as a target state threatening to proliferate. Not surprisingly that centre responded by judging repeatedly over the next decade that Iran’s efforts to obtain uranium enrichment technology beginning in the latter half of the 1980s was aimed at creating a “nuclear weapons capability”.

Listening Post – Iran: A new nuclear narrative

What the CIA’s weapons and proliferation experts never mentioned, however, was that Iran had responding to a crude political intervention by the Reagan administration beginning in 1983 to pressure the governments of France and Germany to refuse to cooperate with Iran’s nuclear programme. The effect of that intervention, which was not justified by any claim of evidence that Iran was trying to obtain nuclear weapons, was to prevent Iran from relying on a French-based company to provide the enriched uranium fuel for Iran’s Bushehr reactor. Not surprisingly, when confronted with the choice of abandoning its nuclear programme entirely or obtaining an independent enrichment capability Iran chose the latter. 

By 2004, the news media and political atmosphere were already thoroughly saturated by the false Iran nuclear narrative.  At that point a major political manoeuvre quietly unfolded that would ensure that the accusation of a secret Iranian nuclear programme would dominate the international politics of the issue for the next decade. 

In August 2004, a set of intelligence documents said to have come from the laptop computer of a participant in a purported Iranian nuclear weapons research project fell into the hands of Western intelligence. The documents included drawings of apparent efforts to redesign the reentry vehicle of Iran’s Shahab-3 missile to accommodate a nuclear warhead, which the Bush administration portrayed as “smoking gun” evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme. 

IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei and other senior officials of the agency had serious doubts about their authenticity. But Safeguards Department chief Olli Heinonen collaborated with Washington in 2008-09 and pushed the position in IAEA reports in 2008-09 that the documents were “credible” and that Iran was refusing to cooperate with the IAEA “investigation” of the documents. That position made it virtually impossible to question the authenticity of the documents.

It is now clear that ElBaradei’s skepticism about the documents was justified.  The former coordinator of US-German relations in the German foreign office, Karsten Voigt, revealed in an interview with this writer last year that senior officials of Germany’s intelligence agency, the BND, had told him in November 2004 that those documents had been provided by a sometime BND source who was a member of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), the Iranian exile group allied first with Saddam and later with Israel that was listed as terrorist organisation by the US. The BND officials told Voigt that the MEK source was considered “doubtful”.

They were unhappy, because Secretary of State Colin Powell had just commented publicly on information – obviously from the same documents – about alleged Iranian work on mating their Shahab-3 missile with a nuclear weapon.  They could hardly have forgotten that in early 2003, the Bush administration had relied on information from another BND source named “Curveball” to justify the US invasion of Iraq, despite having been warned by BND Chief August Hanning not to rely on the source.

There were other reasons to doubt the authenticity of the documents. As was confirmed to this writer by former IAEA Deputy Director General Olli Heinonen, the missile shown in the drawings of efforts to redesign a missile reentry vehicle to accommodate a nuclear weapon was the Shahab-3. But Iran’s defence ministry had decided to replace with a much-improved missile and reentry vehicle as early as 2000, and the earliest drawings are dated mid-2002. Whoever ordered those drawings done was obviously unaware of the switch to the new missile design, which means that they were done by an outside intelligence agency – not by the Iranian military or defence ministry.

Influencing perceptions

Israel is the only country in the world that had actually created an office in its foreign intelligence agency responsible for influencing foreign perceptions of the Iranian nuclear programme, as revealed by the book The Nuclear Jihadist, by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins. 

Empire – Iran and the US: Diplomatic enrichment

Furthermore, as ElBaradei observed in his own memoirs, Israel had openly provided the IAEA an entirely new series of intelligence reports and purported documents on alleged Iranian nuclear weapons work while ElBaradei was still Director General. The dossier that the IAEA published in November 2011 was based entirely on those documents, although the source was never mentioned by the agency. 

The story from the IAEA dossier that made news headlines around the world was that Iran had installed a cylinder at its Parchin military facility in 2000 for nuclear-related testing. But no real evidence was ever produced by the IAEA to support that claim – only a reference to a scholarly publication by a Ukrainian scientist who had helped Iran’s work on nuclear weapons, according to the agency. And the publication actually described – and included a drawing of – a cylinder for nanodiamonds production the physical characteristics of which were quite different from those a weapons-related cylinder.

The IAEA has also expunged from the published record the fact – virtually unknown to the outside world – that Iran agreed not just once but twice in 1995 to allow the agency to inspect any five sites of its choice in one of the four quadrants of Parchin and to take environmental samples. It is inconceivable, of course, that a state would allow such freedom for international inspection at a military base where it was concealing an incriminating nuclear testing facility.

The Obama administration, blissfully ignorant of the real history of the Iranian nuclear programme, has accepted the false narrative of Iran’s supposed determination to obtain nuclear weapons. Its negotiating position in the nuclear talks is based on the thesis that Iran must be prevented from having anything less than a six-month “breakout” period, on the spurious notion that Iran is poised to race for a bomb and must be shorn of the bulk of its enrichment capability. 

Perhaps US diplomats will find a way to avoid letting the false logic that governs its posture sink the negotiations.  If the talks fail, however, it will be the result of the toxic combination of wilful US self-deception and deliberate falsification of intelligence by the Israelis.

Dr Gareth Porter is an investigative journalist and historian specialising in US national security policy.