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Fixing the Facts To Create a Crisis With Iran

Gareth Porter. (Photo courtesy of Just World Books)

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Fictitious WMDs created a pretext for launching the ill-fated and destructive war with Iraq. Gareth Porter, an investigative reporter and frequent contributor to Truthout, writes a compelling book, “Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare,” that argues that similar tactics were created to justify a war with Iran.

Fortunately, if negotiations are successful, the fate of “shock and awe” will be avoided in Iran. Yet, as if with Iraq, no one is being held accountable for the bellicose war cries based on flawed and disingenuous “justifications.”

The following excerpt, US Nuclear Embargo and the Iranian Response, is from Chapter one of “Manufactured Crisis”:

The overthrow of the shah’s regime in 1979 was a traumatic shock to the US national security system. The Department of Defense and the CIA had built deep ties with the shah’s regime (as had Israel). Under the shah, Iran had served as the keystone of policy in the region for a quarter century. Preserving his regime had been seen as so important by some top officials that, as the State Department’s desk officer on Iran later recalled, when the popular uprising took place, national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski recommended that the United States urge the shah to have his troops “shoot down as many people as necessary and bring an end to the rebellion once and for all.”

Once the shah had been toppled, the major thrust of US policy was, in effect, to watch for an opportunity to replace the Islamic regime so the United States could resume its former position of power in Tehran. When President Jimmy Carter’s administration got word in September 1980 that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was planning to attack Iran to overthrow the regime, the United States did nothing to oppose the scheme, despite the enormous risk of regional instability inherent in such a war. Vice President Walter Mondale would later explain, “We believed that this war would put further pressure on the Iranian regime.”

When Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1981, internal discussions on Iran revolved around the expressions by senior officials of the desirability of removing the founder and leader of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. CIA Director William Casey was tasked with exploring the possibility of a covert plan to oust Khomeini and replace him with the shah’s son, Reza Pahlavi. And when Iran was preparing to mount a massive counteroffensive against Iraq in spring 1982, the United States became an active supporter of the Iraqi war effort. Reagan agreed to a secret national security decision directive that the United States would do everything “necessary and legal” to prevent Iran from defeating Iraq.

The staff of Reagan’s National Security Council worked closely with CIA Director Casey and his deputy, Robert M. Gates, to persuade third-country suppliers to ship to Iraq a variety of forms of weapons, including cluster bombs and anti-armor penetrators (most of them of Soviet origin). The United States also provided strategic advice to Saddam’s military on how best to use its troops. That initiative was followed in late 1983 by Operation Staunch, a diplomatic campaign to convince US allies and friends to stop selling arms to Iran in the interests of “achieving a negotiated end to the Iran-Iraq war.”

The decision to do whatever could be done to support Iraq against Iran in the war was followed by a series of interventions by the Reagan administration to prevent international assistance of any kind to the Iranian nuclear program. The earliest documented US intervention to try to obstruct any progress by Iran toward completion of its nuclear reactor at Bushehr was the objection the United States registered to the IAEA’s late 1983 proposal to provide Iran with technical assistance for fuel production and uranium conversion. After the United States “directly intervened” to block any such IAEA assistance, those two major elements of the proposed assistance to the Iranian program were dropped by the IAEA. “We stopped that in its tracks,” a former US official recalled many years later.

The US decision to prevent the IAEA from helping Iran in the same way it helped other states in good standing with the agency was simply an adjunct of the Reagan administration’s policy toward Iran and Iraq. “It was the war,” recalled Geoffrey Kemp, who was senior director for the Near East and South Asia on Reagan’s National Security Council staff. “We had made a decision to tilt toward Iraq across the board. It was part of the Iran-Iraq War syndrome.”

The IAEA intervention was only the beginning of a much broader US policy of denial of international cooperation with the Iranian nuclear program. In April 1984, the State Department confirmed that the United States’ goal was to block all technology transfers to Iran’s nuclear program by external suppliers. In a written reply to a reporter’s question, the department spokesman said, “Previous actions by the Government of Iran do not provide us with great assurance that it will always abide by its international commitments.” Therefore, the State Department declared that the United States would not allow any US nuclear technology to be shared with Iran. “In addition,” the statement said, “we have asked other nuclear suppliers not to engage in nuclear cooperation with Iran, especially while the Iran-Iraq war continues.” That wording left open the possibility that the United States might continue its effort to deny all nuclear technology to Iran even after the Iran-Iraq War was over.

One might expect such a virtual declaration of war on a country’s nuclear program to be accompanied by some claim of evidence of covert nuclear weapons work or at least of Iran having committed serious violations of its NPT-derived safeguards agreement with the IAEA. But the State Department made clear that it had no evidence of bad faith on the part of Iran in regard to its commitments under the NPT. It admitted that it had “no evidence” that Iran had violated its pledge under the NPT to place its nuclear activities under international safeguards. Its spokesman even suggested that he did not see the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr as a proliferation risk, saying there was “no evidence” of any construction of facilities there that could separate plutonium from spent reactor fuel. Instead, State Department officials justified the policy of denying all nuclear technology to Iran by telling reporters off the record that Iran was about to launch an all-out offensive against Iraq that could threaten Saddam’s regime, implying that Iran could emerge as the dominant power in the region. The Reagan administration was justifying its intervention to prevent Iran from having a nuclear power program purely on the basis of its assertion of geopolitical interests in the Middle East.

That policy was soon impinging on Iran’s relations with France and Germany, whose cooperation was crucial to the plan to complete the Bushehr reactor. Mousavian began following the nuclear issue in 1984, when he went to work as chief of staff for Rafsanjani, then the speaker of the Iranian parliament. He recalled later, “The French came to us saying we cannot give fuel for Bushehr. They were telling us, ‘This is an international decision.’” The French government was clearly implying to Iran that the United States was not willing to allow France to participate in its nuclear program. Meanwhile, Iran also had a serious problem with Germany.

When Mousavian became head of the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s West Europe division in 1986, he recalled, it immediately became apparent that the German government was refusing to allow the German contractor Kraftwerk GmbH to complete the work on the Bushehr plant for which Iran had paid 8.7 billion deutschmarks ($4.78 billion at 1979 exchange rates) before the overthrow of the shah. In 1986, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher told Rafsanjani that completion of the Bushehr contract would not be permitted.

Seldom in the modern era has a major power interfered in the affairs of a lesser state on the basis of such a blatant expression of power interests as the Reagan administration’s policy of denying all nuclear technology to Iran’s fledgling nuclear program. Notably absent from the policy enunciated by the State Department was any recognition of Iran’s legitimate right to such technology under the NPT or of US obligations under that treaty.

In putting pressure on its allies to not cooperate with the Iranian nuclear program—even if that cooperation had already been agreed to previously— the United States was openly violating a central provision of the international agreement it would later cite as the basis for condemning Iran for failing to live up to its international obligations: the Non-Proliferation Treaty. That treaty, opened for signature in 1968, had been an explicit bargain between the existing nuclear weapons states and all those who did not have nuclear weapons. The nonnuclear weapon states agreed that they would not acquire nuclear weapons, on the condition that the nuclear weapon states agreed to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology and to negotiate nuclear disarmament with the ultimate aim of eliminating all nuclear weapons.

Article IV of the treaty had been absolutely central to that bargain. It provides, “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.” The same article also says, “All the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”

This was the provision of the NPT that the United States was blatantly violating in pressuring other states with nuclear technology and the IAEA itself not to cooperate with Iran in its extremely modest nuclear program. In violating the provision of the treaty that was central to the bargain underlying the NPT, moreover, the United States made no attempt whatever to argue that Iran had violated Article II, which enjoined parties to the treaty not to “manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices; and not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”

Instead, the US national security bureaucracy was simply substituting its own unilateral interests and policy on proliferation for its legal obligations. Iran had intended to continue the plan adopted by the shah’s regime of relying on Western European firms for the enrichment of uranium to fuel the Bushehr project. But the United States’ public declaration of its intent to deny Iran any nuclear technology, along with clear indications that US pressure had persuaded France not to provide enriched uranium for reactor fuel for Bushehr, and prevented Germany from agreeing to complete its construction work there, made it clear to Iranian policymakers that the US technology-denial policy had rendered that plan infeasible. “They were saying we had no right to even one power plant or to have access to the international fuel market,” Mousavian said. “We began to think, either we will have to withdraw from the NPT or we will have to be self-sufficient.”

In a talk given at IAEA headquarters in 2003, the director of the AEOI, Reza Aghazadeh, recalled how Iranian leaders had concluded after their experience with Eurodif that Iran could not count on Western governments in regard to the supply of enriched uranium. “Having despaired of Western cooperation,” he said, “we turned to the policy of self-sufficiency.”

Aghazadeh was referring to the decision to acquire the means to carry out uranium enrichment on Iranian soil. The first step was for Iran to begin shopping for the gas centrifuge technology it would need to produce its own supply of enriched uranium. The man in charge of the AEOI’s new centrifuge program was Dr. Masud Naraghi, a PhD in plasma science from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland who had previously worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He began contacting commercial technology suppliers and middlemen. During a 1985 visit to the office of Leybold-Heraeus in Cologne, Germany, he met Gottwald Lerch, a member of the nuclear procurement network associated with the Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan that was selling nuclear secrets surreptitiously.

Iran’s dealing with the Khan network is often viewed as evidence of its interest in nuclear weapons, because in the early 1990s, the same network sold a complete package to Libya that included a turnkey uranium enrichment plant complete with 10,000 centrifuges, 20 tons (over 18,000 kilograms) of uranium—and a Chinese design for a nuclear weapon. If Iran had planned to produce a nuclear weapon with the enrichment capabilities it was seeking, this was the perfect opportunity to do so. A one-page offer that Lerch gave to Iran (and that was later turned over to the IAEA) included drawings and specifications for centrifuges, plans for a complete enrichment plant, and “uranium re-conversion and casting capabilities”—technology that would be indispensable if Iran were thinking of eventually making nuclear weapons.

But when Naraghi met with Lerch and other members of the Khan network in Dubai in 1987, to purchase what was essentially a starter kit for centrifuges, there is no indication that he exhibited any interest in the technology for making a bomb. Later, the IAEA’s Safeguards Department official responsible for Iran, Olli Heinonen, intensively interviewed the Khan network intermediaries who dealt with Naraghi in 1987 as part of the IAEA’s investigation of Iran’s interactions with the Khan network. Those interviews did not produce any indication that Iran had expressed an interest in the inputs or precursors for a nuclear bomb program. And the United States had access to Naraghi himself: he lost his job at AEOI in 1992, apparently over the dubious quality of the centrifuge parts he had obtained, and left Iran for the United States, where he reportedly fully debriefed the CIA on everything he knew about the Iranian nuclear program.

The Khan network operatives indicated that when Naraghi and a colleague picked up the centrifuge components and plans in Dubai in early 1987, Lerch and another network member threw in for free a 15-page document that included a one-and-a-half-page outline of the steps for casting uranium metal to be used for a nuclear weapon, evidently as an inducement to try to get Iran to purchase all of that technology too. No US, Israeli, European, or IAEA official has ever tried to explain why, if Iran was interested in a nuclear weapon, it did not take advantage of the opportunity to buy that technology when it was offered by the Khan network in 1987.

Copyright 2014 by Gareth Porter. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Just World Books.

Note: The citations for sources referenced in this excerpt can be found in the footnotes of “Manufactured Crisis,” pages 26–32 of the book text.

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