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How the Bush Administration Created the Iran “Nuclear Confession” Scam

Demand for an Iranian confession to having worked on nuclear weapons is a political scam, and John Kerry’s actions confirm its success.

Former President George W. Bush speaks at a convention center in Phoenix, Arizona, March 16, 2011. (Photo: Christopher Halloran /

Secretary of State John Kerry gave further legitimacy to a long-running official scam over the demand for a confession from Iran last week, even as he argued that getting details of Iran’s alleged past work on nuclear weapons wasn’t necessary for a nuclear agreement.

Kerry said Tuesday that the Obama administration was “not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another.” That wasn’t necessary for a deal, Kerry explained, because, “We know what they did. … We have absolute knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged in.”

But a former US official told Truthout that Kerry was simply using highly exaggerated rhetoric to express the Obama administration’s position that Iran had a nuclear weapons program. Kerry appeared to be dropping the demand for an Iranian accounting of its alleged nuclear weapons work. Asked by PBS whether Iran would have to “disclose past military-related nuclear activities,” Kerry had said, ‘They have to do it. … If there’s going to be a deal, it will be done.”

The politicians and pundits supporting the Israeli line gleefully jumped on Kerry’s statement. News media coverage of Kerry’s statement, typified by an Associated Press story published in The New York Times, denied that “Western intelligence” knew the “extent of Iran’s activities or if Iran persisted in covert efforts.”

The episode revealed just how thoroughly the politics of Iran nuclear policy have been shaped by a deceptive tactic of demanding a detailed accounting by Iran of nuclear weapons work that Iran has always denied. That demand makes no sense except as a way to either justify punishing Iran or to sabotage any nuclear agreement. If Western intelligence actually had hard evidence of an Iranian nuclear program, it wouldn’t need a detailed confession from Iran.

The Obama administration adopted the demand as part of the negotiations only under pressure from the Israelis and their lobby in Washington. Patrick Clawson and David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near Policy revived the demand that Iran “come clean” about its alleged past nuclear weapons work in a September 2012 article. And in October 2013, in the early stages of the negotiations with Iran, Kerry declared that Iran would “have to prove it’s willing to come clean about the nuclear program.”

The Obama White House knew that the Israelis intended to wield the confession demand as a weapon to blow up the negotiations and that Iran would never agree. But Kerry has waffled on the issue, reflecting the fear of the White House that it would lose too many votes in the Senate on the agreement if it did not appear to be demanding such a confession.

The idea that Iran must reveal the details of its alleged nuclear weapons work, which is now regarded as an unquestionable proposition in US political discourse and mainstream press coverage on Iran, was in fact a political invention of the Bush administration.

It all began after the Bush administration turned over a set of documents purporting to be from an Iranian nuclear weapons research program to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei declared publicly that they had not been authenticated and therefore could not be used as evidence regarding Iran’s nuclear intentions.

In the fall and winter of 2007, ElBaradei ordered his staff to work with Iran on resolving a series of issues surrounding the history of the Iranian program in August 2007, but did not require Iran to explain those intelligence documents. ElBaradei proceeded to acknowledge Iran’s clarification of a series of issues in November 2007 and was clearly intending to complete the process in early 2008. In response to that development, on December 5, 2007, Bush declared that Iran had to “come clean” about the nuclear weapons work he claimed it had done. And that same day, Undersecretary of State John Negroponte said the Iranians had to acknowledge that they had such a weapons program” and reveal the specific components of the program.

The Bush administration applied intense pressure on ElBaradei to support its new demand. Two days after Bush’s statement, US Permanent Representative to the IAEA Gregory L. Schulte reported in a diplomatic cable to Washington that he had “emphasized” to ElBaradei “the importance of pushing for a confession” by Iran.

When ElBaradei refused to do so, Schulte wrote that it was necessary to “warn the DG [director general] in very stark terms that … any hint of whitewash of Iran’s weapons activities would cause irreparable harm to the agency’s relationship with major donors.”

In other words, if Elbaradei did not demand a confession from Iran, the agency’s budget would be severely reduced.

The Bush demand for a confession was aimed at creating the illusion that the case against Iran’s nuclear program was so strong that Iran had no choice but to admit its existence. ElBaradei’s continued refusal to accept the documents as genuine, however, obviously stood in the way of the ruse succeeding.

The next Bush administration move was to claim that Iran had admitted in meetings with IAEA officials that it had indeed done some of the things portrayed in the documents. The US-led coalition of states that included Britain and France and other allies agreed to push that falsehood, largely to influence the positions of Russia and China. “Iran has acknowledged some of the studies while claiming that they were for nonnuclear purposes,” the French permanent representative to the IAEA declared at a meeting of the P5+1 (5 permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) in late March 2008.

The IAEA’s deputy director for Safeguards, Olli Heinonen, with whom the US Mission said in a diplomatic cable it had a “close and constructive relationship,” went along with that line, and insisted that it be included in IAEA reports, a former IAEA official involved in the IAEA drafting committee recalled in an interview with this writer. “Iran did not dispute that some of the information contained in the documents was factually accurate,” said the May 2008 IAEA report, “but said the events and activities concerned involved civil or conventional military applications.”

That language was carefully calculated to mislead. The only “information” in the documents that Iran did not dispute was certain publicly known individuals, organization and addresses – not “events and activities,” which Iran had insisted were fabricated.

It was no accident that the Iran nuclear confession ruse became explicit IAEA policy, under ElBaradei’ successor as director general, Yukiya Amano. The Obama administration had thrown its support behind Amano’s candidacy because it knew that Amano would support US hard-line policy toward Iran, including the “confession” ruse.

At a meeting of the “like-minded group” of states supporting the US position on Iran in January 2008, Amano, then the permanent representative of Japan to the IAEA, had shown himself to be enthusiastic about the Bush administration’s “confession” demand, according to a cable released by WikiLeaks. Amano had acidly criticized ElBaradei, saying he would probably announce that Iran had “confessed to being not guilty.”

With the Obama administration’s full diplomatic support, Amano won the July 2009 election in the board of governors to succeed ElBaradei. Two years later, Amano agreed to do what ElBaradei had refused to do: publish a compilation of intelligence documents, including another series that had been provided to the IAEA directly by Israel, according to ElBaradei. Amano released the information in November 2011, moreover, when it would have the maximum impact on negotiations with Russia and China on a much more intrusive set of financial sanctions aimed at the Iranian oil export sector and Iran’s National Bank.

The purported intelligence on Iranian nuclear weapons work, on which the confession scam has been based, is highly suspect. But there is one well-documented case of nuclear weapons technology that Iran could be asked to discuss with the IAEA. It was obtained by the Iranian government in 2000, but it didn’t come from North Korea, Pakistan or China.

It was provided by the CIA in its covert operation dubbed “Operation Merlin” in March 2000, when a Russian CIA operative went to Vienna and dropped plans for a “fireset” – a key part in a nuclear explosive device – into the mail slot of the Iranian mission to the IAEA. It was designed with fundamental flaws so that it could not be made to work and was supposed to lead Iran’s nuclear specialist down the wrong path.

The premise was that the Iranians would get back to the CIA operative, posing as a Russian émigré, hoping to make a deal with Iran. But there was never any response from the Iranians, who undoubtedly suspected immediately that they were being scammed.

Nevertheless, their scientists would certainly have studied what the CIA had given them, to try to figure out what was going on. That would hardly constitute nuclear weapons work, but maybe Iran will reveal to the IAEA what its scientists did with that package.

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