The new crisis in Iran:
The facts and the allegations
As intended, the hyped disclosure created headlines around the world. It probably convinced many Americans, already primed to detest Iran, that Tehran is building nuclear bombs to obliterate the U.S. and Israel.
By Jack A. Smith / The Rag Blog / September 27, 2009
No one knows what will emerge ultimately from the talks beginning in Geneva Oct. 1 between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany on the matter of the Tehran government’s nuclear program.
Iran says it looks forward to the talks and promises to be forthcoming. But judging by the stance of the United States, Great Britain, France and Germany last week at the UN conferences in New York and the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh, draconian sanctions may be enacted against Iran in a few months. This would result in yet another crisis that the world doesn’t need just now.
Russia and China — which hold veto power in the Security Council that can weaken or prevent additional sanctions — have up to now resisted the Obama Administration’s drive for tough new UN punishments. President Barack Obama met separately during the week with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao in an effort to obtain their agreement to threaten more stringent sanctions should Iran procrastinate during the talks.
The White House later suggested to the press that Medvedev may be coming around to Obama’s point of view, but this seems to be based on very skimpy evidence — a remark that “in some cases sanctions are inevitable.” Hu evidently didn’t even go that far. China opposes sanctions in principle as a means of resolving international disputes.
Moscow and Beijing do not subscribe to the negative depiction of Iran promoted by Washington, Tel Aviv, London, Paris and Bonn. They understand the situation to be far more complex than the U.S. and its allies publicly acknowledge.
The Iran question suddenly took center stage Sept. 25 during a week of hectic political activity. The White house set up a hastily arranged and theatrically produced press conference at the start of the G20 meeting in order to detonate a political bombshell intended to destroy Tehran’s contention that it is only interested in nuclear power, not nuclear weapons.
The conference opened with Obama standing at the microphone with French President Nicholas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown standing solemnly to his left and right. It was explained that German Chancellor Angela Merkel would have joined the trio but was delayed.
Obama then declared that Iran had for several years been secretly building an underground plant in mountainous terrain to manufacture nuclear fuel near the city of Qom about 100 miles from Tehran, in addition to the plant and facilities in Natanz already known to the world. He suggested the new plant was intended to produce weapons without the world’s knowledge.
Obama then charged that “Iran’s decision to build yet another nuclear facility without notifying the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] represents a direct challenge to the basic compact at the center of the non-proliferation regime… Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow… and threatening the stability and security of the region and the world.” Refusal to “come clean,” he said, “is going to lead to confrontation.”
Sarkozy and Brown followed Obama and seemed to go even further than the American leader in denouncing Iran, explicitly demanding harder sanctions. Said Brown: “The level of deception by the Iranian government, and the scale of what we believe is the breach of international commitments, will shock and anger the entire international community.”
The New York Times reported that “after months of talking about the need for engagement, Mr. Obama appears to have made a leap toward viewing tough new sanctions against Iran as an inevitability… American officials said that they expected the announcement to make it easier to build a case for international sanctions.”
The majority of House and Senate members have long been critical of Iran’s government and the new allegations have only substantiated their suspicions. Right wing Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the leading Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, declared: “The U.S. and other countries must immediately impose crippling sanctions on the Iranian regime, including cutting off Iran’s imports of gasoline. The world cannot stand by and watch the nightmare of a nuclear-armed Iran become reality.” Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated “now is the time to supplement engagement with more robust international sanctions.”
As intended, the hyped disclosure created headlines around the world. It probably convinced many Americans, already primed to detest Iran, that Tehran is building nuclear bombs to obliterate the U.S. and Israel. This is not an unlikely conclusion for many people to accept after 30 years of Washington’s incessant campaign to demonize the government that overthrew and replaced America’s puppet, the dreaded Shah of Iran. The U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Iran after this act of lèse majesté and the subsequent “hostage crisis,” and has nourished a grudge to this day.
If push does come to shove with Iran it is important to remember how effortless it was to hoodwink the majority of American politicians and the masses of people into backing a completely unnecessary war against Iraq. As in the buildup to the unjust invasion of Iraq, today’s U.S. corporate mass media is playing its principal part to perfection — uncritically echoing government distortions about the danger of Iran’s nonexistent nuclear weapons. The Iran situation is different, but yet similar in terms of mass public manipulation and the possibility of a future confrontation getting out of hand.
Can this be, once again, a situation of high-stakes geopolitics where things are not as they seem? We think so. Let’s look at the immediate charge against Iran, based on the “revelations” of the last week.
The “shocking” news may have been delivered with a sense of surprise and high urgency, but U.S. intelligence agencies, joined by their counterparts in some allied countries, were aware since 2006 that Iran was constructing a second uranium processing plant that still remains under construction and is not operational. According to a Sept. 26 article circulated by the McClatchy newspaper group quoting a U.S. intelligence official, “There was dialogue with allies from a very early point.”
Bush Administration Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnel first informed Obama about the facility soon after he won election. He has been kept up to date since then. Before going public with the information last week, the president saw to it that several other governments were told in advance, as was the IAEA and others.
Washington officials claimed Iran became aware “in late spring” that the U.S. was spying on the “secret” facility. They said Iran then informed the International Atomic Energy Agency Sept. 21 about the existence of its project, implying Tehran did so because its cover was blown. In a statement Sept. 24 the IAEA acknowledged that Tehran had informed them that a “pilot fuel enrichment plant is under construction in the country,” and that it “also understands from Iran that no nuclear material has been introduced into the facility.”
Iran insisted to the Vienna-based IAEA and the world that the enrichment plant under construction is designed only for fueling nuclear power installations. Soon after Obama’s G20 speech, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization declared the new “semi-industrial enrichment fuel facility” was “within the framework of International Atomic Energy Agency’s regulations.” Press reports said “The head of Iran’s nuclear program suggested UN inspectors would be allowed to visit the site.” The invitation was extended before Washington’s demand that it do so.
A quite unruffled Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared at a press conference in New York after Obama’s disclosures. He seemed to regard the American president’s allegations, and the staged manner in which they were delivered, not only the making of a mountain out of a molehill but an act of bad faith just before the talks are to begin, suggesting non-threateningly that Obama will come to regret his confrontational demeanor.
Ahmadinejad told the press that the plant in question wouldn’t be operational for 18 more months and that it did not violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). He went further and said nuclear weapons “are against humanity [and] they are inhumane,” comments in keeping with his recent calls for eliminating all nuclear weapons.
The Iranian leader also said that Iran informed the IAEA about the plant only a few days ago instead of when ground was broken because construction had reached the stage where it should be reported, not because it found out that a U.S. spy agency was watching.
What are we to make of this? First it must be understood there is a complex dispute over the IAEA’s safeguard provisions governing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Iran considers itself to be in total compliance with the NPT, and this appears to be true. Inter-Press Service reporter Jim Lobe wrote Sept. 25 that “Under the basic Safeguards Agreement of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of which Iran is a signatory, member states are required to declare their nuclear facilities and designs at least 180 days before introducing nuclear materials there.”
According to an article in the Sept. 26 New York Times by Neil MacFarquhar,
Tehran’s stance hinges on different interpretations of the agency’s regulations, said Graham Allison, the director of Harvard University’s Belfer Center and an Iran nuclear expert.
For two decades, the agency required Iran to report only when nuclear material [for uranium enrichment] was introduced to a facility. By 2003 it rescinded that, in line with the guidelines for most [but not all] countries, demanding reporting when construction began, Mr. Allison said. But the agency never declared Iran out of compliance when Tehran claimed the old agreement was still in place.
In talking to the press after Obama’s speech, Ahmadinejad said that the new facility would be completed in 18 months, so under Iran’s understanding of its responsibilities, its notification was a year in advance. The U.S. maintains that Iran informed the IAEA when it learned U.S. spy agencies had become aware of the plant, but if that were so, why did Teheran wait three months before contacting the nuclear agency?
“What we did was completely legal, according to the law,” the Iranian president said. “We have informed the agency, the agency will come and take a look and produce a report and it’s nothing new.” According to the Associated Press Teheran’s notice to the IAEA specified that the enrichment level would be up to 5%, suitable only for peaceful purposes. Weapons-grade material is more than 90% enriched.”
The AP also noted that the IAEA now “says Iran is obliged to make such a notification when it begins design of such facilities” and that “a government cannot unilaterally abandon such an agreement.” This is confusing, of course. But since Iran was never designated as noncompliant and was allowed to proceed under the previous rules after it registered its rejection, the thunderous criticism emanating from the U.S., Britain and France appears to have no merit.
Behind the allegations
There’s obviously more than meets the eye to unproven allegations of late September from the U.S. and its allies that Iran’s nuclear program is really intended to result in the clandestine production of nuclear weapons, presumably to attack other countries.
As we proceed with our analysis, here are a few things that should be kept in mind.
- So far there is absolutely no evidence Iran is going to “weaponize” its nuclear power program and build atomic bombs. So far it has been abiding by the NPT, has pledged not to produce nuclear weapons, is under very close scrutiny by the IAEA, and obviously its program is the target of intensive surveillance by the United States. There is no secret way in which it can construct nuclear weapons under such circumstances.
- Israel possesses an arsenal of up to 200 nuclear weapons and thumbs its nose at the IAEA and the NPT, with which it is notoriously noncompliant. If President Obama must sternly castigate Iran, which does not have nuclear weapons, for “breaking rules that all nations must follow… and threatening the stability and security of the region and the world,” why does he protect Israel from international sanction and subsidize its military machine? Pakistan and India are also noncompliant, but they too are allies of Washington and thus have been granted immunity.
- In this connection it must be noted that the far right wing Tel Aviv government appears to be on the verge of launching an attack on Iran and has made this well known to the world. But it receives no censure for such threats from the U.S. and its European allies, or for the horror it inflicted on Gaza a few months ago. Imagine the outcry if Iran threatened to attack Israel, or its army entered the territory of a neighboring society and inflicted terrible cruelties largely upon its civilian population for not submitting to national oppression.
And yet Tel Aviv calls Iran an “existential” threat despite Israel’s nuclear weapons, it’s superior military force and its support from the entire American military apparatus, including 2,600 strategic nuclear warheads on hair-trigger readiness. But as we’ve noted before, the only concrete threat to Israel’s existence would be if the U.S. government withdrew its political, military and financial support.
- Washington’s geopolitical interests are key to America’s relationship to Iran and the Middle East in general. The U.S. desires to control — or at minimum to keep out of “unfriendly” hands — the immense oil reserves possessed by Iran and neighboring Iraq. It fears a future alliance between these resource rich developing countries, who also happen to be the only two nations in the world governed by Shi’ite Muslims.
The U.S. invaded to overthrow the “unfriendly,” Sunni-backed Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein. But it can neither rely totally on its selected successor regime in Baghdad, nor has it yet been able to remove the theocratic government in Tehran, which is conservative domestically but puts forward an anti-imperialist foreign policy that drives the world’s remaining superpower to distraction.
Washington’s objective at the talks beginning Oct. 1 is to coerce Iran to accept extremely intrusive controls on its nuclear development, combining dire threats for refusal with small rewards for agreement. The Tehran government said it will reject demands that it halt uranium enrichment, a main concern of the five members of the Security Council plus Germany, but indicated without elaboration that “Iran is ready to… help ease joint international concerns over the nuclear issue.”
(Enriched uranium is required to power nuclear plants for civilian uses. Much greatly enriched uranium is required for weapons.)
Washington wants to confine the seven-party discussions to Tehran’s nuclear project, but the Iranian government put forward its own proposal in early September for “comprehensive, all-encompassing and constructive negotiations.” The U.S. rejected the proposal, but accepted it with seeming reluctance the next day. (We don’t know what happened to change things.)
The Iranian suggestions include hastening global nuclear disarmament, ending nuclear proliferation and working toward world peace. Theoretically, Washington agrees with these goals, but doesn’t really want to discuss them with Iran.
The White House knows that in a broader discussion of nonproliferation issues Iran would draw attention to the three U.S. allies presently defying the NPT and getting away with it, and also show that the U.S. itself is noncompliant because it was supposed to have made more progress by now in reducing the Pentagon’s nuclear arsenal.
Further, the U.S. will hardly discuss an Iranian proposal for a comprehensive agreement to achieve “global peace and security based on justice” that includes an inquiry into America’s aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Israel’s astonishingly disproportionate violence against Gaza and Lebanon.
The Obama Administration wants at minimum to impose stringent sanctions on Iran if no progress is made to its satisfaction in the next few months as demanded by U.S. neoconservatives, the right wing in general and those influenced by AIPAC, which describes itself as “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby.”
One reason for harsh sanctions would be to hasten the downfall of the Ahmadinejad government, if possible, by creating a serious economic crisis, unemployment, and suffering to exacerbate existing social tensions within the Islamic Republic. The last time Washington engaged in deep sanctions was from 1991-2003 when it has been verified that over a million Iraqis, including a huge number of children, died from various deprivations from hunger to unclean drinking water.
If sanctions are the minimum, the maximum response would be unleashing Israel to attack Iran — an action that would backfire as surely as there is water in the Hudson River.
After his Pittsburgh speech Obama told the press he wasn’t “taking any options off the table,” a phrase he has used a number of times in relation to Iran. It means war remains an option for the U.S., even over the relatively petty issue of an empty building still under construction that’s probably intended to produce energy, not violence.
This same statement was a favorite of Bush II as well, and he used it repeatedly in relation to Iran. In April 2006, at a time when Dick Cheney, the neoconservatives and their supporters were pushing hard for war against Iran, the BBC reported that “Bush says all options, including the use of force, are on the table.” As they say, the more things change…
Although some in Washington are hopeful that Ahmadinejad will be weakened in the nuclear talks because of opposition claims that he “stole” the June 12 election in Iran, we don’t believe this is a factor. So far, more than three and a half months later, there has not been any concrete evidence to support the opposition allegations of electoral fraud.
While the U.S. mass media depicts Ahmadinejad as being under virtual siege from a majority of Iranians, other information shows this is exaggerated. Inter-Press Service reported the following Sept. 19 in an article by Jim Lobe headlined, “New Poll Finds Strong Domestic Support for Iran Regime.”:
A new survey of Iranian public opinion released here [today] suggests majority domestic support for both him [Ahmadinejad] and the country’s basic governing institutions. Four out of five of the 1,003 Iranian respondents interviewed in the survey released by WorldPublicOpinion.org, a project of the highly respected Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) of the University of Maryland, said they considered Ahmadinejad to be the legitimate president of Iran.
Sixty-two percent of respondents said they had ‘a lot of confidence’ in the declared election results, which gave Ahmadinejad 62.6% of the vote within hours of the polls’ closing Jun. 12 and which were swiftly endorsed by the Islamic Republic’s Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Three of four respondents said Khamenei had reacted correctly in his endorsement.
No mass demonstrations have taken place from early August until Sept. 18, when thousands of protestors marched in Tehran in an attempt to rival much larger government-sponsored annual rallies in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle on what is called “Jerusalem Day” in Iran. Coming just two weeks before the opening of the nuclear talks, it was obviously intended to convey the impression internationally that Ahmadinejad did not really represent the will of the Iranian people. Police handled the dissenters with kid gloves.
A number of the demonstrators and signs seemed to oppose the Tehran government’s support for the Palestinians as well as Ahmadinejad’s re-election. The Economist reported chants of “Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, I’ll only give my life for Iran,” although Jerusalem Day observances never suggested Iranians should give their lives for either Gaza or Lebanon, both of which have been targets of Israeli military aggression. There were also chants of “Death to Russia” and “Death to China,” evidently a reference to their refusal to join the U.S. and Israel in denunciations of the Tehran government.
In a speech that day, Ahmadinejad in effect pulled the rug from under his own feet in terms of international opinion by once again charging that the Holocaust was a “lie.” Wisely, the Iranian leader did not repeat the preposterous allegation during his 35 minute speech to the UN General Assembly in New York Sept. 23. He mainly discussed building durable world peace and “elimination of all nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons to pave the way for all nations to have access to advanced and peaceful technology.”
He criticized the U.S. and Israel, but seemed somewhat subdued. According to Sarah Wheaton in the New York Times blog that evening, he “said the United States was aiding Israel in ‘racist ambitions,’ called Israel’s attack on Gaza in December ‘barbaric’ and said the economic blockade of Palestinians amounts to ‘genocide’” — comments that provoked the U.S. and 10 other delegations to walk out. Israel didn’t attend in the first place.
Soon after Ahmadinejad’s speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the General Assembly that “The most urgent challenge facing this body is to prevent the tyrants of Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” and urged the delegates to oppose Iranian “barbarism.”
Back in Israel Sept. 26, according to an AP dispatch from Jerusalem,
Netanyahu spoke with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a number of unidentified U.S. senators and told them that now is the time to act on Iran. Israel maintains the Islamic republic is seeking nuclear weapons.‘If not now then when?’ the official quoted Netanyahu as saying. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak with the media. He did not disclose what kind of action Netanyahu recommended be taken.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said earlier in the day that the Iranian nuclear facility proves ‘without a doubt’ the Islamic republic is pursuing nuclear weapons. ‘This removes the dispute whether Iran is developing military nuclear power or not and therefore the world powers need to draw conclusions,’ Lieberman told Israel Radio. ‘Without a doubt it is a reactor for military purposes not peaceful purposes.’
[Jack A. Smith was editor of the Guardian — for decades the nation’s preeminent leftist newsweekly — that closed shop in 1992. Smith now edits the Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter, where this article also appears.]