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The Iran Agenda: The Historical Truth of Our Relations with Iran

In this excerpt from his new book, <i>The Iran Agenda</i>, veteran independent journalist Reese Erlich challenges the conventional wisdom on Iran's nuclear ambitions.
 
 
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United States Tells Iran: Become a Nuclear Power

Top Democratic and Republican leaders absolutely believe that Iran is planning to develop nuclear weapons. And one of their seemingly strongest arguments involves a process of deduction. Since Iran has so much oil, they argue, why develop nuclear power?

James Woolsey typifies the view. The director of the CIA under both George Bush (the elder) and Bill Clinton said, "There is no underlying reason for one of the greatest oil producers in the world to need to get into the nuclear [energy] business ... unless what they want to do is train and produce people and an infrastructure that can have highly enriched uranium or plutonium, fissionable material for nuclear weapons."

In an op-ed commentary, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger wrote, "For a major oil producer such as Iran, nuclear energy is a wasteful use of resources," a position later cited approvingly by the Bush administration.

But U.S. leaders are engaging in a massive case of collective amnesia, or perhaps more accurately, intentional misdirection. In the 1970s the United States encouraged Iran to develop nuclear power precisely because Iran will eventually run out of oil.

A declassified document from President Gerald Ford's administration, for which Kissinger was secretary of state, supported Iran's push for nuclear power. The document noted that Tehran should "prepare against the time -- about 15 years in the future -- when Iranian oil production is expected to decline sharply."

The United States ultimately planned to sell billions of dollars' worth of nuclear reactors, spare parts, and nuclear fuel to Iran. Muhammad Sahimi, a professor and former department chair of the Chemical and Petroleum Engineering Department at the University of Southern California, told me that Kissinger thought "it was in the U.S. national interest, both economic and security interest, to have such close relations in terms of nuclear power."

The shah even periodically hinted that he wanted Iran to build nuclear weapons. In June 1974, the shah proclaimed that Iran would have nuclear weapons "without a doubt and sooner than one would think." Iranian embassy officials in France later denied the shah made those remarks, and the shah disowned them. But a few months later, the shah noted that Iran "has no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons but if small states began building them, then Iran might have to reconsider its policy."

If an Iranian leader made such statements today, the United States and Israel would denounce them as proof of nefarious intent. They might well threaten military action if Iran didn't immediately halt its nuclear buildup. At the time, however, the comments caused no ripples in Washington or Tel Aviv because the shah was a staunch ally of both. Asked to comment on his contradictory views then and now, Kissinger said, "They were an allied country, and this was a commercial transaction. We didn't address the question of them one day moving toward nuclear weapons."

Kissinger should have added that consistency has never been a strong point of U.S. foreign policy.

Nukes and Party-Mad Dictators

To fully understand the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy, we must travel back to the era of bell-bottoms, funny-looking polyester shirts, and party-mad dictators.

In the early 1970s, Iran's repressive dictator was perhaps most famous for his prodigious partying. In October 1971, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian empire with a lavish, three-day party on the site of the ancient city of Persepolis. Luminaries such as Vice President Spiro Agnew, Britain's Prince Philip, and Ethiopian dictator Haile Selassie consumed twenty-five thousand bottles of French wine, five thousand bottles of champagne, and massive quantities of caviar flown in by Maxim's of Paris. Iran's per capita income was only $350 per year; the party cost an estimated $100 million. The excesses of the party helped fuel anger against the shah at home and abroad.

But in those days, successive U.S. presidential administrations were tickled pink with the shah's regime. As far as the United States was concerned, the shah had a stable government that was modernizing an economically and religiously backward society. True, he ran a brutal dictatorship unconstrained by elections or an independent judiciary. The National Security and Intelligence Organization (SAVAK), his secret police, was infamous for torturing and murdering political dissidents. But the shah made sure that Iran provided a steady supply of petroleum to U.S. and other Western oil companies. He had his own regional ambitions and also acted as a gendarme for the United States.

Need an ally for Israel in the surrounding Arab world? The shah entered into military and intelligence agreements with the Israelis starting in 1958. Got a rebellion in the Gulf state of Oman? In the early 1970s, the shah sent three thousand troops to put down the leftist rebels and to ensure the region's oil fields remained safe for him and the United States. Iran became America's single biggest arms buyer. It bought $18.1 billion worth of U.S. arms from 1950 to 1977.

U.S. anticommunist diplomacy, military expansion, and business profit all melded together nicely. And that's where nuclear power comes in.

Beginning in the late 1960s, the shah began to worry about Iran's long-term electric energy supplies. Iran had fewer than five hundred thousand electricity consumers in 1963, but those numbers swelled to over two million in 1976. The shah worried that Iran's oil deposits would eventually run out and that burning petroleum for electricity would waste an important resource. He could earn far more exporting oil than using it for power generation.

Hermidas Bavand, second in command of Iran's Mission to the United Nations under the shah and now a professor of international law at Allameh Tabatabaee University in Tehran, told me that the position of the shah on nuclear power was almost identical to that of the current Iranian government. Back then, proponents of nuclear power said Iran had to prepare for the day when the oil runs out. Secondly, said Bavand, "Iran had to keep up with scientific and technological" progress in the world. And Iran craved international prestige. Bavand said, "Many countries -- Brazil, Argentina, Israel -- were developing nuclear energy. So they thought that Iran should have nuclear power" as well.

Successive Republican and Democratic administrations in the United States backed the shah's elaborate plans to make nuclear power an integral part of Iran's electrical grid, in no small part because he would buy a lot of his nuclear equipment from the USA.

The United States established Iran's first research reactor in 1967 at the University of Tehran. In November of that year, the U.S. corporation United Nuclear provided Iran with 5.85 kilograms of 93 percent enriched uranium.

By the 1970s, nuclear power was becoming increasingly unpopular in the United States and around the world, as hundreds of thousands of people marched and blockaded nuclear facilities. Even before the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters, the antinuclear movement pointed out that many reactors were unsafe. In addition, the industry had no long-term, secure method for transporting and storing nuclear waste produced at the reactors. Massive demonstrations and rising costs meant U.S. nuclear power companies were having a hard time getting permits to build reactors. Eventually, the permitting process stopped altogether.

Permits never seemed to be a problem in Iran, however. In 1974, Richard Helms, then U.S. Ambassador to Iran and later head of the CIA, wrote to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, "We have noted the priority that His Imperial Majesty gives to developing alternative means of energy production through nuclear power. This is clearly an area in which we might most usefully begin on a specific program of cooperation and collaboration."

Helms went on to write, "The Secretary [of State Henry Kissinger] has asked me to underline emphatically the seriousness of our purpose and our desire to move forward vigorously in appropriate ways."

General Electric and Westinghouse ultimately won contracts to build eight reactors in Iran. By the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979, the shah had plans to buy a total of eighteen nuclear power reactors from the United States, France, and Germany.

Evidence has emerged since the 1979 Iranian revolution that the shah did more than make embarrassing public references to building nuclear weapons. Documents show that Israel and Iran had discussed modification of Israel's Jericho missiles, which could have been fitted with nuclear warheads. A research report from the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an organization founded by conservative Democrat and former senator Sam Nunn, explained that the shah was suspected of experimenting with nuclear weapons design, plutonium extraction and laser-enrichment research.

Nuclear expert Sahimi argued that presidents Nixon and Ford "would not have minded if the shah developed the Bomb because the shah was a close ally of the United States. Remember, Iran had a long border with the Soviet Union. If the shah did make a nuclear bomb, that would have been a big deterrent against the USSR."

Neither Sahimi nor other experts say the shah had actually developed a nuclear bomb. But the United States denounces the current Iranian government for activity at least as suspicious as that carried out by the shah.

Since the United States wasn't terribly concerned about an Iranian Bomb in the 1970s, it also wasn't worried about Iran's enriching its own uranium. The United States gave approval when the shah bought a 25 percent stake in a French company making enriched uranium. But the shah wanted to build enrichment facilities inside Iran, as well. No country wants to be reliant on others for fuel whose absence could shut down a portion of its electricity grid. The United States actually encouraged Iran to enrich its own uranium.

Today when Iran demands that it be able to enrich uranium for nuclear power purposes, under strict international supervision, the United States says that's proof Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the Consummate Inspector

Mohamed ElBaradei looks every inch the international diplomat. The Egyptian keeps his shoes shined and suits sharply pressed. Glasses and a balding pate give him the look of authority. Indeed, he has steered the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) through very troubled waters in recent years. Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, ElBaradei correctly said Saddam Hussein did not have a nuclear weapons program. In retaliation, the Bush administration tried to block his reelection to head the IAEA. ElBaradei gathered widespread international support, however, and beat back administration efforts. He won reelection to his post at the end of 2005.

Oh, and did I mention that he and the IAEA won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005?

I was on the phone from Oakland when ElBaradei entered the radio studio at the UN headquarters in New York to be interviewed by Walter Cronkite for a radio documentary I was producing about nuclear weapons. I was surprised that ElBaradei expressed an almost teenage giddiness about being in the presence of Cronkite.

"It is an honor to be here with you, Mr. Cronkite. I watched your news broadcasts for many years as a young man."

There was something special about listening to these two eminent authorities in their fields. Cronkite had long reported on nuclear issues and was very concerned about nuclear weapons proliferation. When Cronkite asked ElBaradei about Iran, the answer was succinct.

"Some people suspect [the Iranians] have the intention to develop a nuclear weapon," said ElBaradei. "This is a matter of concern to us. But this is not [an] imminent threat."

ElBaradei, unlike successive U.S. administrations, bases his conclusions on facts unearthed through analysis of data and on-the-ground inspections. As a signer of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran followed the treaty requirements to allow IAEA inspectors into its nuclear facilities. ElBaradei has criticized the Iranian government for lack of transparency and restricting some access in recent years. But ElBaradei has never accused Iran of planning to make a nuclear weapon.

So if the guy in charge of inspecting nuclear sites says he has no proof Iran is developing the Bomb, why are so many people in the United States convinced that it is? For that understanding, we'll have to go back to the years just after the Iranian revolution of 1979.

Is Nuclear Power Islamic?

Shortly after coming to power, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini scrapped the shah's nuclear power programs as un-Islamic. In fact, he called nuclear power "the work of the devil."

Not coincidentally, the United States and Europeans had completely halted their devil's work in Iran. Germany had stopped construction on the Bushehr nuclear reactor. The United States, Germany, and France had cut off supplies of equipment and nuclear material. All three governments had refused to refund any money already paid, despite cancellation of the nuclear contracts. So while Koranic scholars might disagree on whether nuclear power was consistent with Islam, as a practical matter, Iran wasn't getting any.

Starting in 1980, Iran fought a bloody war with Iraq. Each side feared the other might develop nuclear weapons. Iraq repeatedly bombed Iran's unfinished nuclear facilities, further setting back any possibility of completing them.

By the end of the war in 1988, Iran was in the midst of a population explosion. Iran's population grew from 39.2 million in 1980 to 68.7 million in 2006. Iran's energy planners could see that demand would far outstrip supply. Continuing to extract oil and natural gas at the projected levels wouldn't be enough to guarantee a steady supply of electricity. An analysis by a National Academy of Sciences scientist predicted Iran could run out of oil to export by 2015.

So nuclear power was back on the table. In 1989 Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani signed a ten-point agreement with the USSR to provide nuclear materials and related equipment. The Soviets were to finish the Bushehr reactor started by the Germans in the 1970s. In 1990 Iran signed a ten-year nuclear cooperation agreement with China.

Although it was kept secret at the time, Iran also bought parts and technology from A. Q. Khan, Pakistan's so-called father of the atomic bomb, who also had nuclear dealings with Libya and North Korea. Iran built a secret nuclear facility in the central Iranian city of Natanz. Later, after three years of inspections, the IAEA also determined that Iran had used lasers to purify uranium starting in 1991 and had researched a rare element called polonium-210, which could be used in a nuclear bomb trigger.

The Iranians argued that they had engaged in the secret activity to prevent the United States from stopping their plans for nuclear power development and that they had no intention of developing nuclear weapons.

Discussing the issue of secrecy, Sahimi told me, "Let's say Iran had announced back in 1985 that 'Hey guys, we want to make a uranium enrichment facility.' What do you think would have happened? Would the U.S. and [European Union] have rushed to help Iran? No, they would have done everything in their power to deny Iran's rights."

In 2003 Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa, an official religious ruling, that declared Islam forbids the building or stockpiling of nuclear weapons. Before dismissing such a ruling as propaganda, it's worth noting that similar religious reasoning stopped Iran from using chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War, despite Saddam Hussein's numerous chemical assaults against Iranian troops and civilians.

Enriching Uranium -- a Tough Rock to Crack

The United States asserts that Iran's desire to enrich uranium demonstrates its desire to develop nuclear weapons. So what is enrichment anyway?

Raw uranium must go through a process to raise the concentration of the isotope U-235 in order to either produce fuel for a nuclear reactor or make a nuclear bomb. Despite twenty years of off-and-on attempts, Iran has yet to perfect the process on any industrial scale.

Iran does have a limited amount of domestic uranium. First, the ore would have to be milled and subjected to an acid bath to leech out the uranium. The resulting yellowish ore is called yellow cake. Then it's combined with fluorine to produce uranium hexafluoride, or UF6.

Then the process gets really hairy. The uranium hexafluoride must pass through a series of hundreds of spinning centrifuges. Imagine a bunch of pipes and whirling motors passing the liquid through cascading cylinders like a water filtration system.

The cascades can produce 5 percent enriched U-235 for use in nuclear power plants. Iran would have to make 93 percent enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb but can do so using the same technical process. By the summer of 2007, Iran had installed 1300 centrifuges. But it needs an estimated 3000 centrifuges running flawlessly for a year to make one nuclear bomb.

And getting those centrifuge cascades to work properly is a big technical challenge, according to experts. The centrifuges "spin 60,000 rounds per minute," said Sahimi. "They generate a lot of vibrations, which must be controlled. The centrifuges can't be contaminated because they are easily corroded. Once the centrifuges start working, it's not wise to shut them down and start them again. This damages them. There are all sorts of technical problems."

In August 2006 the IAEA reported that Iran had to slow down its enrichment activities, perhaps due to technical difficulties with the centrifuges. ElBaradei said in October 2006, that even with all of Iran's centrifuges running, it would take years to enrich enough uranium to make a single Bomb.

Iran Is Just Five to Ten Years from Making a Bomb, Really

Every few years U.S. intelligence officials estimate Iran is just years from making a Bomb. In 1995, a "senior U.S. official" estimated Iran was five years from making the Bomb. A 2005 National Intelligence Estimate, representing a consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies, predicted Iran could have the Bomb somewhere around 2015. In early 2006 Israeli intelligence, on the other hand, argued that Iran is much closer to having a Bomb, perhaps one to three years away. In citing such estimates, the U.S. media don't provide any corroboration nor explain why the Israeli assessment differs so widely from the CIA's and IAEA's. Indeed, Israel keeps postponing its estimates of when Iran will have the Bomb. At the end of 2006, Meir Dagan, head of the Mossad intelligence agency, claimed Iran could have a Bomb by 2009 or 2010.

Israel's estimates are clearly influenced by its political and military goals. Using President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's statements attacking Israel and questioning the existence of the Holocaust, Israel proclaims Iran an immediate military threat. In reality, Ahmadinejad poses no offensive nuclear threat to Israel. Iran would be insane to launch a first strike against the militarily far superior Israel, let alone a nuclear strike with an arsenal of one or two bombs. Such an action would give the United States and Israel a political excuse to wreck havoc on Iran and gain lots of international support.

But Israel does have a vested interest in creating anxiety around a possible Iranian Bomb. While Iran has no ability to wipe Israel off the map, it does support the Palestinian group Hamas and the Lebanese political party and guerrilla group Hizbollah. Iran gives them political, financial, and military backing. Israel doesn't want to suffer another defeat like its 2006 war against Hizbollah. So rather than give up occupied territory and agree to establishing a Palestinian state, Israeli leaders blame outsiders. Israel seeks to weaken or, preferably, overthrow Iran's government.

Israeli officials, along with U.S. hawks, argue that Iran will soon reach "a point of no return," in which it will have both the theoretical knowledge and the practical ability to create weapons-grade plutonium. After that point, the hawks argue, Iran must be confronted militarily. The advantage of this argument, of course, is that it's all hypothetical. The Iranians cross this point of no return at whatever time the hawks allege. Who can prove otherwise?

In the spring of 2006, Bush seemed to echo those sentiments, justifying a military attack by setting the bar impossibly high for Iran. "The world is united and concerned about [Iranians'] desire to have not only a nuclear weapon, but the capacity to make a nuclear weapon or the knowledge as to how to make a nuclear weapon" (emphasis added), Bush said in an April 2006 press conference. No one can possibly prove what knowledge scientists might have in their brains. But according to Bush's logic, Iran is a dangerous enemy so long as its scientists might, at some time in the future, think about building a Bomb.

On July 31, 2006, the United States rounded up European powers, and got China and Russia to acquiesce, to pass UN Security Council Resolution 1696. The resolution demanded that Iran stop "all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities." (Reprocessing involves removing highly radioactive plutonium from nuclear waste products, a procedure that can lead to production of bomb-grade fuel.) A month later, in a report not released to the public, IAEA Director ElBaradei indicated that Iran was not reprocessing uranium.

ElBaradei criticized Iran, however, for continued attempts at uranium enrichment. "Iran has not addressed the long outstanding verification issues or provided the necessary transparency to remove uncertainties associated with some of its activities," wrote ElBaradei.

An IAEA official told the New York Times , "the qualitative and quantitative development of Iran's enrichment program continues to be fairly limited."

The IAEA report was hardly a smoking gun. But the Bush administration huffed and puffed that Iran's failure to uphold the Security Council resolution meant the world should impose more sanctions. On March 24, 2007, the UN Security Council voted to impose another round of sanctions, prohibiting the sale of Iranian weapons to other countries and freezing the overseas assets of more Iranian individuals and organizations.

The United States failed to get any backing for military attacks on Iran to enforce the sanctions. The March resolution even restated the UN position that the Middle East region should be nuclear free, a criticism of Israel's large nuclear arsenal.

U.S. officials told the New York Times that the new sanctions went beyond the nuclear issue. "The new language was written to rein in what [U.S. officials] see as Tehran's ambitions to become the dominant military power in the Persian Gulf and across the Middle East."

Apparently, no one can hold that job except the United States.

No Nukes? Not Enough

The real dispute between the United States and Iran has little to do with Iran's ability to develop nuclear weapons. The Bush administration declared Iran to be part of the "axis of evil" and has been pursuing a policy of "regime change," a euphemism for the U.S. overthrow of an internationally recognized government. The United States has adopted different tactical positions, sometimes calling for a tightening of sanctions, other times threatening military strikes. But the long-term goal is installation of a friendly regime.

The American people now know that the Bush administration lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003. But back then, the threat of WMDs served as a powerful argument to convince Americans of the need for regime change. The phony nuclear weapons issue plays precisely the same role in U.S. plans for Iran.

Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei said the United States "has used nuclear energy as an excuse. If Iran quits now, the case will not be over. The Americans will find another excuse."

Let's say Iran stopped all nuclear programs tomorrow and that was verified by international inspectors. The United States could start a new campaign based on its current claim that Iran is "the most active sponsor of state terrorism" in the world. Iran could give terrorist groups chemical weapons. Iran has missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv and U.S. military bases in the Middle East. Iran presents an immediate danger because of its support for terrorism. Time for regime change.

Is Iran currently developing nuclear weapons? No. Could it do so sometime in the future? Sure. According to ElBaradei, some forty-nine countries "now know how to make nuclear arms," including Japan, South Korea, and other U.S. allies. Neither the United States nor the UN Security Council can militarily prevent each of those countries from making a Bomb, said ElBaradei. "We are relying primarily on the continued good intentions of these countries, intentions which are in turn based on their sense of security."

The only way to ensure Iran doesn't make nuclear weapons is to devise a political, not a military, solution. If the people of Iran have a government that truly represents them, and the United States ceases its hostility and negotiates in good faith, Iran won't see a need to develop nuclear weapons.

So What Would You Do?

When I speak at college campuses and before community groups, someone inevitably asks me a legitimate question: "OK, U.S. policy toward Iran's nuclear program is wrong. If you were president, what would you do?" Glad you asked.

First, no more demonizing Iran. I would apologize for years of U.S. aggression against Iran. I would offer to return the billions of dollars in illegally frozen Iranian assets now held by the United States, lift all existing sanctions against Iran, and offer to restore full diplomatic relations. That would get Iran's attention. More important, it would set the basis for easing tensions on issues such as nuclear weapons.

I would announce plans to reduce the unconscionable number of nuclear weapons maintained by the United States in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Most Americans have no idea that the Non-Proliferation Treaty not only limits other states from obtaining nuclear weapons but also requires disarmament by the existing nuclear states, including the United States.

Then I would do something neither side expects. I would tell them we will phase out our nuclear power reactors for safety reasons and because we can't safely store nuclear waste. Nuclear power plants in the United States aren't even hardened against an airplane crash, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission refuses to require it.

Then I would suggest that Iran not develop nuclear power. Nuclear reactors and their tons of radioactive waste are disasters waiting to happen. Iran is already planning to have 20 percent of its electricity supplied by hydropower by 2021. Iran has the potential to develop a lot more wind and geothermal power as well. In the meantime Iran could harness its tremendous natural gas resources as a relatively efficient source of electricity generation.

I don't know how Iranian leaders would react. These suggestions would certainly spark a lot of discussion among Iranians, a debate now largely nonexistent. Journalist and opposition leader Akbar Ganji is one of the few Iranians I met concerned about the safety of nuclear plants. "I am very worried that something like Chernobyl will happen to Iran," he told me. "If that happens, the Iranian people will pay the heaviest price."

I would like to see Ganji's views prevail. But if, after a genuine debate, Iranians decided they wanted nuclear power, so be it.

The IAEA has procedures that allow countries to develop nuclear power, subject to strict international inspection. On March 23, 2005, Iran offered a plan to Britain, France, and Germany that would have allowed Iran to develop nuclear power and engage in uranium enrichment. Iran agreed not to reprocess nuclear fuel, to produce only low-enriched uranium, to limit the number of centrifuges, and to guarantee on-site inspections by the IAEA. That proposal could serve as the basis for honest negotiations.

Should the world simply trust Iran's leaders? No. We don't have to assume good faith. The IAEA is quite capable of detecting NPT violations, because radioactive particles inevitably show up in water and soil. Over a period of time, and allowed full access, the IAEA can detect illegal nuclear activity. Since even U.S. intelligence agencies agree Iran is many years from building a Bomb, why not allow the IAEA to do its job?

In the long run, the people of Iran must change their government and revisit the nuclear power issue. I hope they choose to develop safer forms of energy. But that's a decision to be made by the people of Iran, not rulers in Washington.

Reese Erlich is a foreign correspondent who writes regularly for the Dallas Morning News, CBC Radio, and ABC Radio (Australia).

 
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