Myths, falsehoods and misrepresentations about Iran

Chapter seven of ‘A Dangerous Delusion: why the west is wrong about nuclear Iran’ by Peter Oborne and David Morrison, takes up the basic facts in the public domain regarding Iranian possession and planning for nuclear weapons which mainstream media ignore, and asks why they do this. 

Iranian presidential candidate and chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili. Demotix/Hanif Shoaei. All rights reserved.Iranian presidential candidate and chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili. Demotix/Hanif Shoaei. All rights reserved.

At this point it may be helpful to state the basic facts about Iran’s nuclear activities:

• Iran has no nuclear weapons.

 

• Since 2007, US intelligence has held the opinion that Iran hasn’t got a programme to develop nuclear weapons and has regularly stated this opinion in public to the US Congress.

 

• The IAEA does not assert that Iran has an ongoing nuclear weapons programme.

 

• Iran does have uranium-enrichment facilities. But as a party to the NPT, Iran has a right to engage in uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes. Other parties to the NPT, for example, Argentina and Brazil, do so. Iran is not in breach of any of its obligations under the NPT.

 

• As required by the NPT, Iran’s enrichment facilities are open to inspection by the IAEA, as are its other nuclear facilities. Over many years, the IAEA has verified that no nuclear material has been diverted from these facilities for possible military purposes. Iran is enriching uranium up to 5% U-235, which is appropriate for fuelling nuclear power reactors for generating electricity, and up to 20% U-235, which is required for fuelling the Tehran Research Reactor.

 

• While Iran’s nuclear facilities are open to IAEA inspection, those of Israel and India (allies of the United States) are almost entirely closed to the IAEA. Yet Iran, which has no nuclear weapons, is the object of ferocious economic sanctions and threats of military action. By contrast, Israel (with perhaps as many as 400 nuclear bombs, and the capacity to deliver them anywhere in the Middle East) is the object of more than $3 billion a year of US military aid.

 

These are basic facts about Iran’s nuclear activities, facts that are (if you search for them) in the public domain. Yet the mainstream media in Britain rarely mentions any of them. As a result, almost all of its reporting is misleading, and some of it completely false.

A significant portion of the media just carries on its merry way as if these facts do not exist. It asserts, for example, that Iran already possesses nuclear weapons or has an active programme to develop them.

The BBC, the British state-owned broadcaster, has been guilty of this. On 15 February 2012, its flagship Ten O’Clock News began a report on Iran’s nuclear activities by stating that ‘Iran has announced new developments in its nuclear weapons programme’. This report simply took it for granted that Iran possessed a nuclear weapons programme.

Here is another example. The Times carried an article on 20 February 2012, entitled ‘Defiant Iran cuts off oil to Britain and France’, which reported that ‘UN nuclear inspectors [are] due in the country today to gather evidence of Iran’s illicit atomic weapons programme’. It went on to refer to ‘Tehran’s atomic weaponry’, giving readers the false impression that Iran’s programme had already borne fruit.

As a result, the newspaper’s leading article the following day read like propaganda rather than evidence-backed analysis: ‘It should be beyond doubt at this stage that Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon. Protestations of a desire only for a civilian nuclear capacity have always rung hollow in the fourth-largest oil producer in the world, and lately even Iranian spokesmen seem incapable of delivering them without an accompanying smirk.’

Here is a third example, this time from Sir Max Hastings, the influential journalist and military historian. ‘The issue,’ wrote Sir Max, ‘of whether Iran’s march towards ownership of nuclear weapons should be reluctantly accepted or halted by force is one of the most difficult and divisive of our times.’ Sir Max is here accepting without question or examination two propositions for which there is no serious evidence. First, that Iran is hell-bent on the acquisition of nuclear weapons and, second, that the only way to prevent this is through force. Sir Max’s cheerful and freewheeling ignorance of the very serious subject he is discussing leads him to airily dismiss the possibility of a peaceful resolution of the Iranian nuclear argument.

In February 2012, The Economist referred to ‘Iran’s nukes’ in an article about Hillary Clinton’s achievements as Secretary of State: ‘She may not have brought peace to the Middle East, dealt with Iran’s nukes or permanently reset relations with Russia, but Mrs Clinton can be said to have changed the State Department itself for the better.’ The fact that what is normally such a measured, sceptical and authoritative magazine can casually talk of Iran as if it already possessed nuclear weapons highlights the extent to which Iran’s presumed guilt is embedded in British and American public discourse.

However, falsehoods such as these are not the only problem with mainstream media accounts. Commentators and others often omit the basic facts and by so doing foster the impression that Iran’s nuclear activities are suspect, and that it is difficult to conceive of a purpose for them other than nuclear weapons development.

It then follows that the concerns about these activities expressed by the west, and by Israel, are justified and, if these valid concerns cannot be laid to rest, then ultimately military action to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, particularly its uranium-enrichment facilities, would also be justified.

In this way, the general media narrative has continually added weight to the proposition that Iran’s nuclear ambitions must be curbed, enhancing the case for ever-harsher economic sanctions and, if that fails to do the job, for military action. In this, the mainstream media is behaving as it did in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when, instead of questioning every aspect of the case for military action, it became a cheerleader for war.

Meanwhile, that same mainstream media – so assiduous in presenting the American and Israeli case against Iran – is woefully negligent in presenting the Iranian point of view. As a redress to this, we present in the Appendix Ayatollah Khamenei’s eloquent ruminations on nuclear weapons to the conference of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran in August 2012.

The mainstream media also persists in presenting Iran as embattled and isolated. This is a parochial view. Iran currently holds the presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement and 120 states were represented at this conference, 24 by presidents, 3 by kings, 8 by prime ministers and 50 by foreign ministers, despite pressure from the US and its allies to discourage attendance. In all, more than 7,000 delegates (and the UN Secretary General) were present. The isolation of Iran is greatly exaggerated.

The Appendix also contains the section dealing with nuclear issues from the Tehran Declaration, which was endorsed by the conference. It emphatically supports the Iranian position.

IAEA Director General’s report of November 2011

The mainstream media often suggests that the IAEA Director General’s report of November 2011 provides evidence that Iran has an active nuclear weapons programme today. This is not true.

Like all other IAEA reports on Iran, the November 2011 report gives detailed information on the activities at its nuclear facilities. For example, it records the amounts of uranium enriched to 5% and 20% at each facility and confirms that enrichment hadn’t taken place to a higher level and that no nuclear material is unaccounted for. This is factual information, based on actual observations by IAEA inspectors on the ground in Iran.

The November 2011 report contains a 15-page annex entitled ‘Possible Military Dimensions to Iran’s Nuclear Programme’. The ‘information’ contained in this annex is of a very different character. It consists of allegations – the words ‘alleged’, ‘allegedly’ and ‘allegation’ occur 28 times in total – supplied to the IAEA by third parties, including the US, most of them referring to possible activities by Iran before 2003. US intelligence believes Iran had a weapons programme in this period, which was halted in the autumn of 2003 and hasn’t been restarted since.

Most of the allegations in the annex have been available to the IAEA since 2005 and were already in the public domain. Despite being pressed by the US and its allies to publish them, the previous IAEA Director General, Dr Mohamed ElBaradei, reportedly refused to do so, because they were unsubstantiated allegations that couldn’t be verified by the IAEA.

Dr ElBaradei retired on 30 November 2009. His successor is Yukiya Amano of Japan. The US used its considerable influence to get him elected by the IAEA Board, understandably so, since in the opinion of the US mission to the IAEA, he is ‘solidly in the US court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program’ (see WikiLeaks cable dated 16 October 2009).

It is hardly surprising that, unlike his predecessor, Director General Amano acceded to US demands that the allegations supplied by the US and other third parties be published under the name of the IAEA and thereby be given credibility.

The annex of the November 2011 IAEA report contained little that was new – and did not present evidence that Iran has an active nuclear weapons programme today. In support of this, here are the views of a number of experts on the matter:

Joseph Cirincione, who served on Hillary Clinton’s International Security Advisory Board (and is the president of the disarmament group, the Ploughshares Fund): ‘I was briefed on most of this stuff several years ago at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna. There’s little new in the report. Most of this information is well known to experts who follow the issue.’

Professor Paul Pillar, who retired from the CIA in 2005 after 28 years’ service, his last post being National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia: ‘Despite references in the surge of report commentary about new evidence on this or that aspect of the subject, the report told us nothing of importance to policy on Iran that was not already well known.’

Peter Jenkins, who, as we have noted, was the UK’s ambassador to the IAEA from 2001 to 2006: ‘The IAEA says that prior to 2003 Iran researched some of the know-how needed for a weapon, and that further research may have taken place in the years since. The IAEA has not reported evidence of attempts to produce nuclear weapons, or of a decision to do so.’

Dr Hans Blix, former head of the IAEA: ‘The IAEA did not … conclude that Iran was making a weapon or had taken a decision to make one.’

IAEA Director General Amano was interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on 17 October 2012. Asked if Iran was ‘doing more than simply pursuing a peaceful nuclear programme’, he replied: ‘We are not saying that Iran has nuclear weapons, nor are we saying that Iran has made a decision to manufacture nuclear weapons.’

So, although the IAEA says that Iran may have engaged in weapons-related activity up to 2003, it does not assert that it has an active weapons programme today. US intelligence agrees and so, it appears, does Israeli intelligence. In April 2012, Benny Gantz, chief of the Israeli Defence Forces, said that he did not believe that Iran would develop nuclear weapons, arguing that Iran ‘is going step by step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb. It hasn’t yet decided whether to go the extra mile. … I don’t think [Khamenei] will want to go the extra mile.’

Going the extra mile would involve enriching uranium above 20% towards the 90% or more required for a nuclear weapon. Since Iran’s enrichment plants are subject to IAEA safeguards, such a step would be soon visible to IAEA inspectors and crossing this ‘red line’ would, most likely, cause the US and/or Israel to take military action against Iran – and begin a military confrontation that Iran cannot win. Iran is unlikely to go down that path.

Nuclear weapons a ‘grave sin’, says Supreme Leader of Iran


Wikimedia/www.sajed.ir. Some rights reserved.

Iran’s leaders have repeatedly denied that they have any ambitions to develop nuclear weapons. What is more, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has declared the possession of such weapons a ‘grave sin’. He did so in a speech to nuclear scientists on 22 February 2012, saying:

The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that the decision makers in the countries opposing us know well that Iran is not after nuclear weapons because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous.

There was nothing new in this statement. In 2005, Ayatollah Khamenei issued a fatwa – a religious edict – saying that ‘the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons’ and he has repeated this message many times since then.

Of course, it is not impossible for Khamenei or a future Supreme Leader to reverse this stance. However, as Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett point out, this ‘would mean having to explain – to Iranians and to the entire Shi’a world – how Iran’s strategic circumstances have changed to such an extent that manufacturing nuclear arms was now both necessary and legitimate’. They continue:

That, of course, is not an absolute constraint on Iranian weaponisation. But it would require, at a minimum, a widely perceived and substantial deterioration in the Islamic Republic’s strategic environment – most plausibly effected by an Israeli and/or US attack on Iran. It is far from certain that Tehran would opt for weapons acquisition then. But those urging military action to block the Islamic Republic’s nuclear advancement advocate a course that would raise the risk of Iranian weaponisation, not reduce it.

Ahmadinejad threatened to ‘wipe Israel off the map’

Another common fallacy concerning Iran is that President Ahmadinejad has threatened to ‘wipe Israel off the map’, meaning that were he to obtain nuclear weapons he would seek to use them against Israel. This is a fiction, which arose from a mistranslation from Farsi of a remark Ahmadinejad made in a speech on 26 October 2005 to a conference in Tehran.

As American Professor Juan Cole, among others, has pointed out, the remark was a quote from Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the Islamic Republic, to the effect that ‘this occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time’ (in rezhim-e eshghalgar-i Qods bayad as safheh-e ruzgar mahv shavad).

This is not a threat to destroy Israel by military action, but the expression of a hope that the present Israeli regime will collapse, just as the Soviet Union did. It is not a threat to kill anyone, let alone to commit genocide against Jews living in Israel.

Interviewed on Al Jazeera in 16 April 2012, Dan Meridor, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy, admitted that President Ahmadinejad hadn’t actually threatened to wipe Israel off the map.

Speaking at Columbia University on 24 September 2007, President Ahmadinejad proposed a solution in Palestine based on elections. According to a Washington Post translation, he said:

What we say is that to solve this 60-year problem, we must allow the Palestinian people to decide about its future for itself. … We must allow Jewish Palestinians, Muslim Palestinians and Christian Palestinians to determine their own fate themselves through a free referendum. Whatever they choose as a nation, everybody should accept and respect. … This is what we are saying as the Iranian nation.

This appears to be an endorsement of a one-state solution, where the government of Israel/Palestine would be determined by all the people – Jews, Muslims and Christians – living in the area. This proposal may or may not be realistic, but it certainly does not involve ‘wiping Israel off the map’ in the sense of exterminating Jews and others living there.

It should also be noted that Iran voted for UN General Assembly resolution A/RES/67/19 on 29 November 2012, which backed a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine, specifically, ‘an independent, sovereign, democratic, contiguous and viable State of Palestine living side by side in peace and security with Israel on the basis of the pre-1967 borders’. This vote is also not consistent with a determination to ‘wipe Israel off the map’.

The general portrayal of Iran as an aggressive state is overblown. By contrast, in the past century, Iran has been the victim of aggression several times – it was invaded and occupied by Britain and Russia during World War I and World War II; it had its democratically elected government overthrown by the US in 1953 at the request of Britain; and it was attacked by Iraq in 1980, with significant subsequent support from the west, and suffered upwards of a million casualties, many as a result of chemical weapons, including around 300,000 killed. The silence of the international community about Iraq’s aggression and use of chemical weapons was deafening.

How British politicians spread the nuclear weapons myth

Yet leading British politicians continue to articulate their alarmist talk about Iran’s nuclear weapons. In January 2012 British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond spoke of how Iran is believed to be working ‘flat out’ to build nuclear weapons. The following month British Foreign Secretary William Hague told The Daily Telegraph that Iranians were ‘clearly continuing their nuclear weapons programme’. This would lead, Hague predicted, ‘to the most serious round of nuclear proliferation since nuclear weapons were invented’.

Or listen to David Cameron speaking at the annual dinner of the United Jewish Israel Appeal on 15 October 2012:

Let’s be clear about the facts. Iran is flouting six United Nations resolutions. The regime’s claim that its nuclear programme is intended purely for civilian purposes is not remotely credible. …

Iran is not just a threat to Israel. It is a threat to the world. Now there are some who say nothing will work – and that we have to learn to live with a nuclear-armed Iran. I say we don’t and we shouldn’t.

But at the same time I also refuse to give in to those who say that the current policy is fatally flawed, and that we have no choice but military action. A negotiated settlement remains within Iran’s grasp. …

We need the courage to give … sanctions time to work. But let me also say this. In the long term, if Iran makes the wrong choice, nothing is off the table. A nuclear-armed Iran is a threat to Israel. And a threat to the world. And this country will work unwaveringly to prevent that from happening.

Note that the Prime Minister does not explicitly assert that Iran has nuclear weapons or is in the process of developing them. However, he accuses the Iranian leadership of lying when it says that Iran’s ‘nuclear programme is intended purely for civilian purposes’.

The Prime Minister promised at the outset of his remarks to be ‘clear about the facts’. Had he done so he might have made a speech along the following lines:

Despite the impression given by our media, I don’t think Iran’s nuclear activities are a threat to the UK. Nobody, not even Israel, believes that Iran has already developed a nuclear weapon. And I would remind you that, since 2007, US intelligence has judged that Iran hasn’t even got a programme to develop nuclear weapons. We in the UK are not in the business of second-guessing our closest ally on this matter.

Of course, we all know that Iran has constructed uranium-enrichment facilities. But as a party to the NPT, it has a right to engage in uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes, like other parties to the NPT, for example, Argentina and Brazil. Under the NPT, Iran is obliged to allow these and other nuclear facilities to operate under the supervision of the IAEA. And it is doing so. In several years of operation, the IAEA has never failed to confirm that no nuclear material has been diverted from these facilities for military purposes.

There are a number of aspects of Iran’s nuclear activities which need to be clarified. But there are grounds for hope that, as long as Iran is allowed to enjoy its full rights under the NPT, including its right to enrichment, it will be possible to have arrangements in place that will reassure the international community that its activities are for peaceful purposes.

Unfortunately, the Labour Government missed an opportunity to bring about a settlement in 2005. Then, Iranian negotiators offered to take far-reaching measures to reassure the outside world that its enrichment would not be used for making bombs. However, the Labour Government gave in to the Bush administration’s demand that Iran cease enrichment on its own soil – that scuppered an agreement with Iran at that time. We shouldn’t make that mistake again.

Another point, which is rarely mentioned but I think is important: the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has issued a fatwa – a religious edict – saying that the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran will never acquire these weapons. I think we should take this pronouncement by the Ayatollah seriously. He is Iran’s supreme religious and political leader and the person who would take any decision to develop nuclear weapons. If he intends to do so, it is surely unwise of him to declare repeatedly that these weapons are un-Islamic.

I hope that we can soon terminate the destructive economic sanctions against Iran that are bringing so much misery to ordinary Iranians. After all, the US Secretary of State did promise back in January 2010 to target economic sanctions on ‘the Iranian government, particularly the Revolutionary Guard elements, without contributing to the suffering of the ordinary [people], who deserve better than what they currently are receiving’. Unfortunately, ordinary Iranians are suffering now. We must keep our promises to Iranian people and put a stop to this as soon as possible.

Finally, as a founder member of the UN and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the United Kingdom is conscious of the obligations of all UN members under Article 2.4 of the UN Charter to refrain from the threat or use of force against other states. It is time for a moratorium on threats of force against Iran, which are in breach of the UN Charter and may even hinder a peaceful diplomatic solution. Let the international community resolve to settle this dispute with Iran by peaceful means, as we should have done in 2005.

So what is really going on?

Unfortunately, there seems to be not the faintest chance that Mr Cameron will make a speech of this sort. Instead, the Prime Minister seems intent on doing what the United States tells him, which means applying harsher and harsher economic sanctions, and perhaps taking part in military action, against Iran.

What accounts for the strange and irrational conduct of western leaders? The only explanation is that their antagonism towards Iran may not stem solely from a conviction that Iran is developing nuclear weapons or might do so in the future.

Some other motive must be at work. Indeed, President George W Bush made this explicitly clear in his memoir Decision Points about his time in office, published in November 2010. The book contains a revealing passage in which the President describes his reaction when the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) landed on his desk in November 2007. This concluded that Iran hadn’t got an active nuclear weapons programme – which was a very awkward conclusion for him, so awkward that it made him ‘angry’…

One would have expected that the President, who claimed to be dedicated to preventing Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, would have been delighted to receive intelligence that suggested his administration had been successful, that Iran had abandoned an active weapons programme within three years of his entering the White House. But instead he was ‘angry’…  As George W.Bush’s book acknowledges, US antagonism towards Iran does not stem from a conviction that Iran is developing nuclear weapons or may do so in future. It is about the US determination to prevent Iran becoming a major power in the Middle East in opposition to the US. A change in regime to one that is prepared to do US bidding would be ideal, but that is probably outside the realm of possibility.

For now, the name of the game is to keep the pressure on Iran by ferocious economic sanctions and other means, leaving open the option of military action, justified as a measure to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

 

Thanks go to the authors and publisher, for permission to post this extract from chapters 7 & 8 of A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West Is Wrong About Nuclear Iran by Peter Oborne and David Morrison, published by Elliott & Thompson (April, 2013)

About the authors

Peter Oborne is the chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph and reports for Channel 4's Dispatches and Unreported World. He has written a number of books identifying the power structures that lurk behind political discourse, including The Triumph of the Political Class. He is a regular on BBC programmes Any Questions and Question Time and often presents Week in Westminster. He was voted Columnist of the Year at the Press Awards in 2013.

David Morrison has written widely on the Middle East including two highly regarded pamphlets – 'Iraq: Lies, half-truths & omissions' and 'Iraq: How regime change was dressed up as disarmament' – on the deception perpetrated by the British government to induce the British public to support military action against Iraq.