Iran Bomb: The Ever-Burning Fuse

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Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, uses a diagram of a bomb to describe Iran's nuclear program while delivering his address to the 67th United Nations General Assembly meeting 27 September 2012 at the United Nations in New York. (Photo: AFP - Don Emmert)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Friday, September 28, 2012

On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the United Nations General Assembly and spoke of the need for a “clear red line” on Iran’s nuclear program, hinting at military action against the Islamic Republic. This seemingly escalatory tone against Iran is nothing new as Netanyahu and others have been crying wolf on Iran’s nuclear weapons for decades.

The accusation that Iran has been militarizing its nuclear energy program dates further back than most people realize: in fact, it first surfaced during the final years of pro-Western Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s reign.

Since then, Israeli and Western government officials and political pundits have routinely predicted the “imminent” construction of an Iranian nuclear weapon, frequently contradicting assessments by their own intelligence agencies and other international experts. The depiction of the menace and the sense of urgency stoked by such claims have only increased in recent years – the latest of which forecasts the possible development of an Iranian nuclear weapon in a mere matter of weeks.

Timeline of The Iran Bomb

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waves before entering an airplane upon his departure to the United States to attend the UN General Assembly, at Tehran's Mehrabad Airport, on 22 September 2012. (Photo: AFP - Atta Kenare)Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waves before entering an airplane upon his departure to the United States to attend the UN General Assembly, at Tehran's Mehrabad Airport, on 22 September 2012. (Photo: AFP - Atta Kenare)

Inextricable from this doom-saying over Iran’s nuclear program are sales of weapons and military equipment to Iran’s foes in the region, as well as an increase in belligerent activities against the Islamic Republic, including economic sanctions and assassinations. These tactics have in turn fermented Iran’s own concerns, motivating it to double-down and push forward with a nuclear program Tehran insists is for peaceful use only.

And so a self-fulfilling pattern is spawned, leaving the region’s inhabitants perpetually on the brink of an avoidable catastrophe.

Nuclear Beginnings

The Iranian state initiated its nuclear energy program in 1957 with close cooperation from the United States under the “Atoms for Peace” program, first envisioned by American President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. A small research nuclear reactor was purchased by Iran from the US in 1960. It became active seven years later, with the US providing enriched fuel.

Soon after, Iran signed on to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and established the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to oversee the development of this project.

Today, Western pressures are based on holding Iran strictly accountable for a treaty signed by a repressive government that was eventually overthrown; while Israel, which is widely believed to actually possess a nuclear weapons arsenal, is granted incredible leeway by Western states under the justification that it has not signed on to the treaty and therefore is not governed by its rules. This double standard is one of the fundamental points of disagreement, which continue to incite mistrust and skepticism from Iran's side.

Prior to his overthrow, Pahlavi was reportedly involved in negotiations with the US, France, and West Germany to develop 20 nuclear reactors and perhaps help with a clandestine nuclear weapons development program in the works.

The Shah, likely motivated by news that India had successfully tested its own nuclear bomb, told Le Monde in 1974 that one day “sooner than is believed, [Iran would be] in possession of a nuclear bomb.” It was an ambitious, brazen statement that was quickly retracted by the Iranian embassy in France. Nevertheless, it suggested that among the higher echelons of the Iranian state, possessing nuclear weapons was at the very least being contemplated.

Iranian attempts to develop a full nuclear fuel cycle, a key component of weaponization, were adamantly opposed by much of the American establishment despite Iran being a vital ally. Nuclear power symbolizes independence and strength and the knowledge itself tends to be jealously guarded by those already in possession of such capabilities.

Concerns over Iran’s ambitions were reflected in a number of memos sent by American defense and energy departments at the time, which warned, in hyperbolic fashion, that “the annual plutonium production from the planned 23,000 MW Iranian nuclear power program will be equivalent to 600-700 warheads.”

Undeterred by such fears, Iran had allies within the administration, including Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Both individuals, who in a twist of fate later came to view Iran as a major enemy, lobbied in support of the Iranian nuclear program under the pretext that it would secure Iran’s future energy needs, and more importantly, would be highly lucrative for American corporations.

A deal was struck in 1978: in return for helping Iran develop its nuclear program, Washington secured the right to the return and storage of spent reactor fuel from all reactors built in Iran. This way, Iran’s nuclear weapons program would be restricted and controlled according to the whims of the Americans. However, fickle fate had other plans.

In 1979, the Shah was ousted by a popular uprising and all ties between Iran and the Western countries were severely downgraded or out-right terminated, replaced by mutual antagonism and overt hostility.

Iran under Siege

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who would rise to become the religious leader of the Iranian revolution, at first opposed nuclear power and weapons on religious grounds and rapidly took measures against the program. Pre-existing plans for the completion of two semi-finished reactors at Bushehr and two further reactors were immediately scrapped. Yet, this initial opposition to nuclear power and weapons by Iran’s new policymakers was soon reconsidered for two main reasons.

First, major economic losses were incurred because of the unfinished nuclear reactors and Iran needed to secure its future energy requirements.

Secondly, and more crucially, post-revolution Iran was viewed as a threat to American interests in the Gulf. More so, the Iranians were surrounded by states that possessed nuclear weapons or were trying to develop them. Of great concern was Iraq, which had launched an attack against Iran in 1980, only a year after the revolution, deploying chemical weapons against Iranian forces early in the conflict.

A letter reportedly composed by Khomeini close to the end of the Iran-Iraq War sheds some light on his motivation to reluctantly reactivate the country’s nuclear program. Khomeini was driven by defensive rather than expansive considerations; in particular Iraq’s use of chemical weapons during the war, which it had developed with help from the West, influenced his decision.

While Iran was at war with Iraq, American and Israeli military relations entered a new phase, as the two countries conducted their first ever joint sea and air exercises, complemented by the construction of facilities to stockpile American military equipment in Israel in 1984. Additionally, the Reagan administration authorized a massive arms sale to a number of Gulf States, which were fearful of the Iranian state and its ideology of exporting an Islamic revolution, and were supporting Iraq.

There was no clear decision by Iranian policymakers to construct nuclear weapons in the early 1980s, despite moves to develop the nuclear energy front of the program.

Irrespective of that fact, in April 1984, British defense magazine Jane’s Defense Weekly became the first publication in the West to claim that Iran was “engaged in the production of an atomic bomb, likely to be ready within two years.”

Jane’s prediction apparently stemmed from information gathered by West German intelligence sources after West German engineers visited the unfinished Bushehr nuclear reactor that year. This first public prediction was echoed across the Atlantic by US Senator Alan Cranston’s announcement that Iran was expected to have nuclear weapons as early as 1991.

These embryonic Western prophecies of a forthcoming Iranian bomb, like many others that followed over the years, were not based on concrete evidence. Moreover, they routinely disregarded that Tehran was reacting to a siege on multiple fronts, which only grew in the coming decades.

When the Iran-Iraq war sputtered to a whimpering conclusion, following an estimated loss of over one million lives, the Islamic Republic was granted a moment’s respite, as Western states concentrated on Iraq following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. This brief respite lasted until the end of the First Gulf War and afforded Iran room to pursue ties with states such as China, Pakistan, Argentina and Russia to help develop its nuclear energy program.

By 1992, Benjamin Netanyahu, then an Israeli parliamentarian, began expressing the belief that Iran could develop nuclear weapons within “three to five years” and therefore must be stopped through “an international front headed by the US.” His statements were reiterated by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, but Peres pushed the clock to 1999.

“Iran is the greatest threat [to peace] and greatest problem in the Middle East … because it seeks the nuclear option while holding a highly dangerous stance of extreme religious militantism,” Peres told a French news agency.

Following suit, a task force of the US House Republican Research Committee claimed that there was a “98 percent certainty that Iran had already had all (or virtually all) of the components required for two or three operational nuclear weapons.”

More officials in Washington and Tel Aviv joined in the distressing, but always unsubstantiated contentions.

One notable case involved former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who in 1998 reported to Congress that Iran could build an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear or a biological payload that could hit the US within five years. Of course this was mere speculation, but that did not stop such statements from reverberating within the American establishment. Rumsfeld’s report to Congress can be seen as the seed for future American foreign policy.

Meanwhile, arms sales to the Arab Gulf countries churned along and grew significantly, correlating with the hysteria towards Iran.

Adding to this, the US promoted security coordination with the Gulf Cooperation Council, pledging to contain any threat from either Iran or Iraq. In the spirit of this policy, the US entrenched its military presence in the Gulf, setting up bases in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and proceeding to upgrade its naval forces to fleet status in Bahrain.

By the dawn of the new millennium, the portrayal of Iran as a major threat, painstakingly crafted throughout the 1990s, kicked into high gear.

Becoming Enemy Number One

During George W. Bush’s tenure, Iran was firmly placed as part of the “axis of evil,” even as the reformist Iranian President Mohammed Khatami attempted to reach out to his American counterpart on multiple occasions, including by denouncing the 9/11 attacks and cooperating with America’s invasion of Afghanistan.

As part of this conciliatory approach, Iran allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit its nuclear facilities in February 2003 for the first time. These visitations were not without their complications, but they were goodwill steps toward de-escalation.

While Iran maintained that its nuclear program was entirely peaceful, the IAEA noted small breaches in safeguard agreements and accused the Islamic Republic of a “pattern of concealment.” However, the atomic agency found “no evidence” that Iran was attempting to build an atomic bomb. The IAEA’s conclusion was quickly denounced by the US government as “impossible to believe.”

Britain, France, and Germany then began a dialogue with Iran, resulting in the Paris Agreement, in which Iran agreed to a temporary suspension of its program pending the progress of further negotiations. This suspension ultimately lasted for three years before Iran restarted its nuclear enrichment activities.

For its part, the US refused to participate in any negotiations with Iran. Despite American embroilment in a worsening quagmire following their invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, they maintained their repudiation of international diplomacy and continued to up the ante vis-a-vis Iran.

In the spirit of this aggressive American policy that defined the Bush era, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell claimed in 2004 that Iran had been working on technology to fit a nuclear warhead onto a missile. These allegations came as Powell’s Iraqi weapons of mass destruction assertions were being proven to be unsubstantiated.

"We are talking about information that says they not only have [the] missiles but information that suggests they are working hard about how to put the two together," he declared.

To support Powell’s allegations, a year later the US presented 1,000 pages of designs and other documentation supposedly retrieved from a laptop computer in Iran, which were said to detail high-explosives testing and a nuclear-capable missile warhead. The “alleged studies,” as they have since been called by the IAEA and other international experts, were dismissed by Iran as forgeries by hostile intelligence services.

Conciliatory efforts by Iran largely tapered out with the departure of Khatami in 2005 and the subsequent ascendancy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who adopted a more hard-line position as Iranian president. Tensions between Iran and the US grew.

In the midst of this growing rift, Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini as supreme religious leader, issued his own fatwa forbidding the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons, during a meeting with the IAEA Board of Governors in Geneva in 2005. But this public fatwa did not ease pressures on Iran.

More and more political commentators around the world began to disseminate their own estimates of when or how a war would break out. In the minds of those within American and Israeli political and military circles, the matter appeared already settled. A notable report highlighting this mentality was written by The New Yorker’s renowned investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who quoted US political and military sources as saying that a strike on Iran was all but inevitable.

Like its predecessors, the Bush Administration coupled this panic towards Iran by bolstering its military relationship with Iran’s enemies. The Gulf Security Dialogue was established in May 2006 as a response to was promoted as a dramatic shift in the regional strategic balance. In addition, Israel attacked Lebanon in the summer of 2006. The assault was widely seen as a precursor for what an assault on Iran would entail and part of an overall strategy to further isolate Iran by weakening its alliances in the region.

Just as tensions appeared to be scaling ever new heights, an unclassified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), released in November 2007, stated with "high confidence" that Iran had given up any nuclear weapons effort in 2003. The report represented the views of America’s 16 spy agencies. What should have been taken as an indicator to reconsider the rhetoric against Iran, was instead promptly ignored or spun in a negative light.

On the diplomatic front, negotiations between the West and Iran were painfully slow and ultimately stalled. The UN Security Council, although not entirely unanimous in its view of the danger posed by Iran, passed four rounds of economic sanctions against Iran between 2006 and 2010. These measures barely dented Iran’s desire for nuclear energy.

When all seemed lost, a sudden, surprising breakthrough occurred in May 2010. Brazilian and Turkish officials were able to broker a deal with Iran to swap nuclear fuel abroad. For a fleeting moment, conflict appeared to have been averted, Western nations, specifically the US, rejected the terms and the deal collapsed.

Throughout 2010 and 2011, under the administration of Barack Obama, the Americans expanded operations against Iran together with their Israeli and European allies - the US had already initiated hostilities through proxies such as the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan and Jundallah, as far back as late 2005. This alliance utilized a combination of cyber-warfare, diplomatic provocation, assassinations of Iranian scientists, economic sanctions, a bolstered military presence and unceasing threats of a strike by Israel.

Throughout all this, there was still no evidence of an Iranian nuclear bomb. In fact, the matter exceedingly became an issue of whether Iran was trying to learn how to make a weapon, rather than if it had developed one.

Completing the Cycle

In a June 2011 article in The New Yorker, Hersh emphasized the incredible exploitation of the issue:

“Despite years of covert operations inside Iran, extensive satellite imagery, and the recruitment of many Iranian intelligence assets, the United States and its allies, including Israel, have been unable to find irrefutable evidence of an ongoing hidden nuclear-weapons program in Iran, according to intelligence and diplomatic officials here and abroad.”

The IAEA, which under Mohammed al-Baradei was keen not to repeat the calamity of Iraq, transformed under the administration of his successor, Yukiya Amano.

Reversing its long held position, the atomic agency suddenly asserted that Iran had for years been working on weapons-related activities. It buttressed this new claim by publishing a report last November that was based on more than 1,000 pages of design information, which it says, is corroborated by data from 10 member states and its own investigation and interviews. Among the documents used by the IAEA to craft these new accusations is the disputed evidence provided by the Bush administration in 2005.

Amano’s new direction may be partially explained by a US embassy cable document released by WikiLeaks in December 2010. The cable revealed that Amano was “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.”

Like clock-work, the growing spotlight on Iran has been followed by major weapons sales. In late 2011, the US and the Gulf monarchies committed to what has been called “one of the largest re-armament exercises in peacetime history.”

The sale amounted to around US$123 billion worth of fighter jets, helicopters, missiles, tanks, and other advanced weaponry. The hysteria was profitable for the US arms trade. Furthermore, The New York Times also noted that the US dominated the arms trade in 2011 with around 78 percent of total arms sold worldwide – most of which were exported to the Persian Gulf region. These sales make the Iran bomb threat, which remains a phantom threat, one of the most profitable ploys for Western defense investors and arms-traders.

On the Iranian side, efforts continue to emphasize the peaceful nature of the nuclear program, while also ensuring that Iran’s rights are not compromised. On a number of occasions, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reconfirmed his 2005 fatwa, most recently last month during the Non-Aligned Movement’s meeting held in Tehran. The nuclear program has become tied to Iran’s identity as a regional and independent power. Any compromise for the Iranians is deemed a capitulation to foreign aggression.

To date no corroborated evidence exists indicating the development of an Iranian nuclear bomb. A report by Reuters in March of this year reiterated this fact without much fanfare. It noted that privately, US, European and even Israeli officials agree that “Tehran does not have a bomb, has not decided to build one, and is probably years away from having a deliverable nuclear warhead.”

Nevertheless, the US and EU have recently expanded sanctions to include Iran’s oil and banking sector, and are increasing their military presence along Iran’s shores and borders.

Arab Gulf countries have played their part in the growing hostilities against Iran, whether by privately urging an attack on Iran or by complaining of Iranian meddling in their affairs. One month before the IAEA was to release its November report, a fantastical Iranian plot to assassinate a Saudi ambassador in Washington – involving a used car dealer and a Mexican drug gang – was unveiled.

Concurrently, the Israelis have persisted in their threats, the latest invoked by Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak and the current Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Barak alleged that a new classified NIE report optioned that Iran had made surprising headway in developing a nuclear bomb. He added that this new report brings the US position closer to that of Israel and preparations were beginning for an assault.

For his part, Netanyahu reportedly got into a spat with the American ambassador to Israel last month over the Obama administration’s unwillingness to take matters to a more aggressive level. The Israeli prime minister was “at his wit’s end” because, he claimed, Iran was “four to eight weeks” away from a nuclear bomb. A few weeks later, Netanyahu backtracked from this prediction, and pushed the deadline to six or seven months away.

There is a growing sense of fatigue over the never-ending, often contradictory prophesying over Iran’s nuclear program. The fact remains that no one, other than the Iranians, really knows the extent of the program.

This fatigue was perfectly articulated by Stephen M. Walt, a prominent American academic and political commentator, writing in Foreign Policy: “[T]hose prophesying war [with Iran] are starting to sound like those wacky cult leaders who keep predicting the End of the World, and then keep moving the date when the world doesn't end on schedule. At what point are we going to stop paying attention?”

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