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The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Crisis
By Gareth Porter
Just World Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Gareth Porter
All rights reserved.
The US Denial Policy and Its Consequences
What consumers of news coverage of foreign affairs have learned over more than a decade about Iran's nuclear policy is that in the 1980s, Iran began a secret enrichment program, in violation of its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and maintained that program for 18 years with the intention of producing nuclear weapons, or at least keeping that option open. Fortunately, according to this account, a secret Iranian enrichment facility was revealed by Iranian opponents of the regime in 2002, and the full investigation by the IAEA that followed uncovered the illicit nuclear activities that Iran had been pursuing in secret for many years.
That thumbnail sketch represents a nuclear scare that has surrounded the Iranian program since 2002 and has been the rationale for the long international crisis over the issue. But that version of the history of the Iranian nuclear program is a fundamental falsification achieved by eliminating the single most important historical fact about Iran's nuclear program: Iran's decision to enrich uranium was a direct response to a US policy that had challenged Iran's right to have any peaceful nuclear power program at all.
The US policy that later became a determination not to allow Iran to have "a single centrifuge spinning" — meaning that no uranium enrichment would be countenanced — began in the early to mid-1980s with an effort to deny Iran even the Bushehr nuclear reactor in which the country had already invested billions of dollars and which was 80 percent completed when the shah was overthrown. It was only because of that US policy that Iran decided to get into enriching its own uranium to fuel Bushehr. The story of that action-reaction dynamic between a US policy of denial of Iran's right to obtain technology for the peaceful uses of nuclear power, as guaranteed by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and the Islamic Republic's ultimate decision to acquire its own capabilities for uranium enrichment is the pivotal chapter in the untold history of the manufactured crisis over the Iranian nuclear program.
Iran's Original Nuclear Program
A deeply ironic fact about the nuclear program that has provoked such an intense and prolonged crisis is that the Islamic revolution to overthrow the shah was initially accompanied by the mullahs' strong reaction against nuclear power as a manifestation of the shah's penchant for expensive toys — and the US sponsorship of the original nuclear program. Former ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian, who worked for Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the powerful head of the Iranian legislature, or Majlis, beginning in 1984, recalled that in 1979, the revolutionaries considered the shah's ambitious plan for 23 nuclear power plants to be one of the "imperialistic projects" associated with the imperial regime and its American sponsors.
In July 1979, the revolutionary government halted construction at Bushehr, the flagship facility of the shah's extensive nuclear program, along with nearly all the other projects that had launched by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI). It also stripped the AEOI of most of its budget and staff. Some thought was even given to using the 80 percent completed Bushehr reactor for something else entirely, but after officials from Tehran made an inspection trip there, they decided it could serve no other use. Two years later, the government reversed the decision to strip the AEOI of its budget and staff, largely because the severe electricity shortages that marked the first two years of the revolutionary era persuaded policymakers that there might be a role for nuclear power reactors after all.
Even after the decision to resume the nuclear program in 1981, however, the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions remained extremely modest compared with those of the shah. "We didn't want to have 20 nuclear power plants or to have enrichment," Mousavian recalled. "The only things remaining [in the program] were to complete Bushehr and to continue the Tehran Research Reactor for medical purposes. We would have one nuclear power plant, with fuel from France."
Iran still hoped to obtain enriched uranium for fuel plates for Bushehr from the Iranian stake in the French-owned uranium enrichment consortium Eurodif. The shah had invested a total of $1.18 billion toward the construction of Eurodif's enrichment facility, which entitled Iran to 10 percent of the production of enriched uranium it produced. Soon after the overthrow of the shah, Tehran canceled his contract with Eurodif. In February 1980, the French government refused to refund the sum Iran had invested in Eurodif, or to provide the uranium that Iran was due under the shah's contract. Then, in the early 1980s, Iran sought to work out a deal under which it could reclaim its share of the production of the facility. But after the Socialist Party's François Mitterrand came to power in May 1981, he reiterated France's refusal to provide the enriched uranium from Eurodif that Iran was requesting. Nevertheless, according to Mousavian, Iran continued to negotiate with France over access to the nuclear fuel it would need once Bushehr could be restored, even as the question of the disposition of the money Iran had invested in Eurodif was being contested in French courts.
Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic was also hoping to get help from the IAEA for its scaled-down nuclear program. In 1983, the AEOI approached IAEA Director Hans Blix to request the IAEA's help in building the Iranian nuclear organization's technical capacity. The AEOI asked Blix to send a team to do surveys of its Esfahan Nuclear Technology Center (ENTEC) and the Tehran Nuclear Research Center (TNRC) as the basis for further cooperation. Blix sent the Iranian request to Deputy Director Maurizio Zifferero, who in turn directed IAEA official Herman Vera Ruiz to conduct the survey in October 1983.
By then, AEOI was only a shadow of the organization that existed at the end of the shah's regime, when its staff had consisted of 862 scientists and it had commanded an annual budget of more than $3 billion. But ENTEC still had considerable expertise and equipment, and it had already decided to focus primarily on fuel fabrication and uranium conversion rather than on uranium enrichment. ENTEC's largest department, with 23 scientists and what the IAEA judged to be "impressive" laboratory equipment, was the fuel-fabrication department, which was responsible for carrying out experiments on the fabrication of uranium oxide pellets. It also had a chemistry department with 20 scientists, which had responsibility for conducting experiments on the conversion of yellowcake (U308) into uranium dioxide (UO) for fuel rods for nuclear reactors like Bushehr.
After his visit, Ruiz reported to Blix and Zifferero that ENTEC officials had informed him about plans to build a uranium conversion pilot plant to produce uranium hexafluoride (UF6), the form of uranium that is ready for enrichment. Ruiz's memo made no mention of any AEOI request for assistance in uranium enrichment, reflecting the fact that Iran was still hoping to get enriched uranium from the French company Eurodif.
The memo from Ruiz recommended that the IAEA provide "expert services" in eight different fields to assist all of ENTEC's departments, including designing a "pilot plant for fuel conversion," which was a primary goal of the Iranian nuclear program. The IAEA Technical Cooperation Department was also prepared to assist ENTEC and TNRC on several of the items on the list of recommendations that Ruiz compiled in late 1983.
Iran was thus poised to take advantage of its rights under the NPT to international cooperation for the pursuit of peaceful nuclear power. But that was before US officials saw the Ruiz report. Apparently, neither Iran nor the IAEA had anticipated that the Reagan administration would intervene to stop the proposed cooperation. That decision, unannounced at the time, began a process that would lead eventually to a crisis over what the world would be told was the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon.
US Nuclear Embargo and the Iranian Response
The overthrow of the shah's regime in 1979 was a traumatic shock to the US national security system. The Department of Defense and the CIA had built deep ties with the shah's regime (as had Israel). Under the shah, Iran had served as the keystone of policy in the region for a quarter century. Preserving his regime had been seen as so important by some top officials that, as the State Department's desk officer on Iran later recalled, when the popular uprising took place, national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski recommended that the United States urge the shah to have his troops "shoot down as many people as necessary and bring an end to the rebellion once and for all."
Once the shah had been toppled, the major thrust of US policy was, in effect, to watch for an opportunity to replace the Islamic regime so the United States could resume its former position of power in Tehran. When President Jimmy Carter's administration got word in September 1980 that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was planning to attack Iran to overthrow the regime, the United States did nothing to oppose the scheme, despite the enormous risk of regional instability inherent in such a war. Vice President Walter Mondale would later explain, "We believed that this war would put further pressure on the Iranian regime."
When Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1981, internal discussions on Iran revolved around the expressions by senior officials of the desirability of removing the founder and leader of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. CIA Director William Casey was tasked with exploring the possibility of a covert plan to oust Khomeini and replace him with the shah's son, Reza Pahlavi. And when Iran was preparing to mount a massive counteroffensive against Iraq in spring 1982, the United States became an active supporter of the Iraqi war effort. Reagan agreed to a secret national security decision directive that the United States would do everything "necessary and legal" to prevent Iran from defeating Iraq. The staff of Reagan's National Security Council worked closely with CIA Director Casey and his deputy, Robert M. Gates, to persuade third-country suppliers to ship to Iraq a variety of forms of weapons, including cluster bombs and anti-armor penetrators (most of them of Soviet origin). The United States also provided strategic advice to Saddam's military on how best to use its troops. That initiative was followed in late 1983 by Operation Staunch, a diplomatic campaign to convince US allies and friends to stop selling arms to Iran in the interests of "achieving a negotiated end to the Iran-Iraq war."
The decision to do whatever could be done to support Iraq against Iran in the war was followed by a series of interventions by the Reagan administration to prevent international assistance of any kind to the Iranian nuclear program. The earliest documented US intervention to try to obstruct any progress by Iran toward completion of its nuclear reactor at Bushehr was the objection the United States registered to the IAEA's late 1983 proposal to provide Iran with technical assistance for fuel production and uranium conversion. After the United States "directly intervened" to block any such IAEA assistance, those two major elements of the proposed assistance to the Iranian program were dropped by the IAEA. "We stopped that in its tracks," a former US official recalled many years later.
The US decision to prevent the IAEA from helping Iran in the same way it helped other states in good standing with the agency was simply an adjunct of the Reagan administration's policy toward Iran and Iraq. "It was the war," recalled Geoffrey Kemp, who was senior director for the Near East and South Asia on Reagan's National Security Council staff. "We had made a decision to tilt toward Iraq across the board. It was part of the Iran-Iraq War syndrome."
The IAEA intervention was only the beginning of a much broader US policy of denial of international cooperation with the Iranian nuclear program. In April 1984, the State Department confirmed that the United States' goal was to block all technology transfers to Iran's nuclear program by external suppliers. In a written reply to a reporter's question, the department spokesman said, "Previous actions by the Government of Iran do not provide us with great assurance that it will always abide by its international commitments." Therefore, the State Department declared that the United States would not allow any US nuclear technology to be shared with Iran. "In addition," the statement said, "we have asked other nuclear suppliers not to engage in nuclear cooperation with Iran, especially while the Iran-Iraq war continues." That wording left open the possibility that the United States might continue its effort to deny all nuclear technology to Iran even after the Iran-Iraq War was over.
One might expect such a virtual declaration of war on a country's nuclear program to be accompanied by some claim of evidence of covert nuclear weapons work or at least of Iran having committed serious violations of its NPT-derived safeguards agreement with the IAEA. But the State Department made clear that it had no evidence of bad faith on the part of Iran in regard to its commitments under the NPT. It admitted that it had "no evidence" that Iran had violated its pledge under the NPT to place its nuclear activities under international safeguards. Its spokesman even suggested that he did not see the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr as a proliferation risk, saying there was "no evidence" of any construction of facilities there that could separate plutonium from spent reactor fuel. Instead, State Department officials justified the policy of denying all nuclear technology to Iran by telling reporters off the record that Iran was about to launch an all-out offensive against Iraq that could threaten Saddam's regime, implying that Iran could emerge as the dominant power in the region. The Reagan administration was justifying its intervention to prevent Iran from having a nuclear power program purely on the basis of its assertion of geopolitical interests in the Middle East.
That policy was soon impinging on Iran's relations with France and Germany, whose cooperation was crucial to the plan to complete the Bushehr reactor. Mousavian began following the nuclear issue in 1984, when he went to work as chief of staff for Rafsanjani, then the speaker of the Iranian parliament. He recalled later, "The French came to us saying we cannot give fuel for Bushehr. They were telling us, 'This is an international decision.'" The French government was clearly implying to Iran that the United States was not willing to allow France to participate in its nuclear program. Meanwhile, Iran also had a serious problem with Germany. When Mousavian became head of the Iranian Foreign Ministry's West Europe division in 1986, he recalled, it immediately became apparent that the German government was refusing to allow the German contractor Kraftwerk GmbH to complete the work on the Bushehr plant for which Iran had paid 8.7 billion deutschmarks ($4.78 billion at 1979 exchange rates) before the overthrow of the shah. In 1986, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher told Rafsanjani that completion of the Bushehr contract would not be permitted.
Seldom in the modern era has a major power interfered in the affairs of a lesser state on the basis of such a blatant expression of power interests as the Reagan administration's policy of denying all nuclear technology to Iran's fledgling nuclear program. Notably absent from the policy enunciated by the State Department was any recognition of Iran's legitimate right to such technology under the NPT or of US obligations under that treaty. In putting pressure on its allies to not cooperate with the Iranian nuclear program — even if that cooperation had already been agreed to previously — the United States was openly violating a central provision of the international agreement it would later cite as the basis for condemning Iran for failing to live up to its international obligations: the Non-Proliferation Treaty. That treaty, opened for signature in 1968, had been an explicit bargain between the existing nuclear weapons states and all those who did not have nuclear weapons. The nonnuclear weapon states agreed that they would not acquire nuclear weapons, on the condition that the nuclear weapon states agreed to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology and to negotiate nuclear disarmament with the ultimate aim of eliminating all nuclear weapons.
Article IV of the treaty had been absolutely central to that bargain. It provides, "Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty." The same article also says, "All the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy."
Excerpted from Manufactured Crisis by Gareth Porter. Copyright © 2014 Gareth Porter. Excerpted by permission of Just World Publishing, LLC.
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