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Opinion | Iranophobia and the Hysteria over Tehran's Nuclear Program

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

04 Feb 2012 03:22Comments
Iran-nuclear-weapons-program-IAEA-report.jpgWestern media and political distortions wind up serving the interests of the Islamic Republic's dictatorial regime

in brief

The promotion of "Iranophobia," based on the notion that the Islamic Republic is on the verge of producing nuclear weapons with which it will target Israel and set off an unprecedented Middle Eastern arms race, is a major growth industry in U.S. media and political circles.

Among the leading proponents of Iranophobia has been The New York Times, whose correspondents David Sanger and William Broad routinely write about Iran's "nuclear weapons program," even without presenting definitive proof that the program exists. This past Sunday, the Times made a major contribution to Iranophobia with a piece by analyst Ronen Bergman, which seems to have been crafted to hype both the Iranian "threat" and the idea that Israel is preparing to launch a preemptive strike to thwart it.

By Bergman's account, the Israeli military and intelligence officials with whom he spoke indicated that any attack would fail to stop Iran's nuclear program, yet he concludes that Israel will attack anyway. Bergman also relies on long-debunked clichés, such as the idea that Iran did anything underhanded or illegal in setting up its uranium enrichment facility in Natanz. He willfully elides the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) maintains supervision of Iran's nuclear activities in a way that would make it impossible for the Islamic Republic to start diverting its nuclear material and technology toward military purposes without the world immediately finding out.

Bergman further erroneously claims that the CIA has recently "moved closer to Israel's assessments of the Iranian nuclear project" -- that it poses an imminent threat -- when, from what we know, the latest U.S. National Intelligence Estimate finds that Iran is not currently engaged in the development of a nuclear weapon capability and has made no decision to pursue the production of such arms. And he outright falsely states that the IAEA's recent report claims that Iran is "in breach of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty." That would be the case if it made a nuclear weapon, helped another nation to do so, or transferred its nuclear technology to a non-member state, and the IAEA report simply does not indicate that any of those things have taken place.

This and the many similarly distorted depictions of Iran's nuclear program yield one certain group of victims: the people of Iran, who aspire to democracy and basic human rights. Tehran's hardliners exploit the hysteria to justify even more intense repression, while rationalizing away their deep incompetence and corruption.

Dr. Sahimi's commentary follows this executive summary. Click here for an American perspective by Gary Sick, and here, for another by Charles Hanley, "Ever a 'threat,' never an atomic power, Iran points up challenges of nuclear technology." See also "Same Old Tricks" by MEA Cyrus.

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[ opinion ] One of the hottest industries in the United States right now is Iranophobia. The industry works day and night to terrify the public about three "facts": (1) Iran is rapidly approaching the point at which it can produce nuclear warheads at will, for which it already has a delivery system, the Shahab-3 missile, that can reach Israel and Europe; (2) when that happens, Tehran's mullahs will immediately target Israel; and (3) a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race will follow, the like of which has never been experienced by humanity. Never mind that even the first "fact" has not materialized, and may never, even though we have been hearing about its imminence since at least 1984.

The Iranophobia industry's advocates are aided by much of the mainstream media, from the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post to some of the well-known journalists who work for the New York Times. The roles that Judith Miller and Michael Gordon played in propagating Ahmed Chalabi's lies about Saddam Hussein's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, which were pivotal in facilitating the invasion of Iraq, are well-known. Later on, Gordon's reporting on Iran and its role in Iraq came in for heavy criticism, because once again he sold the lies and exaggerations that he had been told without scrutinizing them. Nowadays, David Sanger and William Broad of the Times routinely write about Iran's "nuclear weapons program," even without presenting definitive proof that the program exists.

The latest contribution by the Times to the atmosphere of war hysteria is last Sunday's magazine piece by Ronen Bergman, an analyst for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. The main goals of the piece, which is replete with propaganda, seems to hype the "threat" posed by Iran on the one hand, and the possibility that Israel will attack Iran, on the other. Bergman recounts his conversations with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and other Israeli officials and concludes that Israel will attack Iran sometime in 2012.

Before discussing Bergman's article, let me say a few words about the oddity of his conclusion. By his account, the high-ranking Israeli military and intelligence officials with whom he spoke told him that Israel is incapable of inflicting significant damage on Iran, and that any attack would not only fail to stop Iran's nuclear program, it would actually worsen the situation...yet he concludes that Israel will attack anyway. It is as if Bergman decided in advance what conclusion he would reach, regardless of what he was told.

Israeli leaders have often claimed that Iran is a threat to the rest of the world, not just to Israel. If the world waits too long, the moment will arrive -- sometime in the coming year, Barak told Bergman -- beyond which it will no longer be effective to act. At that point, said Barak, "It will not be possible to use any surgical means to bring about a significant delay. Not for us, not for Europe and not for the United States." Moshe Ya'alon, Israel's vice prime minister and minister of strategic affairs, said much the same thing: "Israel should not have to lead the struggle against Iran. It is up to the international community to confront the regime.... The West must stand united and resolute, and what is happening so far is not enough. The Iranian regime must be placed under pressure and isolated. Sanctions that bite must be imposed against it, something that has not happened as yet, and a credible military option should be on the table as a last resort. In order to avoid it, the sanctions must be stepped up."

If Iran were on a par with, say, the old Soviet Union at the height of its power, the claim would be understandable. But Iran has a young and restive population that wants democracy and peaceful relations with the rest of the world. The nation has been in deep crisis since the disputed presidential election of 2009, a crisis that pits a majority of the population against its own government. At the same time, Iran's armed forces are no match for U.S. and Israeli firepower. The only significant weapons that Iran has are its missiles, which it developed for deterrent purposes, having learned its lesson during the long war with Iraq, when its cities were subjected to savage missile attacks, for which it had no response.

Bergman's article also repeats the old cliché: Iran surreptitiously built its uranium enrichment facility in Natanz. As is customary, he never mentions that Iran originally approached the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1983 to help it set up the facility, that the IAEA was receptive to the idea, but that the United States opposed the plan, forcing Iran to begin the work secretly. Even then, Iran violated none of its international obligations, since its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA obligated it only to inform the agency of the existence of any nuclear facility at least 180 days before the introduction of nuclear materials into it, which Iran duly did in February 2003.

Bergman describes how, in 2004, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon put Meir Dagan, then the head of Mossad, in charge of "stopping Iran's bomb." Dagan developed a five-front strategy, including covert war, sanctions, and regime change, which he forwarded to the United States in August 2007, stressing once again that Iran's nuclear potential was a problem for the entire globe: "the United States, Israel, and like-minded countries must push on all five fronts in a simultaneous joint effort." The covert war, involving the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, has actually been going on for over a decade. As part of the covert war, Bergman also mentions support for ethnic "resistance," which is more accurately described as the terrorist operations carried out by the Sunni terrorist group Jundallah in Sistan and Baluchistan province and by the Kurdish terrorist group PJAK in Iranian Kurdistan. We now know, for instance, that Mossad agents, posing as CIA operatives, recruited Jundallah for terrorist actions.

According to Bergman, Dagan believes that "in the mind of the Iranian citizen, a link has been created between his economic difficulties and the nuclear project. Today in Iran, there is a profound internal debate about this matter, which has divided the Iranian leadership." The claim is virtually without basis. It is true that, due to the country's economic difficulties, some Iranians may question the prioritization and cost of the nuclear program, but every Iranian knows that the most important source of those economic problems is first and foremost the government's gross mismanagement of national resources, rampant corruption, and cronyism. In fact, when it comes to the nuclear program, there is no divide between the government and the opposition within Iran. They both support the program; the differences are over tactics and how to negotiate with the West.

"According to latest intelligence, Iran now has some 10,000 functioning centrifuges, and they have streamlined the enrichment process," Bergman writes. To what intelligence does he have access ? If it is the IAEA reports, then the agency says that Iran has fewer than 8,000 centrifuges, half of which are inoperative. He continues, "Iran today has five tons of low-grade fissile material, enough, when converted to high-grade material, to make about five to six bombs; it also has about 175 pounds of medium-grade material, of which it would need about 500 pounds to make a bomb.... They are holding the fissile material at sites across the country." But what he does not say is that Iran's stockpile is safeguarded by the IAEA, which has certified in all of its reports that it has not been used for any nonpeaceful purpose.

But let us even grant that Bergman has stated the truth, or a truth. How did the IAEA obtain this information? Through its inspections of all of Iran's declared nuclear sites, including Natanz and Fordow. The agency has also installed cameras at those two sites, which keep an eye on everything that is going on. The IAEA measures everything to the last gram -- what Iran puts into the centrifuges and the low-enriched uranium that it produces, which is then sealed and safeguarded. Take Bergman's article at face value, however, and one would think that Iran is running wild with its uranium enrichment, with no international supervision whatsoever.

Bergman quotes Barak thus, "An Iranian bomb would ensure the survival of the current regime, which otherwise would not make it to its 40th anniversary in light of the admiration that the young generation in Iran has displayed for the West." So, if Iran even does develop nuclear weapons -- something that may never happen -- it is for its own survival after all, not for attacking others! And, surely, nuclear weapons will shield the Iranian regime from the wrath of its people, just as they did in the cases of South African and the Soviet Union...yes?

Bergman moves on to another grand exaggeration, again via a quote from Barak: "The moment Iran goes nuclear, other countries in the region will feel compelled to do the same. The Saudi Arabians have told the Americans as much, and one can think of both Turkey and Egypt in this context, not to mention the danger that weapons-grade materials will leak out to terror groups." Turkey is a member of NATO and protected by its nuclear shield. Unlike Iran, Egypt does not have the resources to undertake a crash program, and Saudi Arabia does not have the scientists and technicians to do it. But let us even assume they all would try. What country would give them the necessary technology, given that the A.Q. Khan and similar routes have been plugged? If the West intends to give any of the trio nuclear technology, then it hardly has grounds to complain about Iran.

Bergman quotes Barak again: "Imagine if we enter another military confrontation with Hezbollah, which has over 50,000 rockets that threaten the whole area of Israel, including several thousand that can reach Tel Aviv. A nuclear Iran announces that an attack on Hezbollah is tantamount to an attack on Iran. We would not necessarily give up on it, but it would definitely restrict our range of operations." Iran has helped arm Hezbollah to give it strategic depth. Hezbollah is Iran's first line of defense, not offense, against Israel. If Iran ever did develop nuclear weapons, it would no longer need Hezbollah. Indeed, in May 2003 the Khatami administration made a comprehensive proposal to the United States to normalize relations between the two nations, in which Iran promised that it would help disarm Hezbollah and turn it into a purely political organization, and even offered peace to Israel. The proposal was rejected by the Bush administration.

Bergman then quotes Barak as he turns to the well-worn tactic of "it's everyone's problem": "If a nuclear Iran covets and occupies some Gulf state, who will liberate it?" Iran has not attacked any nation for at least 250 years, and has never made any territorial claims against any Persian Gulf country. What state has Iran coveted?

According to Bergman, Barak warns that a year at most remains to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weaponry. Israel estimates that Iran's nuclear program is about nine months away from being able to withstand an Israeli attack. Have we not heard this before? As I have described elsewhere, since at least 1984 we have been told that the Islamic Republic is one or two years away from getting its hands on nuclear weapons. That's 28 years of failed prophecy, and counting.

Bergman then claims, "Over the past year, Western intelligence agencies, in particular the C.I.A., have moved closer to Israel's assessments of the Iranian nuclear project." But if we are to believe Seymour Hersh, the updated National Intelligence Estimate of February 2011 reaffirmed the conclusion that the U.S. intelligence community reached in 2007: that Iran has not relaunched the nuclear weapon program that it supposedly had before 2003, and has made no decision to pursue the production of such weapons. So, the question is, in what sense has the CIA moved closer to Israel's position? Even Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said recently that Iran will need up to three years to manufacture a nuclear warhead and delivery system.

In fact, on Tuesday, January 31, CIA Director David Petraeus and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper both told the Senate that Iran is not producing nuclear weapons and has not made the political decision to do so, reaffirming the main conclusion of the National Intelligence Estimate of November 2007 and its updated version of February 2011.

Like other proponents of war with Iran, what Bergman fails to mention is that if Iran actually decides to make nuclear warheads, the world will immediately learn about it. How? Iran would first have to expel the IAEA inspectors, break the seals on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, and then rush to enrich them to the 90 percent or higher needed for warheads. Doing so would both alert the international community and give it at least nine months to force the Islamic Republic to back down. Bergman's article, however, is crafted to give the impression that Iran would be able to do all of this without the world knowing about it.

Another baseless claim by Bergman: "The International Atomic Energy Agency published a scathing report stating that Iran was in breach of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and was possibly trying to develop nuclear weapons." According to the NPT, a member state is in breach of the agreement if it makes a nuclear weapon, helps another nation to do so, or transfers its nuclear technology to a non-member state. Given that we know for sure Iran has not done the latter two, how can Iran be in breach of the NPT and possibly be trying to develop nuclear weapon at the same time? If Iran has violated the NPT, it means it has already made a nuclear weapon. If we do not know that it has -- and it has not -- how can it be breaching the NPT? The IAEA itself did not say as much in its latest report on Iran. The report discussed what Iran may have done before 2003 and stated that some of the program's research elements might since have been restarted -- and even in that regard, it conceded several times that most of the relevant allegations are no more that. In sum, the agency did little more than ask Iran to explain things.

Bergman also recounts his conversation with a former director of the Mossad, Meir Amit, who gave him "a top secret, for your eyes only" document concerning the discussions between Israel and the United States right before the October 1967 war between Israel and a coalition of Arab nations. Egypt had closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping and was threatening to attack Israel. The document is an interesting read, but Bergman draws a badly flawed analogy between then and now. He claims, "It is striking how that dialogue anticipated the one now under way between Israel and the United States [regarding Iran]. Substitute 'Tehran' for 'Cairo' and 'Strait of Hormuz' for 'Straits of Tiran,' and it could have taken place this past week." Amazing! When the confidential document was composed, Egypt had already closed the straits. Indeed, the Islamic Republic avowed that if it were prevented from selling its oil, it would close the Strait of Hormuz, but it backed down almost immediately.

The surest casualties of such war hysteria are the people of Iran and their aspirations for democracy and the rule of law, as well as their economic well-being. Tehran's hardliners are almost anything one can imagine, but they are certainly not stupid. They will use the hysteria to clamp down even harder on the democratic opposition, hide behind the sanctions in order to justify their utter incompetence and vast corruption, and exploit the threat of war to thwart the people's movement toward a representative government.

The opinions expressed are the author's own.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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