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The History of Iran's Nuclear Weapons Program
In conversation with Gareth Porter
I recently had a conversation with Gareth Porter an investigative journalist and historian. We talked about his 2014 book titled Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.
Below is a transcript of our conversation and a link to the video.
“Nuclear weapons neither ensure security, nor do they consolidate political power, rather they are a threat to both security and political power. The events that took place in the 1990s showed that the possession of such weapons could not even safeguard a regime like the former Soviet Union. And today we see certain countries which are exposed to waves of deadly insecurity despite possessing atomic bombs.” -Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, 2012
Hello and good evening everyone, today I'm speaking to a historian and a journalist, and he is an author of three books that I'm aware of: Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam and his latest book is called the CIA insider’s guide to Iran: a crisis from the coup to the brink of war. But the topic today is the second last book which is Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.
Gareth PORTER, welcome to this Channel.
Thank you so, much you Hügo. Very nice to be with you.
The book that you've written is quite information dense. It really challenged my brain on Iran and Iranian history. My listeners will know that I am married to an Iranian woman. So, I could confirm some of the stuff that you wrote. I want you to give us a background on what is the origin of Iran's attitude to nuclear weapons and in particular highlight the important period of the Iran-Iraq war.
Sure, this is a very important point absolutely to understand for those who are unfamiliar with the history of Iran's Nuclear Program. There was a period as you pointed out of the Iran-Iraq War. This was the very first years of the Islamic Regime in Iran. After Saddam Hussein’s regime had attacked Iran, the issue of how Iran would respond to that attack came up. In terms of what sort of weapons, it would be able to use, came up early in the war as I found out in my own research, because the Iraqis were using weapons of mass destruction - they were using chemical weapons against Iranian targets. Initially military targets, but later against Iranian cities and tens of thousands of Iranian citizens were severely injured by the Iraqi chemical weapons. So, this came up very early on. By 1982 it was an issue in terms of the Iranian resistance forces whether they could and should respond by developing their own chemical weapons and possibly even nuclear weapons.
I interviewed, this is not in my book, but I interviewed, the then head of military supply of the Iranian military forces, who has retired of course, but still living in the capital. I had a chance to interview him about that episode in the history of the Iran-Iraq war and he told me that he had gone to Ayatollah Khomeini in person in his official capacity to propose that he be allowed to develop a nuclear weapons program, as well as a chemical weapons program and Khomeini was very firm on that point. To be clear he said, “absolutely no, this is strictly forbidden in Islam to have weapons of mass destruction, Iran may not have any weapons of mass destruction”. So, it was out of the question.
Then in the late period of the war around 1986-87 the Iraqis began to use chemical weapons against civilian targets on cities. He went back to Khomeini a second time and again asked permission to develop them. He told him that, actually I'm not so sure what he told him, he certainly didn't tell him the full truth, but he intimated that he was ready to go ahead with a program of chemical weapons and he was again told “absolutely not” by Khomeini. So, he actually had begun to gather the rudiments of a chemical weapons program, and he dismantled it, and stopped it. So that is really the essential background for understanding the thinking on the part of the Iranian regime. Khomeini was the official who made decisions on all major political military decisions for the regime and that established the principle that Iran could not have nuclear weapons.
Now it came up again after Khamenei became the leading figure in the regime. The one who makes the decisions about the ultimate acceptability of decisions in terms of Islamic law. Khamenei actually was late in doing so, he did not make any decision about this in the early period of the Islamic regime, when he was the ultimate decision maker. But when it came up as a political issue internationally, he felt that he was forced to make a new decision, to make it clear, that he as the ultimate Islamic source of law for Iran would not allow any nuclear weapons program to be developed. So that really ended for all intents and purposes any possibility that Iran could have a nuclear weapons program under his jurisdiction.
So just to give the listeners an impression here, which I think is important, because I've visited Iran and I'm going to visit again. If you travel through any Iranian city or town, the memories of the Iran-Iraq war is real. The best that I can describe it, is the equivalent of The Second World War in Russia, or even America for that matter. It is the foundational narrative shaping war of the Iranian Republic. So, decisions made on that basis is usually final in Iran. The second point that I would like you to elaborate on is, as you know, Iran is ruled by the Vilayat-e faqih. The Faqih being The Supreme Leader.
You make the point that the Supreme Leader made the decision that there will not be chemical or nuclear weapons. The critics against that argument have said that people in the regime can undermine the Faqih and that the fatwa is not codified in law.
How do you respond to that?
Well, there have been an awful lot of arguments made by those who are intent on the idea that that Iran must have developed nuclear weapons and these treatments of the concept of the fatwa in Iranian Islamic law are extremely far off the mark. In my book I quote a PhD candidate in the UK who has done up to that point, at least in my knowledge, the most detailed research on this whole question. He pointed out that the arguments that have been made simply had no understanding of the concept of the fatwa.
I won't go into all the arguments, but I think the biggest single argument is that it has to be a document that can be read online. That there's a place where you would find something that is a fatwa and this student in the UK pointed out to me that that's not necessary. It could be a speech by the Supreme Leader, it could be remarks made informally in a group, it can take a number of different forms. So essentially what I want to emphasize is that the fatwa against nuclear weapons has been widely misconstrued and misrepresented. Even the Washington Post, fact finder, the fact checker, I should say, wrote a column about the fatwa which I responded to in detail. I pointed out the extreme errors that he had made showing that he had not really done the necessary research to write that column. I'm quite confident that it is it is safe to say that the fatwa was valid, it was understood as valid within the regime and by everybody who followed Islam within Iran.
That’s an important point for anyone who's interested in the issue and to take very high note, of the fact that there is a fatwa. Just for clarity, is that fatwa still active today?
It is still active today and it has not been removed or has not been changed. Now the question arises: if, and when the current supreme leader should die, will the fatwa still be valid? I think there are different views on that and it's very likely that at that point a new supreme leader would be called upon to make some remarks about the question. It's difficult to believe that would not happen and therefore it seems quite likely that in any case the successor to the present supreme leader will issue a fatwa to this effect.
Anyone listening to this shocking news should ask the question, then how is it that there is a media discourse where there's a narrative saying that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon?
Yes, there's a long history about this narrative of course going back many years which is the result of a very decided and continuing propaganda campaign by the US Government. To make it beyond any question on the part of readers of newspapers and watchers of television news that of course we know that Iran has a nuclear weapons program.
It really began during the early history of Iran's nuclear program when the United States made a major political diplomatic effort to muscle its own allies, particularly France and Germany, to force them to try to force an end to the Iranian nuclear program. This would have been in the early 1980s and that's because the Iranians had made a decision that they would not try to enrich uranium themselves. They would continue to use the same arrangement that the Shah had had, which was to rely on a Consortium located in France that would do all of the enrichment of uranium. That meant that they would not control it, that they would only be able to take advantage of what was done by that France-based Consortium.
What the United States tried to do was to get the French and the Germans in particular to end their cooperation with Iran. The Germans were helping Iran's nuclear program in various technical ways, because of the need to repair the one remaining nuclear reactor in Iran. The United States tried to force both France and Germany to end their cooperation with Iran in the belief that that would force an end to the program. Neither Germany nor France was happy with that, but they were responsive to American pressure and so that is why the Iranians in effect made the decision to have their own nuclear program. That meant going to the market to purchase the fundamental technology that was necessary to carry out their own program without any international support.
That's a chapter in this whole history that is completely unknown to the public, because it simply has not been covered up by the media and by the US Government. They don't want to deal with that for obvious reasons.
Was that in violation or in respect of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty?
That is a very important question, and the answer of course is that it is totally consistent with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Every member of the IAEA has the absolute right to have its own nuclear program, this is a right that is part of the charter of the IAEA. The United States was really violating that Charter; doing violence to the Charter, in its effort to put pressure on Iran and on France or Germany which were at that point, before the Iranians were forced to get their own technology, helping them. Again, this is something that has never been recognized, it’s been simply under the rug as far as the US public and media are concerned.
Would you say at no point until, let's say until 2003, we can now elaborate maybe on the period afterwards, was Iran violating the NPT?
There's no been no violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and at that point it became a question of the United States saying it had evidence that Iran was starting its own nuclear weapons program, which would be a violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. That's why my book is devoted to a great extent to the history of how the Iranians dealt with these accusations by the United States and by its European allies by responding quite fully to every question that was raised.
In my book I have a chapter which deals with each of the questions separately and how the Iranians provided documentation that should have satisfied the United States. The United States response to that was essentially to pay no attention to it. They simply didn't deal with it, they pretended that it never happened, which is obviously very revealing in terms of the legitimacy of the US case.
Well, that is not very surprising to somebody that's not from the Western world.
Let’s fast forward for the sake of time. The current claim that Iran has a nuclear weapons program was handed to German intelligence by the Mojahedin-e-Khalqis (MEK). For those who don't know, the MEK is based in Paris where I am, and they're basically a fanatical cult.
Was this Source legitimate?
This is obviously evidence that should have upset the entire apple cart in terms of the US case against Iran’s on its nuclear program. I documented in my book the way in which this is documented came from the German official who was in charge of relations with North America. Who was brought into the details of the issue, because the German officials who were in charge of the issue of nuclear affairs asked him to come in, because they were upset that the Secretary of State under the Bush Administration was making public statements suggesting that Iran was in fact violating the IAEA and was getting into a nuclear weapons program and that they had evidence of that.
He was told by the German officials in charge of the issue that they knew for a fact that was not the case.
That there was no evidence whatsoever of a violation and he actually wrote in a Wall Street Journal editorial op-ed piece saying that. Which again has been sort of wiped out of the history of this, no one's ever paid any attention to it except for my book.
He retired and if I remember correctly in 2013 or 2014. I had an opportunity to do a telephone interview with him in which he gave me this detailed background and then of course the roof caved in on him. He was under very big pressure from the German government not to say a word about this and he would give no more interviews to anybody else and wouldn't talk to me again at all. He was very unhappy that this had happened apparently, but anyway I have my notes on the interview and there's no doubt what he said explicitly. He gave the explicit history of that of that affair.
In an article to The Nation in 2014, you drew a comparison between this type of intelligence, or rather lack of intelligence, and the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Is this that significant?
Yes, this is of the same character in terms of an issue where the US Government went completely off the rails in terms of its claims. The US Intelligence Community was very deeply involved in that, in both cases. That's another major sort of parallel between the two cases and indeed I tried to take advantage of that in my book, to suggest that there is a major bumbling of the Intel US intelligence Community, comparable to the one that accompanied the charge that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that he was using the weapons of mass destruction. It is a major a complete flop, a failure of US intelligence.
I interviewed the guy who was in charge of the 2007 CIA estimate which made the call that Iran had in fact entered into a weapons of mass destruction program in 2003. That Iran at that point had a weapons of mass destruction program. I questioned him very closely about it and at one point the question I was asking he refused to answer, so I think that he has some inkling that there were some weaknesses in that case, but he's not going to admit that.
The other elephant in the room here is Israel, what is the Israeli role in this whole story?
There's no doubt that the Israelis were behind the MEK’s having those fake documents. These were documents that the MEK was not capable of manufacturing. It was an Israeli Mossad affair. They were the ones who had actually manufactured a set of documents, which if you look at it closely, knowing the history of the Iranian nuclear program, you can really make a hard and fast case that these had to be fake documents.
The point here is that the Israelis from 2004 to 2006 were involved in compiling a set of documents that they could use basically to get the United States government to take up the cudgel on their behalf and accuse Iran of having a nuclear weapons program. Ever since then of course they have been continuing to carry out a disinformation program about this whole question of Iran's nuclear program and it's supposed continuing becoming involved in nuclear weapons.
They did it again a few years ago when they came out with another set of documents which they made a huge propaganda program around. Netanyahu appeared with the set of notebooks behind him, lined up on shelves, making this claim up. I revealed in a series of articles how the Israeli Mossad did another job of creating false documents in order to make this case and nobody has challenged anything that I wrote and published about this.
Has there been any documents since the MEK documents that come from legitimate sources to demonstrate that Iran has a nuclear weapons program?
No nothing. Those people who visited Israel and have been shown these documents have never been given a chance to take them home with them. Mossad and Netanyahu have been very careful not to allow any foreigner who would have the potential to do a job, of actually fact checking, to access to the original documents or even facsimiles them. So, they've been given a few documents or selected documents but not the entire set of documents. It's clear that they did not want to take any chances.
What do you make of two things that happened recently. Firstly, there is a media statement that Iran has 84% enrichment, although no context, grams, or quantities are ever cited, which makes me skeptical as an engineer in the field. Secondly Bill Burns, head of the CIA, recently said that Iran has not yet decided to resume a nuclear weapon. Those two statements seem contradictory. What do you make of it?
Yes, I understand what you're talking about there are two different stories about this question with different headlines. One headline says that Iran confirms the accusation. I think the term accusation was used against Iran about over the nuclear weapons program. The second one said Iran challenges or denies that that accusation.
What actually happened was that one of the stories was basically saying that Iran agreed that they had been accused of having this violation of 84 percent. Not admitting it but admitting that they've been accused of it by somebody in IAEA. The other story said they were denying the accusation, so it was a problem of lack of clarity on the part of the headline writers in particular about the about these stories.
Obama had the nuclear deal, that Donald Trump walked out of, and it would seem to me after reading your book there never was a crisis to begin with. Does that not put the question this entire nuclear deal and everything that followed from there?
Yeah, there should not have been any crisis either before or after the nuclear deal. But particularly now focusing on the fact that there was a deal that the United States signed that would have essentially dealt with all the problems the United States was raising. Then Trump of course in his “wisdom” essentially got out of it and refused to have anything to do with it and that’s left his successor with a decision about how to handle this and not surprisingly the Biden Administration has handled it by essentially punting, and not really making an immediate decision, and sort of putting it off and putting the onus on Iran to come around and deal with them in a way that they find acceptable.
Basically, it's a crisis waiting to happen in the future, that’s the way I would put it.
What is the possibility of War breaking out? Because on the one hand you have the CIA director saying Iran doesn't have plans to resume nuclear weaponization. Then there was some statement like I can't remember it from who, in either your congress or a senate where somebody testified and said Iran is 12 days from a bomb. Again you have these two stories.
What is the possibility of war coming out of this nonsense?
As an investigative journalist it's in my interest to say, yes there's a serious threat of war here. But as a historian and as somebody, who doesn't want to tell a lie, I have to say that I don't really believe that the chances of war are significant at all. That's based on the fact that we've had a succession of war crises for closer to 20 years now and the Israelis were the ones behind that for many years.
For their own purposes they wanted the world to believe that unless something was done about the Iranian nuclear program, to force an end to it, they would do something about it militarily.
In my book I talk about these war crises that Netanyahu deliberately created for that political purpose, but in fact he never had any intention of having a war against Iran and indeed it would have been really impossible for Israel to do it itself, it would have to have the United States Okaying. It would need American Support to carry a war out.
Israel really didn't have the full capability to do it by itself. For one thing at least at the very beginning the early period of this the Israelis did not have the refueling capability they needed to carry out a two-way operation against Iran and I think that politically they would have difficulty doing this without US support. That's what one of the things that I learned from my own trip to Israel to do the research for this book, that Netanyahu is much more cautious than he would ever let on publicly. His pose was that he was the man who was going to save Israel and that he was not going to allow the Iranians to do this, but in fact he was relying on American Support all the way. When the Americans said no, when the Obama Administration refused to play ball with him, he really didn't have an answer to that.
Would you say that it is Israeli tactics, a strategy basically to keep the hype of Iran alive?
Exactly, that's a political strategy not a military intention.
Gareth I'd like to thank you very much for this information. This is an important book to anyone who cares about the Iranian issue. I'm actually ashamed that I only discovered it recently. Thank you very much.
Thanks so much for your interest in it. I'm glad to have somebody who does in fact have that serious interest, that’s always great to know. Thank you very much.
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