Obama and New York Times Working to Give Solidity to Groundless Iran Nuclear Weapons Charge

By Stephen Gowans

I have no idea whether Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program, and neither does the Obama administration, but that hasn’t stopped Obama’s advisers from claiming that Iran remains determined to develop nuclear weapons. Nor has it stopped The New York Times from working with the Obama administration to create the impression that Iran has a covert nuclear arms program, despite the country’s insistence it hasn’t, and absent any compelling evidence it has.

In a January 3 article (“U.S. sees an opportunity to press Iran on nuclear fuel”) New York Times’ reporters Steven Erlanger and William Broad cite the views of U.S. and other Western officials that dispute Tehran’s claim that Iran’s nuclear program is for civilian use only. Erlanger and Broad note that:

o Obama’s strategists believe that “Iran’s top political and military leaders [remain] determined to develop nuclear weapons.”
o “Iran’s insistence that its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only is roundly rejected by Western officials and, in internal reports, by international nuclear inspectors.”
o “After reviewing new documents that have leaked out of Iran and debriefing defectors lured to the West, Mr. Obama’s advisers say they believe the work on weapons design is continuing on a smaller scale — the same assessment reached by Britain, France, Germany and Israel.”
o “In early September, the American ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Glyn Davies, warned that Iran had ‘possible breakout capacity.’”
o “Mr. Obama’s top advisers say they no longer believe the key finding of a much disputed National Intelligence Estimate about Iran, published a year before President George W. Bush left office, which said that Iranian scientists ended all work on designing a nuclear warhead in late 2003.”

In these five paragraphs Erlanger and Broad manage to reveal nothing that isn’t already known: that Iran says it isn’t seeking nuclear weapons and that U.S and Israeli politicians say it is. But they’ve written the article in a way that creates the impression that the existence of a nuclear weapons program in Iran is almost beyond dispute.

At no point do The New York Times’ reporters cite contradictory evidence, except to acknowledge that Iran denies it seeks nuclear weapons. However, they immediately counter Iran’s denial, noting that it is rejected by Western officials.

It is, however, untrue that Iran’s denials are uniformly rejected. The United Nations nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, says there is no solid evidence that Iran has ever had a nuclear arms program. Erlanger and Broad themselves reported this on October 4, 2009. “In September, the IAEA issued a ‘statement cautioning it ‘has no concrete proof’ that Iran ever sought to make nuclear arms, much less to perfect a warhead.’” [1] Added Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief nuclear watchdog at the time: “We have not seen concrete evidence that Tehran has an ongoing nuclear weapons program… But somehow, many people are talking about how Iran’s nuclear program is the greatest threat to the world. In many ways, I think the threat has been hyped.” [2]

While the U.S. intelligence community hasn’t gone so far as to say there is no concrete proof that Tehran ever had a nuclear weapons program, in its 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) it did say that Iran hasn’t had a nuclear weapons program since 2003.

In a September 10, 2009 article, Erlanger reported that “new intelligence reports delivered to the White House say that [Iran] has deliberately stopped short of the critical last steps to make a bomb,” and “The new intelligence information collected by the Obama administration finds no convincing evidence that the design work has resumed.” [3]

It could be that new evidence compiled since September has led the Obama administration to adopt a revised view. Certainly, Obama’s advisers say they no longer believe the NIE, but they’ve been saying that since February. Back then, they acknowledged that “no new evidence (had) surfaced to undercut the findings of the (NIE)” but that they didn’t believe it, all the same. [4]

Significantly, Erlanger and Broad report that, “The administration’s (current) review of Iran’s program … (does) not amount to a new formal intelligence assessment.” In other words, the new intelligence, information from allies, and analyses that have led Obama’s advisers to conclude that Iran remains determined to develop nuclear weapons, isn’t of sufficient weight or credibility to revise the NIE. Just as was true in February.

Sanger and Broad reported as recently as December 16 that the “Institute for Science and International Security, a group in Washington that tracks nuclear proliferation” urged “caution and further assessment” of some of the evidence Obama advisers say has led them to reject the NIE, because “we have seen no evidence of an Iranian decision to build” nuclear weapons. [5]

The Obama administration’s recent actions smack of the former Bush administration’s practice of glomming on to any evidence, no matter how dubious, to make the case that Iraq had banned weapons. Bush may have been replaced by Obama, but the practice of sexing up intelligence to fabricate a case for war, or in this case, more sanctions in the short term — and of The New York Times playing a role in uncritically circulating pretexts for U.S. aggression — continue.

It would appear that while there is no credible evidence to revise the NIE, it is convenient for the Obama administration to claim that Iran is bent on acquiring nuclear arms. So it simply says it has new evidence that Iran is secretly working on building nuclear weapons. The New York Times, frequently complicit in U.S. foreign policy deceptions, plays along.

One other matter: Would an Iran with a nuclear weapons capability be a threat that warrants a pre-emptive strike?

Any nuclear arms capability Iran developed would be rudimentary and pose what U.S. foreign policy critic Edward Herman has called the threat of self-defense. Nuclear weapons would offer Iran a way of making the United States and Israel, both with vastly larger arsenals than Iran could ever develop in decades, and track records of attacking countries that threaten to disturb the balance of power in the Middle East (i.e., that threaten to challenge U.S. domination of the region), to think twice about overt aggression. A few nuclear weapons wouldn’t turn Iran into the new bully on the block, capable of throwing its weight around, and getting its way. Israel, with its estimated 200 nuclear warheads, is the region’s biggest bully, and, backed by the bully extraordinaire, the United States, will continue to be for some time. Iran, even a nuclear-armed one, is a military pipsqueak, by comparison.

As Uzi Rubin, a private defense consultant who ran Israel’s missile shield program in the 1990s, reminds us: Iran “is radical, but radical does not mean irrational … They want to change the world, not commit suicide.” [6] The United States, on the other hand, wants to rule the world, and will resort to whatever baseless charges are necessary to justify its actions.

1. “Report says Iran has data to make a nuclear bomb,” The New York Times, October 4, 2009.
2. http://www.boston.com/news/world/europe/articles/2009/09/02/un_nuclear_watchdog_says_iran_threat_hyped/
3. “US says Iran could expedite nuclear bomb,” The New York Times, September 10, 2009.
4. Greg Miller, “US now sees Iran as pursuing nuclear bombs,” Los Angeles Times, February 12, 2009.
5. “Nuclear memo in Persian puzzles spy agencies,” The New York Times, December 16, 2009.
6. Howard Schneider, “Israel finds strength in its missile defenses,” The Washington Post, September 19, 2009.

Iran’s acknowledged nuclear fuel plant and Israel’s secret nuclear weapons plant

By Stephen Gowans

Western press accounts of the existence of an unfinished Iranian nuclear fuel plant near Qum have subtly changed, drawing closer to a view more compatible with Washington’s aim of marshalling support for stepped up sanctions against Iran.

While early press reports acknowledged that Iran had on Monday, September 22 notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of the plant’s existence [1] (that is, days before the Obama administration drew attention to it) stories in major dailies now omit any mention of the Iranian notification. Instead, the reporting on the issue now creates the impression that the existence of the facility was unknown outside of Iran until US officials revealed it on Friday, September 26. For example, New York Times reporters David E. Sanger and William J. Broad write of “the revelation Friday of the secret facility at a military base near the holy city of Qum.” [2] The facility could hardly be secret, since it existence had been revealed by Iran itself five days earlier.

U.S. media have also omitted any mention of a secret nuclear weapons plant in another West Asian country, Israel.

Israel’s secret nuclear weapons plant, long in existence, is located in the Negev desert near Dimona. [3] I.A.E.A inspectors have never visited it and never will unless Israel becomes a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a treaty Iran has voluntarily submitted to. (While the United States is a nominal signatory, it acts as if it’s not bound by the treaty’s provisions, and therefore is effectively no more a member than Israel is.)

Neither are Israel and the United States members of the International Criminal Court (sharing non-membership with Russia and China.) I.C.C. non-membership, however, doesn’t mean the court can’t pursue prosecutions in connection with non-member states. It can, if ordered to by the U.N. Security Council (i.e., by the United States, Russia and China, the same countries that won’t join the court themselves.) The Security Council ordered the I.C.C. to investigate crimes committed in connection with fighting in Darfur. That’s why the president of Sudan is wanted by the I.C.C., even though Sudan isn’t a member of the court. Washington’s de jure and de facto power to veto the Security Council (the overwhelming strength of the U.S. military pretty much allows the United States to operate by its own rules) are ultimately the reasons why the former president of the United States, George W. Bush, isn’t wanted by the court and not because Bush is free of the taint of massive war crimes. It only matters that you commit crimes if you aren’t the United States or don’t have its backing. And even then not having Washington’s backing is frequently all that matters. After all, Iraq was attacked, invaded, and occupied even though it wasn’t concealing the banned weapons Washington said it was failing to come clean on.

When the U.N. Human Rights Commission’s fact-finding mission on war crimes committed in Gaza from December 2008 to January 2009 said Israel should carry out serious, independent investigations, and if it didn’t, the Security Council should refer the matter to the I.C.C., [4] Israel immediately rejected the demand. Not widely reported was that the United States said there was no chance it would allow the Security Council to refer the matter to the I.C.C., arguing the U.N. report was “unbalanced.” U.S. officials noted that 85 percent of the commission’s report detailed Israeli war crimes, and only 15 percent those committed by Hamas. [5] But the “imbalance” reflected the imbalance in the struggle, with Israel using its formidable war machine to cause considerable civilian death, injury and destruction, while Hamas fired crude, home-made rockets whose effect was hardly registered. If the report was mostly about Israeli war crimes, it was because Israel committed most the war crimes.

Owing to the protection it receives from Washington, Israel won’t be answering to the I.C.C., and nor will it be sanctioned for failing to sign up to the non-proliferation treaty or for having a secret nuclear weapons program. These penalties are solely reserved for countries that are resisting U.S. domination, not facilitating its extension, the role Israel plays as U.S. attack dog in West Asia and northern Africa.

Israel already has an attack on another country’s nuclear facilities under its belt (the 1981 bombing of Iraq’s Osirak reactor.) Over the last year it has issued a series of military threats against Iran’s civilian nuclear facilities. That is, a nuclear weapons state has repeatedly threatened a non-nuclear weapons state. And yet Iran not Israel is presented in the Western media as dangerous and aggressive.

Israel has always relied on the deception that it is under existential threat to justify its numerous aggressions, when always it has had at its command military force in excess of that its opponents can marshal. This is true even going back to its founding in 1948, when it faced off against ragtag Arab volunteers, and then a disorganized agglomeration of Arab armies, while claiming it was defending itself against a second holocaust.

While it’s true that the government of Iran is hostile to the Zionist occupation of Palestine, Iran poses no serious military threat to Israel, and wouldn’t, even if it were capable of quickly producing nuclear weapons. The best it could do is present a threat of self-defense. It would take years for Iran to match Israel’s current nuclear arsenal, and in the intervening period, Israel could vastly expand its own. Plus, Israel, already possessing a formidable military – it receives $3 billion in U.S. military aid every year — is backed by history’s most formidable military power, the United States. Iran, even with the rudimentary arsenal of nuclear weapons it may have the capability (though perhaps never the intention) of producing at some point, is no match for Israel – and this its leaders know well. The country, remarked Uzi Rubin, a private defense consultant who ran Israel’s missile shield program in the 1990s, “is radical, but radical does not mean irrational. They want to change the world, not commit suicide.” [6]

1. David E. Sanger, “U.S. to accuse Iran of having secret nuclear fuel facility,” The New York Times, September 26, 2009.
2. See for example David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, “U.S. to demand inspection of new Iran plan ‘within weeks’”, The New York Times, September 27, 2009.
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negev_Nuclear_Research_Center
4. Neil MacFarquhar, “Inquiry finds Gaza war crimes from both sides,” The New York Times, September 16, 2009.
5. Colum Lynch, “U.S. faces doubts about leadership on human rights,” The Washington Post, September 22, 2009.
6. Howard Schneider, “Israel finds strength in its missile defenses,” The Washington Post, September 19, 2009.

Iran’s not so secret, ‘secret’ fuel plant

By Stephen Gowans

The construction of a uranium enrichment facility by Iran outside of Qum, which Tehran notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of days ago, has been seized upon dishonestly by Washington “as a chance to…persuade other countries to support the case for stronger sanctions” against Iran. [1]

Washington is seeking an international sanctions regime to pressure Iran into abandoning its enrichment of uranium. So far Washington has had little success in marshalling the support of Russia and China, whose cooperation is needed for a United Nations Security Council resolution to escalate sanctions against the Islamic republic.

The United States and the European Union want Iran to import nuclear fuel for its power plants, rather than enrich its abundant supplies of domestic uranium itself. While Iran insists its fuel program is for civilian use, the means to enrich uranium at home provides Tehran with a nuclear weapons capability. It’s a short step from enriching uranium for use in commercial reactors to enriching it to a higher grade for use in nuclear weapons.

There are, then, two reasons why Washington wants to force Tehran to abandon its enrichment program:

A. The potential to quickly develop nuclear weapons would equip Tehran with the means to deter Washington and its allies from using the threat of military force to coerce the country into surrendering its independence.

B. Were Tehran forced to look abroad for sources of nuclear fuel, its independence would be sharply limited by Washington’s ability to cut off its nuclear fuel supply.

To advance its aims of securing backing for an international sanctions regime, Washington has accused Iran of secretly building, with the intention of producing weapons grade uranium, an undisclosed facility in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. There are a number of problems with this accusation.

1. There is no operating fuel plant. The enrichment facility is unfinished and is not expected to be operational until some time next year. [2]

2. It is not secret. Iran notified the IAEA that it was building the facility days before Washington contrived to use the acknowledgement as evidence of a secret nuclear weapons program. A September 26 David E. Sanger New York Times article ran under the headline “U.S. to accuse Iran of having secret nuclear fuel facility,” inviting the question, how can a nuclear fuel facility be secret, if its existence is already publicly acknowledged? The headline should have read, “U.S. to accuse Iran of having a nuclear fuel facility that was unacknowledged before it was acknowledged.” That The New York Times has taken a tautology and turned it into an apparently damning revelation points to the ever compliant U.S. media’s role as one of equivocation in the service of marshalling support for U.S. foreign policy positions.

3. Under the terms of Iran’s agreement with the IAEA, Tehran is required to report when nuclear material is introduced into a facility, not when construction of the facility begins. [3] Iran reiterated this point with the nuclear agency in March 2007 [4]. When centrifuges (which are used to process nuclear fuel) began to be moved into the unfinished plant, Iran let the IAEA know of the facility’s existence, in accordance with its agreement.

4. Lost amid Washington’s spin is the reality that “even United States intelligence officials acknowledge that there is no evidence that Iran has taken the final step toward creating a bomb.” [5] And yet the Obama administration is treating Iran’s public disclosure of the existence of the unfinished fuel plant as evidence of a secret weapons program. While news reports now suggest that U.S. intelligence “had been tracking the covert project for years” [6] and that the facility is too small to be used for enriching uranium to commercial grade, only two weeks ago The New York Times reported that “new intelligence reports delivered to the White House say that the country has deliberately stopped short of the critical last steps to make a bomb.” [7] If Iran has deliberately stopped short, then the facility could hardly be intended to produce bomb fuel. Isn’t the construction of such a facility a step in making a bomb?

Not so hidden in Washington’s accusation is a threat of war. United States President Barack Obama announced that “the alternative to (the Iranian’s) giving up their program…is to ‘continue down a path that is going to lead to confrontation.’” [8] Obama added that the ‘secret’ (though publicly acknowledged) Iranian plant “represents a direct challenge to the basic foundation of the nonproliferation regime.” [9] This is nonsense, and it is so for all the reasons cited above. But it’s also nonsense for another reason: the real direct challenge to the basic foundation of the nonproliferation regime is the United States itself. It tolerates the nuclear arsenals of its allies — not being particularly vexed by proliferation to Israel, India and Pakistan — while threatening non-allies militarily, and thereby providing them with an incentive to acquire nuclear weapons as a means of self-defense.

The true foundation of the nonproliferation treaty is a quid pro quo, whereby nuclear weapons states agree to give up their weapons while non-nuclear states agree not to acquire them. Part of the agreement is that non-nuclear states are to have access to nuclear energy for civilian use, as long as they abide by the provisions of the nonproliferation treaty. Iran has abided by the agreement, though for Washington and the EU, it’s not enough. Iran is expected to renounce its right to an independent civilian nuclear power industry, to prevent it from acquiring the capability of developing nuclear weapons, should it ever need to counter U.S. or Israeli military (and possibly nuclear) blackmail. It also forces Iran into a dependence on the West for nuclear fuel. The selective enforcement of the non-proliferation treaty in the interests of U.S. foreign policy represents the real challenge to the nonproliferation regime.

1. Helene Cooper and Mark Mazzetti, “Cryptic Iranian note ignited an urgent nuclear strategy debate,” The New York Times, September 26, 2009.

2. David E. Sanger, “U.S. to accuse Iran of having secret nuclear fuel facility,” The New York Times, September 26, 2009.

3. Neil MacFarquhar, “Iran’s leader mocks West’s accusations,” The New York Times, September 26, 2009.

4. “Tehran’s nuclear ambitions: A timeline,” The Washington Post, September 26, 2009.

5. Cooper and Mazzetti.

6. Sanger, “U.S. to accuse Iran…”

7. David E. Sanger, “US says Iran could expedite nuclear bomb,” The New York Times, September 10, 2009.

8. David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, “U.S. allies warn Iran over nuclear deception,” The New York Times, September 26, 2009.

9. Ibid.