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“In 2003, Iran Halted its Nuclear Program”

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Gary Leupp 

Everybody’s talking about the NIE — the “National Intelligence Estimate” about Iran and its alleged nuclear weapons program. This report was requested by the Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act signed by President Bush on October 17, 2006. An NIE on the topic had been released in 2005, and another had been completed at the time the Congress passed the defense authorization bill. But the latter, according to former CIA officer Philip Giraldi writing in the American Conservative in October 2006, was being withheld due to objections from Vice President Cheney’s office. It apparently reflected the judgment of the Director of National intelligence, John Negroponte, who had stated in April 2006 that it would still be “a number of years off” before Iran would be “likely to have enough fissile material to assemble into or to put into a nuclear weapon, perhaps into the next decade.”

According to Gareth Porter, “Cheney’s desire for a ‘clean’ NIE that could be used to support his aggressive policy toward Iran was apparently a major factor in the replacement of John Negroponte as director of national intelligence in early 2007.” The release of this NIE was long delayed, again reportedly due to objections by Cheney’s office. Administration officials even intimated that the non-classified part of the report would be withheld from the public.

The “key judgment” in the document is of course the following: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons” It has met with various reactions.

Those worried about a U.S. attack on Iran and the expansion of the U.S. war in Southwest Asia have generally welcomed the NIE, concluding with relief that it finally takes war on Iran “off the table.”

Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, who has opposed an attack, says that “if nothing else,” the report removes “the urgency that we have to attack Iran, or knock out facilities.” He adds, “I don’t think you can overstate the importance of this.” But some of those welcoming the report combine relief with hard questions for the administration. They note that the “great discovery” it contains was (according to the December 6 New York Times) made last summer, and that Bush’s warnings about the threat of Iran’s nuclear program actually became progressively more shrill after that. In late August he warned of a “nuclear holocaust” if Iran continued to enrich uranium; in October he declared that Iran must be stopped “if you’re interested in avoiding World War III.” Some people want to know what the president knew, and when he knew it.

Those gung-ho for an attack, meanwhile, who had assumed that their cowboy prez would deliver on his bellicose anti-Iran rhetoric, feel stabbed in the back. Norman Podhoretz, for example, neocon godfather and father-in-law of the leading neocon in the administration at present, Deputy National Security Advisor (and convicted Iran-Contra figure) Elliott Abrams. Last May Podhoretz cheerily wrote in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that he expected Bush would “within the next 21 months…order air strikes against the Iranian nuclear facilities from the three U.S. aircraft carriers already sitting nearby” and thereby “ensure the security of this country in accordance with the vow he took upon becoming president, and in line with his pledge not to stand by while one of the world’s most dangerous regimes threatens us with one of the world’s most dangerous weapons.”

Now Podhoretz gloomily writes of his “dark suspicions about the NIE.” He declares that “the intelligence community, which has for some years now been leaking material calculated to undermine George W. Bush” is trying “to head off the possibility that the President may order air strikes on the Iranian nuclear installations” — as though that were somehow a nefarious act of sabotage. Like Cheney and his team, Podhoretz seems convinced that the professional intelligence community is dominated by liberals, Democrats and pacifists (if not anti-Semites indifferent to the “existential” danger and threat of “nuclear holocaust” he insists Iran presents to Israel).

For my part I’m guardedly optimistic that the NIE will diminish the prospects for an Iran attack, and pleased to watch the neocons throwing their shit-fits. But I think people are missing something here. The report says, “in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” On the one hand it says, Iran probably doesn’t have a program now. On the other it says definitely: it had one. This is really the centerpiece of what AP calls the “blockbuster” report: that Iran (like Iraq in the late 1980s) had a secret military nuclear program in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Why is this important? ” It’s important because the Bush administration has a unique sense of time, in which past, present and future are all happening simultaneously. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino stated on December 5, “Iran does in fact have a covert nuclear weapons program, but it may be suspended.” (It is, and yet it was…it really depends on what “is” is, doesn’t it?) If Bush can posit that Iran had a nuclear weapons program, or has a “suspended” one, he can use such allegations by themselves to justify an attack.

Recall Bush’s response to critics who were pointing out in June 2003 that no weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. He denounced them as “some who would like to rewrite history — revisionist historians is what I like to call them,” adding: “Saddam Hussein was a threat to America and the free world in ’91, in ’98, in 2003.” His point was that the chronological details really didn’t matter. Saddam was pursuing a nuclear weapons program in 1991. It was destroyed by the IAEA, but its existence at a certain point in time legitimated an American attack twelve years later.

Now when the intelligence community publicly states in no uncertain terms that Iran’s nuclear program is not an imminent threat, Bush stresses a historical continuum. “Look,” he said at his December 4 White House news conference, as though stating the obvious: “Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous, and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.” Imagine him in the last months of his presidency, following a “shock & awe” campaign against an Iran with no nukes, and the inevitable international response of revulsion, responding to critics by saying “Iran was a threat to America and the free world in 2003, 2005 [when Ahmadinejad was elected], and 2008.”

His point in 2003 as well as now is: if we can show — or even just assert — that a state we dislike had, at some point in the past, aspirations to nuclear weapons capability, we’re entitled to attack it.

We — a country with 5,000 nukes deployed and an equal number in storage, a military budget greater than the rest of the world’s combined, and military forces stationed in about 140 countries — do so in self-defense, lest they use their nukes on us. Or if they even Google-search the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon!

Why should we believe this charge that Iran had a nuclear weapons program in the first place? Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia — a country with intelligence about Iran probably as good as that of the US — announced immediately after the NIE was made public that Russia “no proof suggesting that Iran has ever run a program for developing nuclear weapons” (emphasis added).

According to the New York Times, the “great discovery” was made “last summer,” so presumably in June, July or August 2007. By that time, the Cheney/neocon cabal and the intelligence community had already been at loggerheads for many months. Ray Takeyh, an expert on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, suggests that “a fundamental reversal of civil-military relations, and intelligence and political relationships” has occurred since 2002. He calls the NIE “part of a larger narrative, namely how the formal institutions of government are now determined to resist the White House, which wasn’t the case in 2002.” Is it not probable that opposition to an Iran attack within the military has recently forced Bush to rethink his glorious plans for regime change, but also to seek some face-saving explanation for a policy shift?

The publicly released document does not explain what sort of weapons program existed in 2003 or when it might have started. Perhaps the intelligence community actually thinks, like Lavrov and the IAEA, that there is no evidence of Iran ever having a nuclear weapons program. Perhaps the allegation of a now-suspended program reflects a compromise between the Cheney camp and the intelligence community. The latter has long been smarting over the humiliation it has suffered at the hands of this administration. Cheney and his notorious aide “Scooter” Libby repeatedly visited CIA headquarters in 2002, during the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, demanding the agency validate what it suspected or knew was disinformation supplied by Ahmad Chalabi & Co.; blamed the intelligence community for “intelligence flaws” in late 2003; and then reorganized it in a general purge, resulting in the departure of most senior officers. Just maybe, alarmed at the groundless accusations of the administration designed to justify an Iran attack, the intelligence community said, “No, we’re not going to play ball this time and give you another war. We really have no evidence for an Iranian nuclear weapons program.”

And then just maybe the Cheney folks said, “Well, tell you what. You can say that in your NIE. But we want it very clear that they had one and can revive it any time, and so remain a threat.” And maybe the intel folks said, “Alright, we can work with that. Actually we have some stuff that might be interpreted as expressions of discontent in the Iranian military about what might have been an order to shut down a nuclear weapons program in 2003.”

The neocons may also have demanded that the NIE having revealed the alleged suspension of the weapons program in 2003 imply that Bush administration efforts produced the shutdown. This also helps Bush save face. Immediately after the passage cited above we find the following: “We judge with high confidence that the halt, and Tehran’s announcement of its decision to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program and sign an Additional Protocol to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement, was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.”

Actually the “scrutiny” has been applied mostly by the IAEA and the “pressure” by the Europeans; while the U.S. has simply issued unproductive threats. But if there was a shutdown of a program in 2003 it was before the great American hullabaloo about Iranian nukes and pressure for sanctions and threats of military action to take out nuclear facilities. Still, some might read this as a validation of the administration’s hard line; “Yeah they backed off,” a Bushite might boast, “because we made it clear we’d bomb the hell outta them if they didn’t.”

But the chronology doesn’t quite work here. Bush had exerted a kind of “pressure” on Iran as early as January 2002, when hot on the heels of the regime change in Afghanistan he targeted the “axis of evil” (Iraq, Iran, and North Korea). In August 2002, the National Council of Resistance of Iran announced at a Washington news conference that Iran had a uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and a heavy water facility at Arak. Washington already had intelligence about these operations but for some reasons let the NCRI, centering around the Mujahadeen Khalq (an Iranian organization on the State Department’s terrorist list) make the announcement. But this did not immediately generate a movement to bomb Iran. Indeed, the State Department under Colin Powell favored a diplomatic approach and Powell’s deputy Richard Armitage in February 2003 alluded to Iran as a “democracy” (drawing fire from Michael Ledeen and other neocons).

On February 26, 2003, Iran signed a new agreement with the IAEA. It opened the country to intrusive inspections which have ever since resulted in reports of no evidence of a nuclear weapons program.

On March 20 Bush invaded Iraq, ostensibly to destroy its weapons of mass destruction. In May 2003, with U.S. troops surrounding it in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Iranian government sent a letter to Washington via the Swiss ambassador in Tehran. It proposed talks towards normalization of U.S.-Iranian relations, cooperation on a comprehensive Middle East settlement, and measures to alleviate U.S. concerns over its nuclear program. Powell was inclined to respond positively, but Cheney rejected the initiative summarily, even warning the Swiss diplomat not to pass along such communications in the future.

The EU-3 (British, French and Germans) held talks with the Iranians from October 2003, and pursuaded Iran to suspend uranium enrichment from November 2004. The Paris Agreement signed by the Europeans and Iranians that month stated explicitely: “The E3/EU recognize that this suspension is a voluntary confidence building measure and not a legal obligation.” But by August 2005 the Europeans under pressure from the U.S. (which had viewed the talks between the EU-3 and Tehran with suspicion) joined Washington in demanding a permanent suspension of enrichment activity.

Indignant at the apparent violation of the Paris Agreement, Iran resumed enrichment activity from August 2005.

The NIE does not indicate during what month of 2003 Iran shut down its military program “in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure.” Is it supposed to have been in February (the IAEA agreement), or October (the EU talks)? In any case, if there was a weapons program, and it was shut down due to “international scrutiny and pressure” in 2003, its suspension likely occurred due to efforts that Washington treated with scorn. That won’t of course prevent Bush from boasting that Iran suspended a nuclear weapons program in response to his righteous threats, his muscular “diplomacy.”

I hope that Ray Takeyh is right in his assessment that the “formal institutions of government are now determined to resist the White House.” I hope the military and CIA will stand as defenders of the republic, constitution and “reality-based community” against Bush, Cheney and the neocrazies.

But we live in an imperialist country. Its “democracy” entitles us to every so often vote for corporate lawyers representing two parties with no discernable ideological differences, who once in office automatically support whatever war the president as the chief executive of corporate America wants. Or if they decline to support the war (as Congress declined to support the proxy war in Central America during the Reagan administration) they stand idly by while the administration uses extralegal measures to kill in pursuit of its goals. There is no integrity here, in the ruling class of this imperialist country, but merely some factions at some points worrying that specific moves might jeopardize the whole imperialist enterprise. When Admiral Fallon says there will be no war with Iran on his watch, he’s not saying it’s wrong for the U.S. to invade countries to control their markets and resources (under the banner of freedom and democracy); he’s saying that an attack on Iran will explode in the face of the institutions he holds most dear.

There is obviously a deep divide in the ruling class, its contours increasingly clear. The Wall Street Journal editors, who best reflect the sentiments of the tiny stratum of exploiters controlling the U.S. economy and (usually) the U.S. polity, have suddenly spewed vitriol against “Mr. Bush and his staff” who “have allowed the intelligence bureaucracy to frame a new judgment in a way that has undermined four years of U.S. effort to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions.” They whine that “the authors of this Iran NIE include former State Department officials who have a history of hostility to Mr. Bush’s foreign policy” — as though there were something wrong with being hostile to policy based on lies.

On the other hand there are within the same class, deeply invested in the military-industrial complex, Pentagon generals absolutely disgusted with the dishonesty and recklessness of current imperial strategy. These probably include some aware of history, of fascist precedents, and fearing for their own posthumous reputations—if not war crimes trials in their lifetimes.

This NIE won’t end the debate within the ruling class about how to best serve the interests of those ruling this imperialist country at this time. It will however probably sharpen up the debate, and maybe even provide some space for people opposed to imperialism in general to expose and oppose the system. If the U.S. (under Bush, or Hillary, or Giuliani who retains Podhoretz as a key adviser) attacks Iran, the regime in power will have to simultaneously clamp down on dissent—big time. So we should use this time offered by the ruling elite, as they face off, to build a genuinely anti-system, anti-imperialist antiwar movement.

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history.

Source: http://www.dissidentvoice.org/2007/12/in-2003-iran-halted-its-nuclear-program/  

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