Threatening headlines in early November raised the prospect of Israeli and/or western military action against Iran; propaganda organised around the publication of a report on Iran’s nuclear power programme by the international atomic energy agency (IAEA) on 8 November.
While the IAEA report broke new rhetorical ground in declaring the UN agency’s “serious concerns” about “possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme”, it provided no evidence that Iran has a current nuclear weapons programme, and tended to confirm the 2007 US national intelligence estimate that any Iranian nuclear weapons programme that did exist was halted in 2003.
As Peace News has been pointing out for several years, there is a credible, realistic, verifiable solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis, but it requires negotiation. The real purpose of the latest threats has been to derail any negotiated solution, and to increase the sanctions pressure on the Iranian regime.
At the end of October, an article in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth claimed that both the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the defence minister, Ehud Barak, were strongly pushing for an Israeli military strike on Iran, only being held back by military and intelligence officials.
On 5 November, Israeli president Shimon Peres warned that an Israeli strike was “more and more likely”, adding the next day: “The possibility of a military attack against Iran is now closer to being applied than the application of a diplomatic option.”
Here in the UK, on 2 November, the Guardian reported: “Britain’s armed forces are stepping up their contingency planning for potential military action against Iran.... The ministry of defence believes the US may decide to fast-forward plans for targeted missile strikes at some key Iranian facilities.” A British source indicated that “next spring could be a key decision-making period”.
The threats were not merely verbal. Before the IAEA report’s publication, Israel claimed on 1 November to have successfully test-fired a Jericho 3 missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, and with the range to attack Iran.
On 2 November, the Israeli air force announced that some of its F-16 fighter jets had just carried out long-planned exercises with the Italian air force, practising long-range re-fuelling.
In mid-November, the US air force announced it had received the first batch of 30,000-pound “massive ordnance penetrators” (MOPs), designed to destroy deeply-buried bunkers. Lieutenant colonel Melinda Morgan, a spokesperson for the US military, said: “The massive ordnance penetrator is a weapon system designed to accomplish a difficult, complicated mission of reaching and destroying our adversaries’ weapons of mass destruction located in well-protected facilities.”
The first 20 MOP bombs had been received in September, but the announcement was only made on 15 November, a week after the IAEA’s report on Iran’s nuclear programme, part of which is being relocated to bunkers under 295 feet of rock.
On 18 November, the US carried out what it said was a successful test flight of an “advanced hypersonic weapon” (AHW) that can fly at five times the speed of sound. Reports also linked the AHW to the Iran crisis.
This was an extremely intimidating environment in which to launch the IAEA report.
Our man, Amano
The IAEA’s approach to Iran has changed sharply since the departure of its previous chief, Mohamed ElBaradei (now immersed in Egyptian politics).
ElBaradei’s successor, Yukiya Amano, who has been director-general for nearly two years, has been perceived as a creature of the United States, partly because of a secret diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks last year.
The diplomatic cable, from the US mission in Vienna (home of the IAEA) dated 16 October 2009, recorded a private meeting a few weeks earlier with Amano before his appointment as director-general, in which he “took pains to emphasize his support for US strategic objectives” for the IAEA. Amano also said, according to the cable, “that he was solidly in the US court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.”
The cable noted that in a 16 September meeting with US NPT special representative Susan Burk, Amano “noted warmly that ‘if you are determined, the US can do anything!’ ”
The cable concluded by describing Amano as “DG [director-general] of all states, but in agreement with us” (These leaked documents were published on the Guardian website on 30 November 2010.)
In order to build a nuclear weapons force, you need to have weapons-grade “fissile” materials, a detonation system that fits into a warhead, and a delivery system that can carry the weapon to the target. What did the IAEA report say about Iran’s efforts in these areas?
According to information supplied to the IAEA by various governments and on a mysterious laptop, there was a burst of nuclear weapons research in Iran “under a structured programme” in 2002 and 2003. (This was at a time when war was looming or ongoing with its neighbour Iraq – which did not possess nuclear weapons.)
In relation to fissile materials, “the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material”. In other words, no uranium is known to have been “diverted” from the nuclear power programme into a military programme.
There may be undeclared nuclear facilities and material in Iran, but the IAEA has no evidence of them, according to the report.
As for weaponisation, there were various efforts in 2002-2003, according to the IAEA, but they were halted in late 2003. The IAEA adds that there are “indications” that “some” weapons-related activities continued after 2003, and that some of these activities “may” still be ongoing.
In terms of delivery, the report says that there was a multi-pronged effort to integrate a nuclear warhead into an Iranian missile in 2002-2003, but it had not got even as far as manufacturing components before it was halted.
All in all, the report does not claim that there is an ongoing “structured” nuclear weapons programme in Iran today, and it certainly does not claim that there is a crash programme to acquire a nuclear weapon as fast as possible.
Having said all this, the evidence base for all these claims is rather worrying. There is a laptop provided to the IAEA, containing over 1,000 pages of documentation (videos, presentations, engineering drawings, letters, reports and so on). There is also information provided by over 10 countries. Finally, there is a certain amount of information that the IAEA itself has obtained directly.
Iran claims that the material on the laptop (referred to by the IAEA as the “alleged studies documentation”) is forged. The IAEA has decided that the material is credible, partly because it is consistent with other available information, and especially with the information given by western intelligence agencies. There is a problem here, in that, if the laptop material is forged, it has probably been forged by a western intelligence agency, and then passed on, directly or indirectly, to other western intelligence agencies, creating a circle of confirmation.
Western intelligence agencies were completely convinced that there were weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq in 2003. Not only were there no WMD, there was not even a “structured programme” of weapons research and development, we discovered after the war. The CIA/Duelfer report in 2004 concluded that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had destroyed his WMD, but attempted to preserve “the capability to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) when sanctions were lifted”.
There is a strong argument that Iran has pursued a similar policy consistently throughout the last few decades, something referred to recently by Israeli commentators as the “Japanese option” of being a nuclear threshold state.
Japan has the technological capability and the stockpile of plutonium generated by its nuclear power programme needed to produce over 1,000 nuclear weapons. Yoel Guzansky and Jonathan Schachter commented in August in the Jerusalem Post that Japan is seen as “just a ‘screw-turn’ away from being a nuclear-armed state”.
If Iran were to achieve a similar position (though without the plutonium, as it has a much less ambitious nuclear power programme), it could explicitly or implicitly threaten to cross the threshold to being a nuclear weapons state, and thereby “glean many of the strategic benefits of nuclear weapons without actually having them”.
Former director-general of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, told Newsweek in May 2009 that the Iranians “understood—unfortunately, not wrongly—that if you have the know-how, you’re still kosher within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT]. And yet you are sending a message: I can do this; I have bought myself an insurance policy, and you don’t want to mess with me.”
ElBaradei said at an event at Harvard on 27 April 2010 that Iran wanted a “nuclear weapons capability” in order to be taken seriously as a regional power by the United States.”
Former CIA director Michael Hayden said in July 2010: ““Iran, left to its own devices, will get itself to that step right below a nuclear weapon, that permanent breakout stage, so the needle isn’t quite in the red for the international community.”
Being in a “permanent breakout stage” is not illegal under the NPT.
Israel and the US are both determined to prevent Iran acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. The problem is that this is due to become very difficult in about a year’s time, according to a British official quoted by the Guardian, after Iran has transferred its uran-ium enrichment process to a bunker deep inside a mountain near the holy city of Qom. “Beyond [12 months], we couldn’t be sure our missiles could reach them,” said the official. “So the window is closing, and the UK needs to do some sensible forward planning.”
Hence the references to decision-making in the spring.
While Israel has been making some very bellicose noises, it is very unlikely that it will make an independent strike on Iran. Firstly, it would require US permission to fly a mission over the intervening territories. Secondly, an Israeli strike force of even 100 planes is unlikely to be able to do serious damage to the Iranian programme, according to retired US air force colonel Sam Gardiner.
If there is a strike, it needs to be able to set the Iranian programme back three to five years, and this is beyond Israel’s ability (without the use of nuclear weapons).
It is also unlikely that the US will make a strike on Iran. The political and economic costs of such an attack outweigh the likely benefits, unless Iran can be provoked into an outrageous act that can be used to “justify” an assault.
So what is the US and Israeli plan? In the case of Israel, military commentator Amos Harel was undoubtedly correct when he wrote in December 2009: “Military preparations are also essential to prod the United States and Europe to exert maximum pressure on the Islamic Republic. This will not happen unless Western states come to believe that Israeli Air Force planes are starting to rev up their engines.”
Harel noted that “Israel does not have independent strike capability against Iran”. It could deliver explosives to a target, but “it is doubtful whether Israel can allow itself to act against the wishes of the United States – to stand alone against an Iranian response and begin an open-ended operation against a nation of 70 million people”.
After the publication of the IAEA report in November, Harel commented that the “strength and timing” of the leaks about a possible Israeli strike on Iran were designed to “help return the Iranian threat to the top of the international agenda”. The hope inside Israeli governing circles, according to Harel, is that sanctions against Iran will be tightened until they become “paralyzing, delivering a deadly blow to the Iranian banking system as well as to the country’s oil industry.”
So the real purpose of the November war scare has been to lay the basis for much stronger sanctions. As PN went to press, the US was reported to be preparing for new oil sanctions that would effectively force international oil giants out of Iran (by making them choose between access to the US market or access to Iran’s market).
The path of confrontation will lead at some point to violence. The US and Israel are hoping that the pressure on the regime will force the Iranian authorities into repression that de-legitimises the system in the eyes of ordinary Iranians, and spark uprisings by the impoverished underclass. It is not clear that such a conflict inside Iran will result in a more US-friendly regime.
There is an alternative to confrontation and the attempt to humiliate the Iranian government.
It is to place Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities under the ownership of an international consortium including Iran, where foreigners would work at every level, and the IAEA would impose stringent monitoring and inspection.
This would give Iran its national pride, in having uranium enrichment on its own soil, for its own nuclear power plants. It would also give the international community the strongest possible guarantee that Iran was not diverting materials into a military programme.
If Iran were to halt IAEA monitoring, or to expel foreign workers, that would be a red flag for instant international action, long before Iran could have assembled a nuclear weapons capability.
The consortium proposal has been described by former British ambassador sir John Thomson as: “the best that is obtainable, and so long as it remains in force it precludes Iran from making a nuclear weapon”. (July 2008)
Thomas Pickering, former US undersecretary of state for political affairs, says that the consortium, “combined with upgraded international safeguards and inspections, will provide an unprecedented level of transparency about Iran’s production of nuclear fuel.” (March 2008)
Astonishingly, the consortium has been public Iranian government policy since 18 September 2005, when Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the UN general assembly that Iran was “prepared to engage in serious partnership with private and public sectors of other countries in the implementation of the uranium enrichment programme in Iran”.
If we are serious about preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, we must abandon the fruitless path of humiliation and confrontation, and embrace the opportunity to negotiate a “grand bargain” with Iran, resolving all outstanding major issues.