William O. Beeman
October 29, 2006
The United States and Iran are moving laboriously toward confrontation—perhaps military confrontation. John Bolton and Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns are working non-stop at the United Nations to try and get international sanctions imposed on Iran. The latest attempt is to get U.N. nations to prohibit Iranian students from studying certain subjects, such as engineering, in member nations.
Iran in turn has vigorously rejected any attempts to limit its development of a full nuclear enrichment cycle. The attempts on the part of the United Nations to impose trade or other sanctions on Iran is leading to diplomatic difficulties as Russia and China will likely oppose these measures.
An examination of the U.S. position vis-à-vis Iran leads inevitably to the conclusion that the nuclear issue is merely a pretext for action against the Iranian government, which the United States has been demonizing since the Revolution of 1978-79. The Bush administration’s real goal is regime change in Iran by whatever means, and finding an issue that can be trumped up enough to garner the support of the American public, and the international community has been a constant activity since President Bush came to office in his first administration.
Now the drive to destabilize Iran by whatever means has taken on a life of its own. It has become a dangerous obsession for the Bush administration, driving them increasingly to support actions that are not only counter-productive, but dangerous for the region and the world.
I want to make several points today.
First, that the Bush administration’s goal to attack Iran predates any concern about Iran’s nuclear program.
Second, that Iran’s nuclear development program poses no immediate danger for the United States, Israel or the Middle East region—because it is not a nuclear weapons program, and all attempts to prove that it is a weapons program are specious.
Third, Iran’s attempts to address American and European fears about the program have been systematically rejected by the United States, who wishes fervently to assure that this will continue to be a live issue
Finally, that potential U.S. actions against Iran pose far more danger than Iran poses for the region and for the world.
The attacks against Iran have their origins in longstanding concerns about the safety of Israel, ratcheted up by the extremist views of the neoconservatives that now dominate the Bush administration.
These concerns combined with decades long antipathy toward Iran, and the desire of the United States to dominate the oil-rich Middle East create a perfect storm of fervent desire on the part of the Bush administration to attack Iran.
The rhetoric against Iran has now pervaded American political culture to such an extent that no American lawmaker is willing to defend Iran. Conversely, no politician, Democratic or Republican ever lost a vote by attacking Iran.
According to journalist Sidney Blumenthal in Salon
>>>, the neocons in the administration, specifically Vice President Dick
>>>Cheney and National Security Agency Middle East Director Elliott Abrams,
>>>have been funneling U.S. intelligence intercepts to the Israelis as part
>>>of a plan to target Syria and Iran (see Tom Barry, Hunting Monsters with
>>>Those intercepts were behind the recent House Intelligence Committee
>>>report blasting U.S. spy agencies for their reluctance to say that
>>>Hezbollah is nothing more than an extension of Iran, that Tehran is on
>>>the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons, and that Iran poses a clear and
>>>present danger to the United States.
>>>The author of the House report, Frederick Fleitz, was a former special
>>>assistant to current UN Ambassador John Bolton. Bolton was a key figure
>>>in gathering the now-discredited intelligence that Iraq had weapons of
>>>According to Blumenthal, Cheney and his Middle East aide David Wurmser
>>>have dusted off a 1996 document called "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for
>>>Securing the Realm." The study was authored by Wurmser, ex-Pentagon
>>>official Douglas Feith, and Richard Perle, disgraced former head of the
>>>Defense Policy Board.
>>>The "Break"-originally written for then-Likud prime minister Benjamin
>>>Netanyahu-advocates that the Israelis, with support from the United
>>>States, dump the 1992 Oslo Agreement with the Palestinians, target Syria
>>>and Iraq, and redesign the Middle East.
>>>A key ingredient in the document, and one central to current
>>>administration thinking, is that since terrorism is state-supported, the
>>>war on terrorism can be won by changing regimes. Hence, to defeat
>>>Hezbollah, you have to overthrow Syria and Iran.
The only problem that the Bush administration felt they had was how to sell the overthrow of Iran to the American public. The fact that such an action would be a massive, stunning failure seems even now not to be of any great concern to them.
The only issue that really frightens and concerns the American public is their own safety. Raising the specter of atomic weapons that might be used against Americans worked effectively in convincing the U.S. public to support the Iraqi invasion. Having used this device once, the Bush administration has trotted it out again, and has fed the U.S. public a full measure of yellow journalism trying to frighten them into supporting an Iranian attack. Neoconservative Bush supporters wrote fantasy accounts of Iranian cataclysmic atomic attacks on America. Jerome Corsi, ghost author of Unfit for Command, the Swiftboat attack on John Kerry wrote Atomic Iran—in which a hyperbolic account of an Iranian atomic bomb dropped on New York’s Central Park vies for his accounts of Iranian mullahs abducting children to support their regime. Kenneth Timmerman, penned Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran in a similar vein. Let me read a passage from Ray Takyeh of the Council on Foreign Relations’ review of the book from the Washington Post:
Timmerman's thesis is simplistic and provocative: Iran is America's most militant, relentless enemy and has been involved in nearly every terrorist attack against the United States since 1979. Iran is also actively seeking the bomb -- not for deterrence, but to menace the United States and its allies. . . . Timmerman, the author of earlier books attacking France and Jesse Jackson, begins his book with the outlandish claim that Iran was complicit in the Sept. 11, 2001, atrocities. In his retelling of history, a craven CIA, determined to exonerate rogue states that sponsor terrorism, has deliberately withheld this information from the American public. The conclusions of the numerous congressional investigations and journalistic inquiries into Sept. 11 are simply ignored. The one independent examination that Timmerman does cite, the 9/11 Commission, is faulted for missing what he considers the all-too-apparent Iran link. The reader gets the impression that Timmerman would rather not bother with facts precisely because they undermine his conspiracy theory.
The book was praised by the right-wing Washington Times, New York Sun and New York Post and has been widely cited on Fox News and other sycophantic supporters of the Bush administration.
IRAN POSES NO DANGER
However, there is no proof whatever that Iran has a nuclear weapons program.
President Bush declared on June 25, 2003 that "we will not tolerate" a nuclear armed Iran. His words are empty. The physical evidence for a nuclear weapons program in Iran simply does not exist.
Iran is completing a 1,000-megawatt nuclear power plant in Bushehr with Russian help. The existence of the site is common knowledge. It has been under construction for more than three decades, since before the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979.
Two other nuclear research facilities, now under development, have come to light: a uranium enrichment plant in the city of Natanz and a deuterium ("heavy water") facility in the city of Arak. Neither is in operation. The only question of interest is whether these facilities offer a plausible route to the manufacture of plutonium-based nuclear bombs, and the short answer is: They do not.
The Bushehr plant is only part of the argument that Iran is embarked on a nuclear weapons program, but it is the part that can readily be analyzed. State Department accusations of dangerous Iranian intentions for the Natanz and Arak facilities are based on a patchwork of untestable, murky assertions from dubious sources, including the People's Mujahedeen (Mujahedeen-e Khalq, MEK or MKO), which the United States identifies as a terrorist organization. These sources assert that there are centrifuges for enriching uranium (an alternative to fissile plutonium for bombs) or covert facilities for extracting plutonium. Neither of these claims are especially credible, since the sources are either unidentified or are the same channels which disseminated the stories about Iraq's non-conventional weapons or the so-called chemical and biological weapons plant in Khartoum.
The testable part of the claim -- that the Bushehr reactor is a proliferation threat -- is demonstrably false. There are several reasons, some technical, some institutional.
--The Iranian reactor yields the wrong kind of plutonium for making bombs.
--The spent fuel pins in the Iranian reactor would, in any case, be too dangerous to handle for weapons manufacture.
--Any attempt to divert fuel from the Iranian plant will be detectable.
--The Russian partners in the Bushehr project have stipulated that the fuel pins must be returned to Russia, as has been their practice worldwide for other export reactors.
Just as there are many different kinds of nuclear reactors, there are different forms of plutonium, distinctions that are almost never made in public discussions of nuclear proliferation.
There are two different kinds of reactors, heavy-water or graphite-moderated reactors; and pressurized, or "light water" reactors (PWRs). The Dimona nuclear power plant in Israel is an example of the former. The Bushehr plant is the latter.
The Israeli plant is ideal for yielding the desirable isotope of Plutonium (Pu 239) necessary for making bombs. The Iranian plant will produce plutonium, but the wrong kind. It will produce the heavier isotopes, Pu240, Pu241 and Pu242 -- almost impossible to use in making bombs.
Crucial to extracting weapons-grade plutonium is the type of reactor and the mode in which it is operated. The Israeli-type plant can be refueled "on line," without shutting down. Thus, high-grade plutonium can be obtained covertly and continuously. In the Iranian plant, the entire reactor will have to be shut down -- a step that cannot be concealed from satellites, airplanes and other sources -- in order to permit the extraction of even a single fuel pin.
In the Israeli reactor, the fuel is recycled every few weeks, or at most every couple of months. This maximizes the yield of the highest-quality, weapons-grade plutonium. In the Iranian-type reactor, the core is exchanged only every 30-40 months -- the longer the fuel cycle, the better for the production of power.
For the Iranian reactor at Bushehr, any effort to divert fuel will be transparent because a shutdown will be immediately noticeable. No case of production of bomb-grade material from fuel from an Iranian-type plant has ever been reported.
No one can read the collective mind of a government. But even if Iran proves in the future to have ambitions for developing nuclear weapons, any actual production is years, perhaps decades away. Furthermore, Iran has fully acquiesced to the international inspections process. Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). On June 22, the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, Gholam-Reza Aghazadeh, reiterated that all of Iran's nuclear facilities are open for inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in compliance with treaty guarantees.
Of course, Iran is developing other facilities—an enrichment plant in Isfahan, and a deuterium production plant in Natanz have been opened. These plants are entirely legal under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and they are entirely consistent with power generation. Much has been made in the last week of the fact that Iran has placed two cascades of 164 centrifuges on line which now have produced enriched uranium at a lower grade than is even needed for power generation (5%). Production capacity would require 50,000 centrifuges and enrichment to a level of 90%. All intelligence experts agree that Iran is years away from coming even close to producing enough weapons grade uranium to produce even a single bomb. The German intelligence office last week estimated that if it worked non-stop on this level of enrichment, it might have enough weapons grade uranium by 2015. U.S. Intelligence Director John Negroponte agrees with this assessment. Mohammad el Baradei of the IAEA last week once again reiterated that he was “unconvinced” that Iran had any weapons program.
The deuterium plant has resulted in some interesting press. The U.S. press regularly reported that the plant has the capacity to produce weapons grade fuel. Of course this is absurd. The plant produces heavy water, which would then be used in a heavy water reactor, designed to be completed in 2009 or 2010. The spent fuel from the reactor would then have to be processed to extract any weapons-grade fuel, and another plant to build any weapons. The idea that this operation could go undetected by international inspection teams is absurd.
The furor in Washington over possible nuclear weapons development in Iran is fueled in part because Bush administration officials claim that Iran doesn't need to generate nuclear power. They assert that Iran's nuclear energy program is unnecessary given its oil reserves. Therefore, officials say, its nuclear plants must exist for weapons production.
In fact, for Iran, generating nuclear power makes sense. Moreover, the plans to do this were started decades ago, and with American approval.
Ex-CIA director James Woolsey, in an interview on the PBS program Frontline on Feb. 23, 2003 claimed "there is no underlying (reason) for one of the greatest oil producers in the world to need to get into the nuclear (energy) business."
At first glance, such logic seems sound. Countries with vast oil reserves also have large reserves of natural gas sitting on top of those reserves. Some years ago, the natural gas was regularly burned off to get at the oil beneath. However, technological advances today make it feasible to use this gas for power generation.
Even so, nuclear power still makes sense in a country with vast amounts of natural gas, particularly given the unusual circumstances in the Iranian hydrocarbons industry. There are needs for gas in Iran that command much higher priorities than the construction of gas power plants.
First, gas is vitally needed for reinjection into existing oil reservoirs (repressurizing). This is indispensable for maintaining oil output levels, as well as for increasing overall, long-term recovery of oil.
Second, natural gas is needed for growing domestic use, such as in cooking fuel and domestic heating (Iranians typically use kerosene for both), where it can free up oil for more profitable export. New uses such as powering bus and taxi fleets in Iran's smoggy urban areas are also essential for development.
Third, natural gas exports -- via pipelines to Turkey or in liquefied form to the subcontinent -- set an attractive minimum value for any available natural gas. With adequate nuclear power generation, Iran can profit more from selling its gas than using it to generate power.
Fourth, the economics of gas production in Iran are almost backwards, certainly counter-intuitive. Much of Iran's gas is "rich" -- it contains by-products, such as liquid-petrolem gas (LPG, better known as propane), which are more valuable than the natural gas they are derived from. Iran can profit by selling these derivatives, but not if it burns the natural gas to generate power. Furthermore, Iran adheres to OPEC production quotas, which combine oil and natural gas production. Therefore Iran cannot simply increase natural gas for export to make up for what it burns at home.
Overall, therefore, it can reasonably be argued that natural gas in Iran has economic uses that are superior to power generation, in spite of Iran's much-touted large reserves. The economic rationale is therefore plausible -- the costs of gas versus nuclear power generation are sufficiently close that the choice is a standoff, especially given the reported bargain price for the Russian reactor.
The great irony in America's accusations is that Iran's nuclear program was first developed on the advice of American specialists, who urged the government of the Shah to begin producing nuclear power in order to save oil reserves for more lucrative purposes than fuel. The prospect of an industrial base built on petrochemicals and pharmaceuticals never materialized, but the nuclear power program continued unabated.
Now, to have American officials express alarm over the exact same program is illogical at best and utterly disingenuous at worst. Much of the criticism of Iran's nuclear program comes from the same people who insisted that Iraq had an active nuclear weapons development program before the American invasion of that nation on March 19. That fact alone should raise severe skepticism throughout the world.
The potential impasse in the Iranian nuclear program could have been forestalled long ago, but the United States has regularly rejected all attempts on the part of Iran to negotiate this matter. The Bush administration should be called to explain why it seems to be driving the Iranian nuclear matter to crisis level.
As everyone in the world must now know, the United States maintains that Iran is in the process of developing nuclear weapons. It has convinced a number of European nations of the correctness of its suspicions. Iran maintains that its nuclear development is for domestic power generation purposes only, and everything it is doing is allowed under the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which Iran is a signatory.
There is no objective evidence whatever that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons program—only the suspicions of the United States and its ally, Israel, that this is true.
As part of the basis for its suspicions, the United States maintains that Iran had concealed its nuclear program for many years—the number of years varies depending on which official one asks. In fact, Iran has done no such thing. First and foremost, as mentioned previously, Iran’s nuclear program is more than 30 years old, and was started with the encouragement of the United States. President Gerald Ford offered the Iranians a full nuclear cycle in 1976 before the Revolution of 1978-79. Despite the change in government, the program has been implemented largely as conceived with U.S. approval.
Regarding concealment of Under the NPT Iran is not required to disclose its facilities until it begins to process nuclear material. This had not taken place when the United States began to object to the Iranian nuclear development in 2003.
However, that consideration aside, Iran offered as early as 1997 to make its nuclear development known to the world through inspections. The United States was fully apprised of these developments at that time.
For example, Iran offered to provide the land for EU-United Nations University nuclear enrichment facilities to be staffed exclusively by non-Iranian personnel, with no Iranians allowed to enter the facility -- very much treated as a foreign Embassy. This proposition was rejected.
In 1997, at the request of Iran, Iranian nuclear scientist Behrad Nakha’I arranged for a group of prominent US nuclear scientists to visit Iran's nuclear facilities. After couple of days of discussions, he was able to get US State Department's agreement, but the United States Department of Defense absolutely refused this offer from the beginning to the end of the two months that we were interacting, trying to make these arrangements.
He responded to all of the concerns, but just like a telemarketer reading from a prepared statement, his contact at the Department of Defense repeated the same sentence over and over, rejecting such a visit. He offered to include a representative from the DOD of the U.S. government’s choice in the inspection group, but to no avail. Since these scientists had the highest clearance from US government, requiring government permission for them to maintain their status. he had to call off the visit. This was a huge missed opportunity, among many others.
In 2003, Iran, under the presidency of moderate Mohammad Khatami issued a general offer to negotiate all outstanding issues with the U.S. These included addressing the question of Iran’s nuclear development as well as coming to agreement on a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The offer had the full support of Iran’s spiritual Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Bush administration not only rejected the offer, they excoriated the Swiss diplomatic officer who brought the offer.
Iran also was the only nation to publicly accept the 2003 U.N. proposal by Mohammad El Baradei that weapons-usable fissile materials be placed under international control . This would be a step leading to fulfillment of the Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty (FMCT). This earlier treaty was passed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993 over U.S. objections. El Baradei’s proposal was passed 149-2, the United States and Palau being the only dissenting votes with Israel and Great Britain abstaining. El Baradei's proposal would monitor all nuclear fission and guarantee that non-nuclear weapons states would be able to obtain adequate supplies for their nonmilitary usage of enriched plutonium. If implemented, this proposal would have ended the Iranian nuclear crisis, but at the price of establishing controls that would be incumbent on other nations as well—the basis for the U.S. objection to the FMCT.
It is hard to know precisely why the United States is driving the specter of Iran’s nuclear development so hard that it ignores all the attempts on Iran’s part to allay international concerns, and ignores even its own previous knowledge of and involvement with Iran’s nuclear program.
The conclusion that Iran has drawn is that the nuclear issue is a pretext on the part of the United States to vilify Iran before the international community, perhaps as a prelude to a military attack. With President Bush continuing to insist that with regard to Iran “all cards are on the table,” it is easy to see how they might reach that conclusion. Iran is conducting military maneuvers on all of its borders this week (August 20). Perhaps this is coincidence, or perhaps they anticipate that whatever they do regarding the nuclear issue will not preclude hostile American action.
Just now, however Americans should be on guard—a real war may break out at any minute and the resulting conflagration would likely engulf the region, and then the world. Even now, Daniel Ellesberg in the current issue of Harper’s Magazine, Seymour Hirsh in the New Yorker, former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter, eminent historian William Polk and numerous others have written about the coming war between the United States and Iran that few in the United States know about, but which seems to be immanent.
The Washington Post has reported that at least since March, large teams have been working on invasion plans in the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies, while the Iran “desk” at the State Department has been augmented to task force size. It reports to Elizabeth Cheney, daughter of the vice president, who is assistant secretary of state for the Near East. In the Pentagon, a similar organization has been established under Neoconservative Abram Shulsky. In addition a new outpost has been set up in Dubai to coordinate plans. On October 2, a powerful naval battle group around the giant aircraft carrier Eisenhower sailed for the Persian Gulf and is due to arrive a week before the November Congressional elections to join a similar battle group led by the aircraft carrier Enterprise. Meanwhile aircraft of the U.S. Air Force are being readied in bases surrounding Iran and in distant locations. These forces could deliver destructive power that would dwarf the aerial assaults on Iraq.
The Israeli bombardment of Lebanon has been regarded as a test. Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker talks he had with current and retired American military and intelligence experts who told him that it was regarded as “a prelude to a potential American preemptive attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations.” They did terrible damage and killed many people, but they failed to accomplish their mission. As Bush’s former Deputy of State Richard Armitage said, “If the most dominant military force in the region – the Israel Defense Forces – can’t pacify a country like Lebanon, with a population of four million, you should think carefully about taking that template to Iran, with strategic depth and a population of seventy million…The only thing that the bombing has achieved so far is to unite the [Lebanese] population against the Israelis.”
The Air Force plans have been resisted by the senior generals of the Army, Navy and Marine corps. In rare public statements and frequently in private, they have said that the plans are fatally flawed and that even if an invasion begins with aerial attack it will soon require ground troops. Despite the misgivings of the military professionals, Joseph Cirincione wrote in the March issue of Foreign Policy that conversations with senior officials in the Pentagon and the White House had convinced him that the decision for war had already been made.
This is it folks. As I have warned, history changes on October 31st. It is now apparent that Bush does intend to have our ships sunk in the Gulf by Iran in a last-ditch effort to save himself and the GOP with a short bounce in the polls caused by a New Pearl Harbor. The USS Boxer Strike Group has now joined the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group and the Eisenhower and Enterprise Carrier Groups off the coast of Iran.
IRANIANS DON’T HELP
In closing I should make it clear that Iranians have not helped the situation very much. They have continued to antagonize the United States, largely due to their anger about being singled out for attack by the United States. Iran views nuclear energy development as a hallmark of modernization and a source of national pride. They think the United States is putting them down and trying to keep them backward. It is for this reason that although the majority of Iranians do not support their government, the absolutely support the development of nuclear energy.
President Ahmadinejad has also exacerbated Iran’s situation. He has been misquoted on his views on Israel and the holocaust, but he has also learned that making extreme statements raises his own political stock at home. He needs public support for his domestic political agenda -- an agenda that is paradoxically opposed by a large number of the ruling clerics in Iran. Every time he makes a defiant assertion against the United States, the public rallies behind him.
This creates what political scientist Richard Cottam termed a "spiral conflict" in which both parties escalate each other's extreme positions to new heights. It is entirely possible that Iran could goad President Bush into a disastrous military action, and that action would result in an equally disastrous Iranian reaction.
What have the Iranians done? True to fashion, they have declared the U.S. action a bluff, and have behaved in an even more defiant manner. The spiral conflict continues to everyone’s detriment.
Obviously the most reasonable position for both the United States and Iran is for the two states to sit down and talk face to face. As I have pointed out, Iran has tried to get the United States to respond to this need, but the U.S. has thus far refused. One obstacle is that Iran wants talks constructed between equals; the United States refuses to treat Iran as an equal, preferring to continue to denigrate and demonize the Islamic Republic. The U.S. wants to bring Iran to its knees or destroy its current government, and face-to-face talks are not likely to achieve that goal.
So, we have gunboats in the Persian Gulf this week. A conflagration that should never take place is ever more likely. It is a tragedy in the extreme.