Thursday, December 31, 2009

William O. Beeman--Iran's Uncertain Future (New America Media)

Iran’s Uncertain Future

New America Media, News analysis,
William O. Beeman, Posted: Dec 31, 2009 Review it on NewsTrust

It is now clear that the population of Iran is in full revolt against its leaders. There is a better than even chance that the government will fall before summer. Sadly, there is no clear successor leadership on the horizon. This may prove to be the worst of all possible revolutions—a leaderless coup often leads to a regime that feeds on itself.

The current governmental regime in Tehran, including spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have made error after error in dealing with the opposition. Iran is a hierarchical society. Persons in high positions are paradoxically in the most fragile positions. Either they must support their followers, or be toppled from power.

The government has, in the face of the questionable presidential elections in June, repressed, murdered and incarcerated thousands of legitimate protestors. They have jailed former architects of the Revolution of 1978-79 that toppled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and former government officials such as ex-Foreign Minister, Dr. Ibrahim Yazdi. These actions are a betrayal of the social ties that bind political leaders to their followers. In essence, Iran’s political elite has utterly lost its public support. There is no other possible result than that they leave the scene.

The situation has been exacerbated by the confluence of this repression with the annual observances of the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad. Hossein’s legitimacy to rule the Islamic community was opposed by the Umayyid Caliph, Yazid. Yazid then ordered his army to Kerbala where Hossein was encamped with his family. The male members of Hossein’s clan were beheaded and the women and children led into captivity in the Umayyid capital, Damascus.

Now the public is equating opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Musavi with Imam Hossein. They chant “Ya Hossein, Ya Mir-Hossein” in their opposition marches. Ayatollah Khamene’i is now equated directly with the Caliph, Yazid in street slogans and banners. Currency is being defaced with insults against the government. As veteran Middle East commentator, Robin Wright, has noted, the current Iranian resistance “is arguably the most vibrant and imaginative civil disobedience campaign anywhere in the world today.”

However, should Ayatollah Khamene’i, President Ahmadinejad and other high officials be toppled from power, it is unclear who will replace them. The opposition candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, has proved to be utterly feckless as a leader. His fortunes only improved shortly before the June election when he suddenly was seen as a viable opponent for the increasingly unpopular President Ahmadinejad. Since the election he has been more a follower than a leader. In fact, his wife, the intrepid Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, who apparently organized his campaign, emerged as a greater political force.

Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, former President and supreme political operative also engineered Mousavi’s campaign. Usually outspoken, he has been exceptionally cautious in recent weeks, and his relatives have been terrorized by Tehran’s leaders. Now in his 70’s, it is unclear that he could emerge as a strong leader in a new government.

There is also the sticky business of the bedrock principle of the Islamic Republic, the “Velayat-e Faqih,” or “Regency of the Chief Jurisprudent.” It is this principle that legitimizes the supreme authority of Ayatollah Khamene’i, who is said to be ruling as regent, or substitute for the 9th Century Imam, Mohammad al-Mahdi, who is believed to be alive, but “in occultation,” until the Day of Judgment. This doctrine was established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after the 1978-79 Revolution and is ensconced in the Iranian Constitution. If Ayatollah Khamene’i is toppled from power, either the constitution must be scrapped, or a successor must be found. Most religious leaders reject this doctrine today—a fact that has already created a de facto constitutional crisis.

Humanity has seen leaderless revolutions before, and they don’t turn out well. Those vying for power early on are condemned by those who arise after them. There is a perpetual scramble for both power and control of the ideology of the revolution. Much blood flows, and decades can pass before order is restored.

In light of this situation, the Obama administration is wise to stand aside and wait before making any commitments to the present power elite. More importantly, it behooves the administration to start preparing for a post-revolutionary phase, making sure that U.S. actions do not alienate the Iranian public or those who will accede to power.

Sadly, the U.S. Congress is not as wise as the executive branch. Still stuck with a crude and inaccurate fetishization of Iran’s nuclear energy program, they are on the brink of approving economic sanctions that will only cement the Iranian public’s already fixed notion that America only wants their nation to sink in misery and failure.

William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, and is past president of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association. He has lived and worked in the Middle East for more than 30 years. His most recent book is "'The Great Satan' vs. the 'Mad Mullahs': How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other." (Chicago, 2008).

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

IRAN: Story of martyr Imam Hussein fires the protest drama (Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Times

IRAN: Story of martyr Imam Hussein fires the protest drama
December 29, 2009 | 8:37 am

It was a political slogan soaked with Iranian history, religion and cultural identity.

"This month is a month of blood. Yazid will be defeated," they chanted on the streets of Tehran last weekend in a popular uprising that roiled the Iranian state and spurred a massive ongoing crackdown.

Beeman-Cov-011The rallying cry referred to one of the Iranian nation's founding myths, the story of Imam Hussein, who fought against the despised Caliph Yazid for the throne of Islam in a 7th century battle.

The story is so central to Iranian national identity that it is reenacted regularly before and during the holiday of Ashura in plays called tazieh that have been explored for years by William O. Beeman, an Iran expert and professor of theater and anthropology at the University of Minnesota.

"People live with this very central event in their religious life," said Beeman, who has written a book on tazieh called "Iranian Performance Traditions," due out next year.

"They’re encouraged to personalize it," he said in an interview this week. "It’s been recast in symbolic terms. Imam Hussein is the central figure in Twelver Shiism, He occupies the same role as Jesus in Christianity. It’s a perpetually recited story, pervasive throughout society."

Iran's street-protest traditions have long been laced with elements of theatrical drama, as explored by The Times a few days ago. More explicitly than ever last weekend, the protests were fueled by the tradition of tazieh and the story of Imam Hussein, who Shiites believe was robbed of his rightful leadership role, just as Iran's opposition believes Mir-Hossein Mousavi was robbed of the presidency.

Iran-ashuraWhen protesters chant, "Ya Hossein, Mir-Hossein," they're directly "equating Mousavi with Imam Hussein," Beeman said.

Last weekend, some protesters held aloft green flags of Islam commemorating the first 10 days of the Islamic month of Muharram, when Hussein was matyred in battle on the fields outside the Mesopotamian city of Karbala.

According to Beeman, anthropologists believe all societies are interlaced with such founding myths, social dramas that people fall back on at times of grave crisis.

"In order to restore social order, they have to go through a ritual period," Beeman said. "People gravitate quite naturally to the ritual expressions that already exist in their cultural vocabulary."

But as far as myths go, Hussein's is particularly powerful when it comes to galvanizing the Iranian public at this particular time.

Iran-beeman Just as Hussein fought under the green banner of Islam and the family of the Prophet Muhammad, the opposition has adopted the color as its own, in contrast to the red worn by Yazid.

And these colors have become identified with Mousavi -- green -- and his hardline opponent, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- red.

During the tazieh plays, the audience is encouraged to identify with the people of Karbala, who did not come to Hussein's aid during the fateful battle, just as protesters today are calling upon ordinary Iranians and members of the security forces to join in the struggle against Iran's establishment.

"By their inaction, the people of Karbala were less than admirable people," Beeman said. "In present-day mourning rituals, they’re asked not to just stand by."

Iranian authorities tried hard to avoid being cast as Yazid but ultimately failed, according to Beeman.

"When you start beating on people who support you, you break a bond between leader and follower," said Beeman (pictured), who speaks fluent Persian and has traveled frequently to Iran.

If Iran's history is any guide, the current group in power is doomed, Beeman said. "I think that the chance that this leadership group is going to be changed or out of office is very strong," he said.

But Beeman and others worry that Iranians will hue too closely to the Hussein narrative.

On the fields of Karbala in AD 680, one relative of Hussein after another was slaughtered by the mighty army of Yazid. One was an infant. Another was killed on the day of his wedding.

"Every possible tragedy you could imagine is projected onto the Karbala story," Beeman said. "In this situation on the street, if you identify with the Karbala story and you’re a protester, you’re emboldened to go up against anyone who is attacking you."

So far, Iranians have been adept at protesting while avoiding being killed. But some worry that could change. Hussein's myth may be powerful as theater and as a cultural backdrop to social change, but it also is a tough act to follow.

"Hussein knows he was going to be martyred," Beeman said. "He rejects all attempts to save him because he submits to the will of God. In his death and refusal to compromise, he serves as an example for the rest of us. But it's an unattainable example. Nobody can be as good as Imam Hussein."

-- Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photos, from top: The cover of "Iranian Performance Traditions." Credit: Mazda Publishers. A still from amateur video footage showing a protester holding a green flag during Ashura protests in Tehran. Credit: YouTube. Portrait of the author. Credit: University of Minnesota

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Bomb, Bomb Iran: Lessons From Iraq Unlearned

Note: Alan J. Kuperman of the University of Texas wrote a 1500 word op-ed for the New York Times on December 24 calling for the United States to bomb Iran. This astonishing essay has been widely attacked, but the following long essay by Jeremy Hammond is the best response that I have seen so far. I myself have made all of the points included in this essay in the past, but the skillful presentation here makes it extremely important reading.

William O. Beeman



Sunday, December 27, 2009

Bomb, Bomb Iran: Lessons From Iraq Unlearned
December 26, 2009
by Jeremy R. Hammond

In a New York Times op-ed this week that advocates bombing Iran, the author, Alan J. Kuperman, director of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Program at the University of Texas at Austin, begins by suggesting that President Barack Obama should “sigh in relief that Iran has rejected his nuclear deal”.

In fact, Iran has said it is still open to discussion with the U.S. about its nuclear program, but that if meaningful dialogue is to continue, the threats of sanctions and military aggression must first cease.

The U.S., however, continues to threaten yet further sanctions, while also insisting that the threat of force must remain “on the table” — a threat of aggression that itself violates the U.N. Charter, which forbids member nations from threatening the use of force as a tool for leverage in international relations.

Kuperman’s reason for why Obama should be happy is that the deal, under which Iran would export uranium to Russia, which would enrich it to 20 percent (not the 90 percent required for weapons-grade uranium) and return it as fuel rods for use in Tehran’s research reactor, “was ill conceived from the start” since Iran would “thus be rewarded with much-coveted reactor fuel despite violating international law.”

His reference is to U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that Iran halt its uranium enrichment activities. The problem with these resolutions, as Iran is not hesitant to point out, is that they themselves directly violate the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), which clearly states that parties to the treaty have an “inalienable” right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and that the international community may take no action prejudicial towards that right.

The U.N. resolutions, needless to say, prejudice that “inalienable” right, particularly given the fact that there is no credible evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program – as both the U.S. intelligence community and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have pointed out.

In other words, under U.S. influence, the Security Council in this case has acted as a rogue body itself in violation of relevant treaties constituting international law and the very Charter under which it ostensibly operates.

Iran, on the other hand, remains in compliance with the terms of the NPT and is meeting its obligations in allowing the IAEA to monitor and inspect its nuclear program, despite much talk to the contrary.

Take the most recent example, the charge that Iran’s uranium enrichment facility near Qom, still under construction, was a violation of its obligation to declare any such facility prior to the beginning of construction. We’re told that Iran agreed to an updated version of its safeguards agreement with the IAEA containing a clause specifying that obligation.

What we’re not told is that at that time, Iran had agreed to implement the terms of the Additional Protocol and revised safeguards agreement on a strictly voluntary basis. The voluntary nature of Iran’s implementation of these measures was explicitly, and in writing (see the so-called Paris Agreement), recognized by the IAEA. Iran was under no legal obligation to do so and had done so simply as a “confidence-building measure”.

In return, Iran got nothing but further threats of sanctions and bombing. So it ended its voluntary observance of measures above and beyond that which was legally required of it.

The fact is that Iran has never ratified the revised safeguards agreement, as would be required for the revisions to be legally binding upon Iran. Under the safeguards agreement Iran has formally and legally obligated itself to, it need only declare such facilities six months prior to the introduction of nuclear material (i.e., introduction of uranium into enrichment centrifuges), which is exactly what Iran did in declaring the site several months ago.

In response to meeting its obligations under its safeguards agreement, the West responded by declaring that the “secret” site (an adjective irreconcilable with the fact Iran voluntarily declared it to the IAEA, but obligatorily used in the media anyways) was evidence of Iran’s intentions to manufacture nuclear weapons.

Summarily dismissed was Iran’s quite credible explanation for the site it voluntarily disclosed, which was that it was attempting to diversify its uranium enrichment capabilities under the threat of certain countries to bomb their nuclear facilities.

The demonization and punishment of Iran for its compliance with its obligations under international law is not entirely unlike the charges against Iraq that it was in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding it disarm because it had not disarmed, when in fact it had disarmed, and when in fact there was no credible evidence that it still possessed stockpiles or was still in production of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The IAEA, for its part, has continuously and consistently reported that it has verified Iran has diverted no nuclear materials towards a weapons program. Former Director General of the IAEA Mohammed ElBaradei, whose term ended just last month, has repeatedly said that there is no evidence Iran has a nuclear weapons program. His successor, Yukiya Amano, has made the same observation.

Then, of course, there is the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) from the U.S. intelligence community that stated Iran today has no nuclear weapons program, which according to Newsweek, is an assessment analysts still stand by. The NIE did claim that Iran once had such a program in the past, but that it ended it in 2003. The IAEA, on the other hand, recently issued a statement saying there is no evidence Iran ever had a weapons program.

Kuperman continues by suggesting that the goal of the international community should be to “compel” Iran “to halt its enrichment program”, which, he claims, the proposal to send its uranium abroad would not have done. It’s worth noting the fact that this is an explicit rejection of the NPT.

He adds, “In addition, the vast surplus of higher-enriched fuel Iran was to get under the deal would have permitted some to be diverted to its bomb program”, claiming that taking uranium from the fuel rods for further enrichment to weapons-grade “is a straightforward engineering task requiring at most a few weeks.”

The truth of the latter assertion aside, which is contrary to most reports on the subject and contrary to the whole supposed point of the deal, what’s notable here is the assumption that Iran has a “bomb program”, despite, as was the case with Iraq, the total lack of credible evidence to support the claim.

It’s enough in the mainstream corporate media simply to take Iran’s “bomb program” as a matter of faith. Evidence is simply not required, and it’s considered perfectly acceptable by the editors of the New York Times and other mainstream sources to print assumptions expressed as statements of fact.

Again, for those who don’t suffer from selective amnesia and aren’t prone to intentional ignorance, the kind of reporting we saw from the Times, et al, prior to the invasion of Iraq might perhaps serve as a lesson about the nature of the role U.S. corporate media play in “manufacturing consent” from the American public for U.S. foreign policies.

Kuperman next begs the question, “if the deal would have aided Iran’s bomb program, why did the United States propose it, and Iran reject it?” Oblivious to the fallacies underlying the question, his own answer is that “The main explanation on both sides is domestic politics.”

Obama simply wanted to “blunt Republican criticism that his multilateral approach was failing” and was seeking a short-term gain.

Iran, for its part, “rejected” the deal that, by Kuperman’s own account, would have helped it towards the presumed goal of achieving the bomb because “such a headlong sprint” towards that goal “is the one step most likely to provoke an international military response that could cripple the bomb program before it reaches fruition.”

In other words, while Israel regularly threatens that it won’t wait much longer for the U.S. to come to some agreement with Iran before it launches an attack against Iran’s nuclear sites that Iran’s possession of the bomb would surely deter, Iran is willing pass up an offer that would constitute “a headlong sprint” towards such a deterrent because doing so could actually jeopardize the possibility of it obtaining the bomb, since if Iran accepted the deal ostensibly designed to prevent it from being able to enrich uranium to weapons-grade, Israel would be even more likely to bomb their nuclear sites even sooner than if it Iran just rejects the proposal.

Truly, Kuperman has a dizzying intellect.

“In sum,” writes Kuperman, “the proposal would not have averted proliferation in the short run, because that risk always was low, but instead would have fostered it in the long run – a classic example of domestic politics undermining national security.”

In sum, Iran is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.

Thus, the bombing of Iran is a foreseeable and unavoidable consequence of the present U.S. policy towards Iran. This consequence, admittedly, might very well be disastrous, but the obvious solution – to alter U.S. policy – is simply inconceivable. A change of policy is off the table. The resort to violence is not.

It’s worth noting that Kuperman acknowledges that the “risk” of Iran obtaining the bomb anytime soon (assuming it actually is seeking it) “always was low”. This is an interesting admission given the tendency of Western media to portray Iran as being practically right on the verge of being able to manufacture a nuclear weapon.

Returning to Iran’s “rejection of the deal”, Kuperman suggests the so-called “rejection” was “likewise propelled by domestic politics – including last June’s fraudulent elections and longstanding fears of Western manipulation.”

The “fears of Western manipulation” is a valid enough observation, the fears warranted enough. But again, as with the presumption of an Iranian bomb program, it’s enough in U.S. mainstream media to assert the claim of “fraudulent elections” as fact, despite the spurious nature of the evidence for fraud and many strong indications that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad legitimately won, including polls conducted by Western organizations both prior to the vote and since showing strong support for his presidency.

Like the “rejection” of the deal, Kuperman goes on to repeat what has become another unquestioned part of the official narrative. Suggesting that President Ahmadinejad “initially embraced the deal because he realized it aided Iran’s bomb program”, he adds, “But his domestic political opponents, whom he has tried to label as foreign agents, turned the tables by accusing him of surrendering Iran’s patrimony to the West.”

The possibility that Iran has not accepted the deal because it consists of an implicit rejection of their right to enrich uranium for themselves is, like the thought of changing U.S. policy, simply inconceivable.

The claim that Ahmadinejad “initially embraced the deal”, only to “renege”, has become standard. But the claim, though widely reported, cannot stand up to scrutiny based on the actual facts that have been reported about the talks. Every indication is that Ahmadinejad himself was open to the proposal, which he continues to be, on the condition that the West cease its threatening and aggressive posture towards Iran, and that the Iranian negotiators during the talks agreed with the proposal on principle, in anticipation of further talks, without formally accepting the deal – something, Iran has pointed out, the negotiators were given no authority to do.

This is part of a larger narrative in Western media in which the Iranian leadership is fractured and the regime in a state of crisis due to the enormity of the opposition to Ahmadinejad’s rule (part of the “fraudulent elections” narrative). While there are elements of truth to this story line, it’s chiefly a product of wishful thinking and the willingness of commentators to succumb to their own propaganda.

Take, for example, reporting on the massive gathering of people honoring the influential Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri upon his death just last week. The opposition, we were told, of whom Montazeri was a leader, effectively took over the rally and was able to turn it into a massive anti-regime protest. Evidence for this was given in the form of amateur videos apparently from cell phones posted to opposition websites showing close-up shots of protesters shouting anti-regime slogans and holding up anti-regime banners.

Wider video shots of the actual funeral march, however, showed only an enormous crowd solemnly and respectfully marching along with the casket, holding up only photos of the cleric, not anti-regime banners. (The London Times, a leading outlet for anti-Iran propaganda, acknowledges that, with no journalists in the country due to restrictions on foreign media operations, much of its reporting comes from anti-regime elements, but insists that its sources are trustworthy, essentially a “just trust us” assertion that depends upon the questionable trustworthiness of the Times itself as a source for news on Iran.)

“Under such domestic pressure, Mr. Ahmadinejad reneged”, claims Kuperman, and then “threatened to enrich uranium domestically to the 20 percent level.” Notice how remarks from Iranian leaders that Iran would do what it has an “inalienable” right to do as a party to the NPT is characterized by the verb “threatened”.

The underlying and familiar assumption is that the rules are set by Washington, not by treaties comprising the body of international law. A dubious enough assumption, but unquestionable in the mainstream.

Iran’s “rejection” of the proposal shows that it “cannot make even temporary concessions on its bomb program”, and therefore, “Since peaceful carrots and sticks cannot work,” – (more the stick than the carrot) – “and an invasion would be foolhardy, the United States faces a stark choice: military air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities or acquiescence to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.”

There are numerous and obvious other options: to assume that evidence should be required of an Iranian nuclear program rather than establishing confrontational and aggressive policies based on the assumption that this is so; to cease from violating international law with threats of military aggression; to cease from deliberately isolating and provoking Iran and instead meaningfully engaging the country in a dialogue that actually recognizes Iran’s rights under the NPT; to live up to the additional obligation under the NPT for the U.S. and other nuclear-armed countries to provide member nations with nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, etc.

But it is simply inconceivable that mainstream sources like the Times would actually find “fit to print” such elementary alternatives.

Without reading further, the conclusion Kuperman would like his readers to draw (and here the headline, “There’s Only One Way to Stop Iran”, is relevant) is clear: obviously, we cannot acquiesce to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons; therefore the only logical choice is to bomb Iran.

To underscore the unacceptability of Iran obtaining the bomb, Kuperman employs a theme that should not be unfamiliar to Americans: “If Iran acquired a nuclear arsenal,” he writes, “the risks would simply be too great that it could become a neighborhood bully or provide terrorists with the ultimate weapon”.

He draws just short of saying that if we don’t bomb Iran, the consequences could come “in the form of a mushroom cloud”, the familiar official refrain prior to the invasion of Iraq – which had no nuclear program at all, much less a weaponized one (Kuperman states further in the article that this fact “eluded American intelligence until after the 2003 invasion”. U.S. intelligence analysts, we are apparently supposed to believe, never bothered themselves to read IAEA reports noting that the agency had completely dismantled Iraq’s nuclear program by the mid-90s).

And so we must bomb Iran. Now, “admittedly, aerial bombing might not work.” It could “backfire” by “undermining Iran’s political opposition, accelerating the bomb program or provoking retaliation against American forces and allies in the region.”

All three are credible consequences widely predicted among analysts. Iran may not have a nuclear weapons program now, but if it is bombed, the likelihood that it would withdraw from the NPT, move its nuclear weapons program underground, and begin work towards obtaining a nuclear deterrent to further such attacks would be increased in no inconsiderable measure.

Again, Iraq provides a useful lesson. It was a direct consequence of Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, according to the U.S.’s own intelligence assessments, that prompted Saddam Hussein to begin pursuing his nuclear program clandestinely and also to begin his pursuit to obtain nuclear weapons.

Kuperman actually mentions the Israeli attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor to support his assertion that bombing Iran – the very thing he advocates – might actually result in Iran “accelerating” efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon, but he obscures the obvious lesson to be had from it by suggesting an opposite and much more dubious conclusion: that the bombing slowed down, rather than accelerated, Saddam’s efforts to obtain the bomb.

In other words, bombing Iran might predictably and admittedly result in the very thing the bombing would ostensibly be aimed at preventing. The obvious corollary is that the bombing would not really be carried out in order to prevent that end.

Again, further lessons from Iraq are instructive. Consider that the war ostensibly fought to make the world safer from WMD and to fight terrorism resulted in the single most probable situation, had Iraq actually had WMD, under which Saddam Hussein would have provided them to terrorists. Again, that was the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community prior to the invasion.

Fortunately, Iraq didn’t have WMD and so this never occurred. But among the direct consequences of the war that did occur was a considerable increase in the threat of terrorism, again according to the U.S.’s own intelligence assessments. Whereas prior to the invasion, terrorist attacks within Iraq were virtually unknown, since the war began, the Iraq people continue to be plagued by terrorism as a direct consequence of the war.

The war, analysts have observed, served as a virtual billboard for terrorist organizations to recruit individuals willing to commit acts of violence in response to U.S. foreign policy – just as U.S. support for Israeli crimes against the Palestinians was a principle causal factor for the 9/11 attacks, if we are to believe the stated grievances of the originally accused mastermind of those attacks himself.

Again, the corollary is obvious: the official reasons for committing such acts of aggression against foreign nations, if we presume leading policymakers are sane and rational, cannot possibly be the actual rationale for them. That is perfectly elementary, albeit a virtual heresy to actually point out in respectable circles.

The war against Iraq had nothing to do with WMD or terrorism. Equally elementary is the observation that U.S. policy towards Iran has nothing to do with preventing it from obtaining nuclear weapons.

A further example is NATO’s bombing campaign in 1999 against Yugoslavia, which was ostensibly carried out to end atrocities on the ground, but which instead resulted in a sharp escalation of the violence – a consequence of the bombing predicted by the NATO leadership.

Kuperman also happens to mention that campaign, but, again, as with his mention of Osirak, arrives at other conclusions. Here, ignoring perhaps the most obvious lessons from his own argument and examples, his conclusion is that “Iran’s atomic sites might need to be bombed more than once to persuade Tehran to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

Bombing once won’t work, so Iran must be bombed repeatedly. This logic is akin to arguing that since poking a snake with a stick once might cause it to strike, it must be poked continually in order to prevent it from being able to do so.

Similarly, Kuperman draws other lessons from Iraq. “If nothing else,” he writes, “the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that the United States military can oust regimes in weeks if it wants to.”

Indeed. But if we set aside intentional ignorance, other relevant lessons just might perhaps be drawn. Kuperman, rather like the Wizard of Oz telling Dorothy and friends to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, goes to extraordinary efforts to deflect attention away from these, though.

Casting aside some of the most obvious lessons from Iraq, Kuperman, having acknowledged the, shall we say, “drawbacks” of his proposed solution, concludes simply that air strikes “are worth a try.”

One might note the rather cavalier attitude towards the use of violence against civilian targets for political ends (the very definition of “terrorism”), an incitement to violence that might raise questions about the nature of American intellectual culture, and the moral values (or lack thereof) of the intelligentsia, if we bother to ponder on the subject.

Kuperman, needless to say, doesn’t. Instead, he has just one “final question”: “who should launch the air strikes?”

The obvious answer is Israel, which “has shown an eagerness” to bomb Iran, the option “some hawks in Washington favor” in order “to avoid fueling anti-Americanism in the Islamic world” – a rationale of astounding ignorance; the Islamic world surely would recognize that were Israel to bomb Iran, it would be with a “green light” from Washington, a wink and a nod. But never mind that.

Kuperman continues, however, with “three compelling reasons that the United States itself should carry out the bombings”, the obvious fueling of anti-Americanism and other predicted and potentially disastrous consequences aside. The U.S. has better equipment to do the job, could more credibly threaten “to expand the bombing campaign” (that is, to repeatedly bomb the country), and it would be an opportunity to send “a strong warning” to other countries.

This latter rationale for the U.S. bombing of Iran provides a more credible explanation for what the actual purpose of such a bombing would be.

Kuperman, in line with the official rationale for keeping the military “option” “on the table” – an explicit rejection of principle that force should be used only as a last resort, as well as a direct violation of international law – suggests the “strong warning” would be for “other would-be proliferators”.

Proliferation being obviously of little to no consideration to U.S. policymakers – an elementary observation drawn even from the arguments provided here – “proliferators” clearly isn’t the right word here. “Nations seeking to act independently from and in opposition to Washington” might be more accurate.

“The sooner the United States takes action” – that is, the sooner it bombs Iran – “the better”, concludes Kuperman.

At stake is U.S. “credibility”, in the Mafioso sense of the word. Washington simply can’t have a country defying its orders. That’s the bottom line. That’s the underlying foundation of the policy of the Obama administration, carried over from the policy of his predecessor.

But, of course, just as the war in Iraq couldn’t be sold to the American public on the basis of its actual rationale, expanding U.S. global hegemony, neither can the true reasons for Washington’s policies towards Iran be mentioned. It just wouldn’t do.

Better, as with Iraq, to construct nonsensical arguments dependent upon an extraordinary level of intentional ignorance and consisting at the most fundamental level of claims for which there is little, if any, evidence to support.

Whether the American public has learned the more obvious and crucial lessons from Iraq and has the moral integrity to act on them remains to be seen. But what is for certain is that without massive public pressure on Washington to alter its Iran policy, the U.S. will maintain a course the consequences of which might very well prove, as with Iraq, to be disastrous.
Jeremy R. Hammond
Jeremy R. Hammond is an independent journalist and editor of Foreign Policy Journal, an online source for news, critical analysis, and opinion commentary on U.S. foreign policy. He was among the recipients of the 2010 Project Censored Awards for outstanding investigative journalism, and is the author of "The Rejection of Palestinian Self-Determination", available from

© 2009 Foreign Policy Journal

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Minnesota Public Radio--Three detained American hikers will be tried in Iranian court.

Three detained American hikers will be tried in Iranian court.

Minnesotan Shane Bauer and two friends Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal were arrested after crossing the Iran, Iraq border in July.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the three Americans accidentially crossed the unmarked border. But, Iranian officials claim that the three had "suspicious aims."

University of Minnesota anthropology professor William Beeman talked with All Things Considered about the situation. Beeman is an expert in Iranian culture and is the author of "The 'Great Satan' vs. the 'Mad Mullahs': How the U.S. and Iran Demonize Each Other."

Monday, December 14, 2009

William O. Beeman--American Hikers in Iran—Too Useful to Release

American Hikers in Iran—Too Useful to Release
William O. Beeman

Three Americans, journalist Shane Bauer and his companions, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd have been detained in Iran since July 31, 2009 for entering the Islamic Republic from Iraq at a remote mountain border without visas. Now Iran’s Foreign Minister, Manoucher Mottaki has announced that they will be tried in Iranian Courts. It is likely they will be charged with espionage.

The three Americans appear to have strayed innocently into Iranian territory, but they have provided an unusually strong opportunity for the Iranian government to continue to engage the United States in tit-for-tat attacks.

Superficially, the detention and eventual trial of these three individuals resembles the earlier detention of a number of Iranian-Americans traveling in Iran, the most recent being journalist Roxana Saberi, who was released last summer after having been charged with espionage. Iranian-American academic Kian Tajbakhsh remains in custody facing a 12 year jail sentence after his espionage conviction.

The case against Shane Bauer and his friends provides many political advantages to the Iranian government.

First, there can be no question that people who stray over international borders without proper documentation are subject to scrutiny and legal action. Here the Iranians have an open and shut justification for holding the three hikers, and can claim indisputable high legal ground for their actions.

Second, Iran wants to make the point that foreign spies are operating in its sovereign territory. The United States has admitted to maintaining operatives in Iran, as has Israel. Israel has even bragged about assassinating an Iranian nuclear scientist. Thus, although the three Americans are probably not spies, they serve as reminders to the Iranian public and to the international community of the real spies that Iranian authorities have not caught.

Third, Iran has reportedly linked the American detainees to eleven Iranians that have been held by U.S. Federal officials as reported by Laura Rozen in the blog, Politico . These individuals are charged with violating export laws—essentially by supplying arms and military equipment to Iran. They were arrested in several European countries, and have been held incognito and incommunicado for more than a year in some cases. The Iranians certainly hope to see movement on releasing these detainees.

Iran also charges the United States with engineering the disappearance of nuclear researcher Shahram Amiri during his pilgrimage to Mecca last spring.

Finally, the Iranian government is desperate for a distraction from the unprecedented opposition disturbances in protest of the June 12 presidential elections. December 18 marks the beginning of the month of Muharram, when Shi’a Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, murdered by the Umayyid Sunni dynasty in 680 C.E. There will be street processions, religious demonstrations and ritual mourning for 10 days. This is the perfect smokescreen for anti-government demonstrations.

To add to the government consternation, sections of the regular Iranian military have threatened to emerge from their barracks to protect “the people” from the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and Basij units that have been attacking the anti-government opposition. A big show trial against “foreign spies” will reinforce the Iranian government claims to its own citizenry that all the troubles in the Islamic Republic today are being fomented by foreign agents.

It clear that both the United States and Iran have a lot of human traffic to account for on each others’ soil. The real impediment to sorting out these matters is that the United States and Iran still have no comprehensive way to talk to each other. Moreover, there is too much to be gained in both nations by mutual demonization to move forward toward rational discussion. Iran’s non-existent nuclear program remains a red-herring preventing any real progress in reaching accord between the two nations.

For the hapless hikers, the worst case scenario is one where they get caught up in the maelstrom of events that have nothing to do with their meager crime, and end up as object lessons in the mutual hostilities between Iran and the West.

William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, and is Past-President of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Assocation. He has lived and worked in the Middle East for more than 30 years. His most recent book is The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other. (Chicago, 2008).

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Culture and Rituals of Eating

Culture and Rituals of Eating

University of Minnesota anthropology department head William Beeman explains how eating together is a universal tradition around the globe and is used to bring people together. The customs that surround eating are part of a universal pattern of rituals that shape the human habit of eating together, because communal dining is more than just eating; it's an event full of transitions, both material and symbolic. And while table manners around the world might be different from one another, they all share the common bond of making the process of eating more focused on rituals and the gathering of people.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

William O. Beeman--Attacks on Iran Are Attacks on Obama (New America Media)

Attacks on Iran Are Attacks on Obama

New America Media, News analysis, William O. Beeman, Posted: Nov 18, 2009 Review it on NewsTrust

In the last few weeks, there has been a flurry of unsubstantiated accusations against Iran. These accusations may seem to be aimed at Iran but, in fact, a pattern is emerging, which suggests that the attacks are really directed at destroying the Obama administration by discrediting its goodwill gesture toward Iran, which is a sharp departure from the Bush-era foreign policy.

One charge, launched against the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), accuses them of illegal lobbying for Iran. This attack has two prongs — allegations made by Iran analyst Hassan Daioleslam (aka Hassan Dai), and a “hit piece” by conservative writer Eli Lake in the Washington Times . NIAC has fought back with a lawsuit against Dai, but the damage has been done.

NIAC has primarily been a voice for Iranian Americans in foreign policy matters. However, they have committed a sin in the eyes of the neoconservatives, by consistently calling for a dialogue between Washington and Tehran.

The attacks on the NIAC and Iran are ultimately directed at undermining the Obama administration for its overtures toward Iran. It has now come to light that neoconservative author Kenneth Timmerman is behind the NIAC attacks, as reported by journalist Josh Rogin on the political blog, The Cable.

Another unsubstantiated claim is that Iran was helping Yemeni rebels from a Zaidi Shi’a sect known as the Houthis, in border attacks against Saudi Arabia. The Houthis have been attacking Saudi facilities for decades. The accusations have come largely from Saudi Arabia, but have been promulgated here in the United States as further “proof” that Iran aids terrorists. However, Middle East experts in the United States see no connection whatsoever between Iran and the Houthis.

Nevertheless, the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute wrote on October 30 of the Houthi in Yemen: “Perhaps the greatest al-Houthi threat posed to the U.S. is the possibility that Iran has identified them as a potential proxy – similar to Hezbollah or Hamas – on the doorstep of Saudi Arabia, a prospect that could yield the mullahs leverage in international negotiations.”

This remark was inserted in an article claiming that the Houthi served as a “safe haven” for Al-Qa’eda—a group that advocates the assassination of Shi’ite Muslims, the religion of both the Houthi and the Iranians.

Another unsubstantiated claim is that Iran was shipping arms by sea to Hezbollah. On November 5, Israel seized a German-owned, Cypriot-operated cargo ship flying the Antiguan flag, carrying arms. The Israelis immediately announced that this ship was carrying Iranian arms bound for Hezbollah. However, there was no proof that any of the arms came from Iran, and Hezbollah denied that they were being directed to them.

There is also the flimsy FBI lawsuit -- initiated during the Bush administration -- against the tiny New York-based Alavi Foundation, which promotes instruction of the Persian language and culture in American universities and several mosques around the country. The FBI suit claims that the foundation was funneling income to Iran through Bank Melli, the Iranian national bank. Since the income from the foundation is miniscule in international terms, and is committed already to educational programs, it is hard to see how Iran could benefit much from its operations.

Finally, there are the renewed vacuous claims about the empty Iranian facility near Qom, discovered last summer and touted widely as “proof” that the Iranians were making a bomb. The latest IAEA report on the site has now been published, and it asserts that while Iran should have notified the IAEA about its plans to build the facility, Iranian officials, according to the report, “provided access to all areas of the facility. The agency confirmed that the plant corresponded with the design information provided by Iran, and that the facility was at an advanced stage of construction, although no centrifuges had been introduced into the facility.

Thus, the facility was non-operational, and no fissile material (uranium) had been introduced into the plant. 

These attacks follow immediately on the heels of the Vienna talks with Iran, which seemed to signal progress on the Iranian nuclear issue, and the appointment of two highly knowledgeable individuals on Iran and the Middle East at the Department of State -- Dr. John Limbert, Deputy Undersecretary of State for Iran, and Dr. Tamara Wittes, Deputy Undersecretary of State for the Near East -- marking a sharp departure from the Bush administration, which made appointments largely based on ideology rather than expertise.

The world has seen these tactics many times now. The moment the United States and Iran have the tiniest success in reaching accord on something, the accusations against Iran crank up. The fact that all of the above events lack substantive proof is of far less importance than their propaganda value. We see the accusations being trumpeted as truth by the press and by senior and seemingly sober politicians. Of course, all this takes place against a background of attempts to show that the Obama administration is "soft on Islam."

Clearly, substantial players in the United States (and Israel) want to make sure that the United States and Iran remain estranged forever. To achieve this, they engage in lies, distortion and misinformation. The effects of these accusations are as strong in Iran, where they are known to be false, as they are in the United States, where they are naively believed to be true.

That this is neither intelligent nor mature thinking, and is ultimately detrimental to U.S. interests, matters not a whit to the accusers. These people may think they are patriots for carrying out these actions, but they are corrupting America's future in the region.

There is, besides, plenty to complain about regarding Iran's leaders and their recent action without resorting to fiction.

William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, and is past-president of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association. He has lived and worked in the Middle East for more than 30 years. His most recent book is The “Great Satan vs. the Mad Mullahs: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.” (Chicago, 2008).

Monday, November 16, 2009

Unsubstantiated attacks on Iran are really Attacks on President Obama

In the last few weeks there has been a flurry of unsubstantiated attacks against Iran. These attacks may seem to be aimed at Iran, but in fact a pattern is emerging that suggests that the attacks are really directed at destroying the Obama administration by discrediting the administration's opening to Iran--a sharp departure from Bush-era foreign policy.

One attack has been launched against the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and its head, Dr. Trita Parsi. Another the desperate claim that Iran was helping Yemeni rebels in border attacks against Saudi Arabia (The rebels have been attacking Saudi facilities for decades). A third is the unsubstantiated claim that Iran was shipping arms by sea to Hezbollah. Yet another is the flimsy FBI lawsuit (initiated during the Bush administration--likely at the instigation of the Treasury Department's Stuart Levey) against the tiny Alavi Foundation which promotes Persian Language and culture instruction. Finally there are the vacuous renewed claims about the empty Iranian facility near Qom (despite Mohammad el-Baradei's clear statement to the press that nothing of substance existed there).

These attacks follow immediately on the heels of the Vienna talks with Iran which seemed to signal progress on the Iranian nuclear issue, and the appointment of two knowledgeable individuals on Iran and the Middle East at the Department of State (Dr. John Limbert and Dr. Tamara Wittes).

I don't like conspiracy theories very much, but we have seen this before. The moment the United States and Iran have the tiniest success in reaching accord on something, the attacks against Iran crank up. The fact that all of the above events lack substantive proof is of far less importance than their propaganda value. We see the accusations being trumpeted as truth by the press and by senior, seemingly sober politicians. Of course, all this takes place against a background of attempts to show that the Obama administration is "soft on Islam." It is like playing Whack-a-Mole to try to address this avalanche of fiction, and misinformation, and the press plays along.

Clearly substantial players in the U.S. (and Israel) want to make sure that the United States and Iran remain estranged forever, and are not above lies, distortion and misinformation to assure this result. The effects of these accusations are as strong in Iran, where they are known to be false; as in the United States, where they are naively believed to be true. That this is neither intelligent nor mature thinking, and is ultimately detrimental to U.S. interests matters not a whit to the accusers. These people may think they are patriots for carrying out these actions, but they are corrupting America's future in the region, and further calling American reliability into question.

The attacks on the NIAC and Iran are ultimately directed at destroying the Obama administration opening to Iran. It has now come to light that neoconservative author Kenneth Timmerman is behind these attacks. Mr. Timmerman has shown that he has scant interest in the truth when it fails to suit his ideological purposes. His book, "Countdown to Crisis" is riddled with misinformation in order to inflame opinion against Iran. There is plenty to complain about regarding Iran's leaders and their recent action without resorting to fiction.

Timmerman's web site claims that he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Guess what! Anyone can be nominated for the Peace Prize. Anyone affiliated with an academic institution can nominate. It is not a credential.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Iran Charges 3 American Hikers With Espionage (with note by William O. Beeman)

Iran Charges 3 American Hikers With Espionage

Published: November 9, 2009

Note by William O. Beeman: There is a danger in being too sanguine about the situation of the three hikers (including photojournalist Shane Bauer) who transgressed the Iranian border and were today charged with spying in Iran. However, this follows the same pattern that has been seen now six or seven times. Someone is involved with a minor infraction, or just heightened suspicion. The Iranian government charges them with spying to squeeze the greatest possible propaganda value from the situation. The alleged spies are generally treated humanely and undergo a show trial, and are usually released, or allowed to depart after having posted bail as a sign of Iranian humanitarian generosity. If past experience is any predictor, this is how this situation will play out as well.

The spying charges become believable to a domestic Iranian audience because of the consistent pattern of past interference by the United States in Iranian affairs, and George W. Bush's flat statement that we have agents operating in Iran--something the Iranians absolutely know to be true. Iran is of course trying to make a point to the external world as well--stop spying on us!

We have two new stars at the State Department in Washington--John Limbert (Iran) and Tamara Wittes (Near East), both of whom have superb credentials on Iran. They will have to deal with this. The situation is also variable due to the ongoing nuclear negotiations. One can bet that these three detainees are being presented as chips in the negotiations--or possible signs of "good faith." The three hikers were caught in Iranian territory without visas or documentation. The United States treats similar infractions with utmost harshness, so we have very little to say on this matter from a legal standpoint. Asking for clemency is really the proper way to go, though it is going to stick in the craw of many right-wingers. Certainly condemning the Iranian government is foolish. The United States doesn't have a leg to stand on here.

The case of Iranian-American Kian Tajbakhsh, also charged with spying in Iran, is linked with this case as well.

Three American hikers who were arrested in Iran this summer after straying across its border with Iraq have been charged with spying, an Iranian state news agency reported on Monday.

The Tehran prosecutor told Iran’s official IRNA news agency that Iranian officials were pursuing espionage charges against the Americans, who were detained in late July after trekking through the Kurdistan region of Iraq and toward the Iranian border.

News of the charges drew a quick rebuke from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who reiterated calls for the Iranians to release the hikers, Shane M. Bauer of Emeryville, Calif.; Joshua F. Fattal of Cottage Grove, Ore.; and Sarah E. Shourd of Oakland, Calif.

“We believe strongly that there is no evidence to support any charge whatsoever,” she told reporters in Berlin, according to The Associated Press. “And we would renew our request on behalf of these three young people and their families that the Iranian government exercise compassion and release them so they can return home.”

The spectacle of three American tourists on trial in Iran could add more strain to relations between Iran the United States at a time when the countries are engaged in fraught negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. The United States has been pursuing the release of the hikers through Swiss diplomats who represent American interests in Tehran. The United States severed diplomatic ties with Iran after the 1979 takeover of its embassy in Tehran.

There was no immediate comment from family members or friends of the Americans.

Statements from family members and Kurdish authorities have said that the three travelers, all graduates of the University of California, Berkeley, had crossed from Turkey into Kurdistan, where they stayed at a hostel and camped as they headed toward Ahmed Awa, a resort area of caves and waterfalls on the border.

A statement on a Web site set up for the hikers,, makes a plea for their release: “We hope the Iranian authorities understand that if our children and friends did happen to enter Iran, there can only be one reason: because they made a regrettable mistake and got lost.”

Jack Healy reported from New York, and Nazila Fathi from Toronto.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

William O. Beeman--IAEA Found Nothing Serious at Iran Site

IAEA Found Nothing Serious at Iran Site
Posted on Nov 07, 2009 02:56:00 PM by Andrew Lam
[ filed under: foreign-policy middle-east ]

by William O. Beeman

When a “secret nuclear site” in Qom (Qum), Iran was voluntarily disclosed to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by Iran on September 21, 2009, President Obama claimed that the United States forced the disclosure. Indeed, the United States had known about the site for at least three years.

The Qom site was reportedly a second uranium enrichment site, matching the one already in operation at the town of Natanz. However, even at the time of disclosure it appeared to be less than had been reported by President Obama. It had 3000 antiquated centrifuges purchased from Pakistan that had not been even set up for use. It had no nuclear fissile material in it, In short, the site was was not operational in any way.

Iran claimed that under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) they were not required to report such sites until 180 days prior to the introduction of fissile material. The U.S. and other nations claimed that Iran was bound by an “additional protocol” to the NPT that required them to disclose planned sites even before they were built. Iran never properly ratified the additional protocol, but observed it voluntarily as a goodwill gesture from 2004 to 2007, formally notifying the IAEA in 2007 that they were suspending this observance. The conversion of the Qum site did not begin until 2008.

The brouhaha over the “discovery” of the Qum site was epic. Israel and numerous American politicians claimed that it “proved” that Iran was building a bomb. Iran immediately invited IAEA inspectors to the site, though they claimed they were not required to do so.

Last Thursday Reuters and the New York Times reported that the IAEA inspectors had visited the Qom site. As can be seen from
the Reuters article, the whole matter proved to be a tempest in a teapot.

According to IAEA Chief, Mohammad al-Baradei, the Qom site contained nothing of any importance, was not operational, and was in effect a bunker—a hole in the ground. The flap over this silly incident demonstrates the extraordinary lengths politicians in Israel and the West will go to demonize Iran’s nuclear energy program.

There is still no proof whatever that Iran has a nuclear weapons program.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Reuters: IAEA Found Nothing Serious at Iran Site

Reuters News Service

IAEA found nothing serious at Iran site: ElBaradei
Thu Nov 5, 2009 4:26pm EST

Note from William O. Beeman: When the "secret nuclear site" in Qum, Iran was disclosed to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)voluntarily by Iran in September 2009, President Obama claimed that the United States forced the disclosure. The site had no nuclear fissile material in it, and was not operational. Iran claimed that under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) they were not required to report such sites until 180 days prior to the introduction of such material. The U.S. and other nations claimed that Iran was bound by an "additional protocol" to the NPT that required them to disclose planned sites even before they were built. Iran never properly ratified the additional protocol, but observed it voluntarily as a goodwill gesture from 2004 to 2007, formally notifying the IAEA that they were suspending this observance. The conversion of the Qum site did not begin until 2008. The brouhaha over the "discovery" of the Qum site was epic. Israel claimed that it "proved" that Iran was building a bomb. Iran immediately invited IAEA inspectors to the site, though they claimed they were not required to do so. As can be seen from the article below, this was a tempest in a teapot. The Qum site contained nothing of any importance, was not operational, and was in effect a bunker--a hole in the ground. The flap over this silly incident demonstrates the extraordinary lengths politicians in Israel and the West will go to demonize Iran's nuclear energy program. There is still no proof whatever that Iran has a nuclear weapons program.

VIENNA (Reuters) - U.N. inspectors found "nothing to be worried about" in a first look at a previously secret uranium enrichment site in Iran last month, the International Atomic Energy chief said in remarks published Thursday.

Mohamed ElBaradei also told the New York Times that he was examining possible compromises to unblock a draft nuclear cooperation deal between Iran and three major powers that has foundered over Iranian objections.

The nuclear site, which Iran revealed in September three years after diplomats said Western spies first detected it, added to Western fears of covert Iranian efforts to develop atom bombs. Iran says it is enriching uranium only for electricity.

ElBaradei was quoted in a New York Times interview as saying his inspectors' initial findings at the fortified site beneath a desert mountain near the Shi'ite holy city of Qom were "nothing to be worried about."

"The idea was to use it as a bunker under the mountain to protect things," ElBaradei, alluding to Tehran's references to the site as a fallback for its nuclear program in case its larger Natanz enrichment plant were bombed by a foe like Israel.

"It's a hole in a mountain," he said.

The IAEA has declined to comment on whether the inspectors came across anything surprising or were able to obtain all the documentation and on-site access they had wanted at the remote spot about 160 km (100 miles) south of Tehran.

Details are expected to be included in the next IAEA report on Iran's disputed nuclear activity due in mid-November.

The inspectors' goal was to compare engineering designs to be provided by Iran with the actual look of the facility, interview scientists and other employees, and take soil samples to check for any traces of activity oriented to making bombs.


Western diplomats and analysts say the site's capacity appears too small to fuel a nuclear power station but enough to yield fissile material for one or two nuclear warheads a year.

The Islamic Republic revealed the plant's existence to the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog on September 21. It said the site, which remains under construction, would enrich uranium only to the low 5 percent purity suitable for power plant fuel.

Enrichment to the 90 percent threshold provides the fissile material that detonates nuclear weapons.

After talks with Iran and three world powers, ElBaradei drafted a plan for Iran to transfer most of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia and France to turn it into fuel for a Tehran reactor that makes isotopes for cancer treatment.

Russia, France and the United States, which would help modernize the reactor's safety equipment and instrumentation under the deal, see it as a way to reduce Iran's LEU stockpile below the threshold needed to produce material for a bomb.

But since the October 19-21 talks, Iran has made clear it is loath to ship its own LEU abroad because of its strategic value, and would prefer buying the reactor fuel it needs from foreign suppliers. Iran has called for more talks.

Western diplomats say the three powers do not want more talks and that Iran's demands are a non-starter as they would do nothing to remove the risk of nuclear proliferation in Iran.

ElBaradei was quoted by the New York Times as saying the problem boiled down to "total distrust on the part of Iran ...

"The issue is timing, whether the uranium goes out and then some time later they get the fuel, as we agreed (tentatively) in Geneva, or whether it only goes at the same time as the fuel is delivered," he said.

"There are a lot of ideas. One is to send (Iran's uranium) to a third country, which could be a friendly country to Iran, and it stays there. Park it in another state ... (for) something like a year..., then ... bring in the fuel. The issue is to get it out, and so create the time and space to start building trust."

(Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Richard Williams)

William O. Beeman--Commensality--Table Fellowship (interview)

Commensality: Table fellowship

Mind your manners, and all is well at the table.

By LEE SVITAK DEAN, Star Tribune
Last update: November 4, 2009 - 2:33 PM

Eating with others at a shared table is one of the most important human activities, says William Beeman, professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota. There's even a word for it: commensality.

"There's not a society on Earth where human beings don't engage in eating together as a really important activity," he said. "The process of eating together actually takes on the quality of a kind of social ritual."

Consider how people, gathered around a table, generally don't start eating until everyone has food. "That little principle of starting at the same time is widespread on the planet and almost universally observed," said Beeman, who will speak Nov. 5 on global table manners and etiquette at the Bell Museum, as part of the "Hungry Planet" exhibit.

Meals often have a ritual that reflects the beginning of the event, be it a toast or invocation as simple as "bon app├ętit!"

Most table manners reflect a transition between the act of eating and other kinds of social life. In many societies, there may be a kind of hierarchical movement to the table, with the most prominent people first and then others following.

Think rank doesn't matter in this country? At the White House, there is a chief of protocol who makes certain that people are placed at the dinner table in the right order. "The person who sits next to the First Lady gets the real place of honor and you might be insulted if you don't get that place," said Beeman.

The act of eating is not particularly pleasant to watch, regardless of culture. Beeman noted that the physical body is an important boundary everywhere, and rituals are set so we make sure there's a clear transition between inside and outside (such as ingesting).

Societies try to make eating as gracious as possible. In cultures where food is to be eaten with fingers, for example, hands are washed in public, as a courtesy to others.

Generally, table manners are intended to facilitate the social event, whether it's a dinner party or a family sitting together at the table.
"The goal is for the meal to go along well for everyone," Beeman said.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

William O. Beeman--Commentary on Afghanistan--KARE 11 Television, Minneapolis

Two Minnesota families are mourning the loss of two men killed last week fighting for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

"It took so long to sink in, I don't think it has really," Kyle Taylor said in Two Harbors Tuesday morning. Marine Staff Sgt. Aaron Taylor, Kyle's older brother, was killed Friday while on foot patrol in Afghanistan. "He was a great man, he died doing what he loved to do and I only wish I could be like him some day," Kyle Taylor said.

A day later, 24 year old National Guard Specialist George Cauley of Walker died in Afghanistan. He was injured a few days earlier by an insurgent bomb, also in Helmand Province.

The two soldiers were killed as President Obama considered a request for 40,000 extra troops for the war in Afghanistan. General Stanley McChrystal, the military commander in the country, made a very public plea for more soldiers on the grounds a few weeks ago.

"It certainly will intensify. As we escalate, so will the other side," U of M Anthropology Chair William Beeman said. Beeman is an internationally known expert on the Middle East. He believes even with more US troops, the war will become even more difficult in the coming weeks. Beeman said Afghanistan is so divided that it could be tough to figure out who is loyal to Al Qaeda and who will be willing to help US soldiers.

"The country's always been split up in small territories that were more or less governed by local political figures. Nobody has a tattoo on their forehead that says Taliban or Al Qaeda," Beeman said. He also added that the people of Afghanistan are prone to change loyalties on a weekly or monthly basis.

The U.S. Department of Defense reports more than 792 servicemen and women have been killed in or around Afghanistan in the past 8 years. 612 were killed by "hostile action."

Currently, 117 MN National Guard Soldiers from Duluth's 114th are in the country, 24 additional Minnesotans are on a Mentoring Liaison Team. Another 130 Army Reservists from Minnesota were deployed to Afghanistan a month and a half ago.

The family of Aaron Taylor is thinking of each and every one of them, as they continue Aaron's mission. "He was working with a good bunch of guys and he was proud to work with them," Kyle Taylor concluded.

(Copyright 2009 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

William O. Beeman--Iran's Nuclear Program: Facts Americans Need to Know (New America Media)

Iran’s Nuclear Program: Facts Americans Need to Know

New America Media, News Analysis,
William O. Beeman,
Posted: Sep 29, 2009

The recent news that Iran is in the process of building a second uranium enrichment facility sent politicians and the press into a tizzy. Consequently, the American public is once again being barraged with half-truths and misstatements about Iran’s nuclear program.

In the spirit of public service, here are 10 basic facts about Iran’s nuclear energy program that Americans desperately need to know.

1. No one has presented any concrete evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. This has been asserted in every inspection report of Iran carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and our own American National Intelligence Estimate.

2. Iranian officials have renounced nuclear weapons as un-Islamic and unnecessary for Iran’s defense. Iran has not launched a first strike against any nation for more than 300 years, and it will not attack Israel or any other nation. It will, however, defend itself.

3. Iran would have to build numerous facilities to process nuclear material before it could even think about producing a weapon.

4. The facility discovered last week in Qom is incomplete, non-operational and has not had any nuclear material introduced into it. It is designed, not as a weapons manufacturing plant, but as a mini-version of the enrichment facility at Natanz. It was probably intended as a back-up if Natanz were bombed.

5. The Iranians make a strong claim that they were not required to report the facility until 180 days before fissile material was introduced. It is simply not true that they are in unambiguous violation of their “international obligations,” as asserted by President Obama.

6. The United States knew about the Qom facility four years ago and chose not to reveal its knowledge. In fact, if the facility were illegal, the United States was obliged to reveal it. Either the facility was not illegal, or the United States is itself in violation of its treaty obligations.

7. The Qom facility was not “exposed” by the United States. It was revealed by a voluntary letter from Iran to the IAEA several days earlier than the American announcement.

8. If operational, the Qom plant would at best be able to produce enough raw fissile material to produce only one bomb per year. In order for such a bomb to be built, the enriched uranium would still have to be sent through numerous non-existent processing facilities before emerging as a weapon. By contrast, Israel, Pakistan and India all have large stockpiles of nuclear warheads ready to launch.

9. Iran actually needs nuclear energy to generate electricity, as it asserts. Currently, Iran uses natural gas for its electricity generation. As Iran’s crude oil supplies dwindle, that gas is needed to “re-inject” the oil fields to increase oil production. It is also more profitable for Iran to sell the remaining gas abroad in liquid form than to use it to generate electric power.

10. Iran will not give up nuclear enrichment under pressure. The nuclear energy program was started nearly 40 years ago under U.S. ally Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Iranians of all ages and all economic classes take pride in the development of nuclear energy as proof of Iran’s scientific and engineering prowess. They see efforts to curtail this as attempts by the West to suppress their progress. Whoever is elected president in Iran in the future will enthusiastically support the nuclear program.

So, why have our national leaders misled the public about this program? One reason is that Iran has become the universal bogeyman for American politicians. No one has ever lost a vote by attacking Iran and many have been attacked for seeming to be “soft” on Iran. Moreover, Israel and its supporters have successfully promulgated the equation that to be less than hostile to Iran is to be anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic. Neoconservatives in the Bush administration also had plans for regime change in Iran dating back to the early 1990’s, and portraying Iran as a nuclear menace would build public support for an attack on the Islamic Republic.

Americans may think that an Iranian nuclear weapons program exists because of the clever rhetoric used by Iran’s detractors—even Obama. Phrases like, “We must prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” or “If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, the world is in danger,” are weasel phrases designed to mislead the public. The same tricks were used to convince the public that Iraq was behind the 9-11 attacks on New York and Washington.

One thing is certain. If the American public does not wake up and realize that it is being deceived on Iran, either Israel or the United States or both could attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, Iran would retaliate, and the world conflagration would truly begin.

William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Minn. He is past-president of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association. He has conducted research in Iran for over 40 years and is author, most recently, of "The 'Great Satan' vs. the 'Mad Mullahs': How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other," (University of Chicago Press, 2008).

Monday, September 28, 2009

William O. Beeman speaks on Iran on Minnesota Public Radio

I appeared today (September 28) on Minnesota Public Radio's Midday program talking about Iran, the recent "discovery" of the nuclear facility at Qom and its implications for future relations with Iran. You can access the program directly below.


Bill Beeman

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Willaiam O. Beeman--New U.S. Economic Sanctions Against Iran Will Backfire (New America Media)

New U.S. Economic Sanctions Against Iran Will Backfire

New America Media, News Analysis,

William O. Beeman, Posted: Sep 24, 2009

The U.S. Congress, with the support of the Obama administration, may think it is getting tough with Iran through a series of resolutions supporting increased economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic. The effect of these measures will be exactly the opposite of what Congress intends. In fact, besides having no tangible effect, they are actually being welcomed by Iran’s leaders.

The U.S. sanctions provide cover for stern, unpopular economic measures the Iranian government wants desperately to enact, but can’t in the current political climate. Having the United States to blame makes these moves justifiable to the restive Iranian public, already in turmoil over the contested July 12 presidential election.

The most foolish of the U.S. measures is a proposed resolution to embargo gasoline imports to Iran. Lobbyists who oppose Iran and its policies have told Congress that Iran does not produce enough gasoline for its internal needs, and must import it from abroad. This is true.

What the U.S. Congress does not understand, however, is that the Iranian government subsidizes the gasoline it imports so the cost to the public is roughly 10 cents per liter, or just short of 40 cents per gallon. The cost is ruinous and the government has acted to curb the costs. In 2007 the government imposed rationing on the public -- 100 liters per month for individuals and 600 liters per month for taxicabs and other transport vehicles. Moreover, a program of equipping vehicles for natural gas is well underway. The free market is also active. For those who need more than the allotted 100 liters of gasoline, it can be purchased on the open market for approximately $2 (U.S.) per gallon.

The Iranian government aims to completely eliminate gasoline imports by 2013, and it is making significant progress toward that goal. In order to progress, they would like to introduce further rationing, and transfer gas purchases gradually to free-market prices. However, they know that they will meet tremendous public resistance. When rationing was initially introduced, there were public protests, and threats of public transportation strikes.

In this light, the U.S. Congress’ call for sanctions allows the Iranian government to further ration gasoline and blame America for the need to do it.

Of course, American calls for an embargo are futile anyway, and the Iranian leaders know very well that pointing fingers at the United States to justify rationing would be a cynical charade. Gasoline is sold through independent brokers worldwide. These are private entrepreneurs operating under very few restrictions. The idea that any U.S. measure would stop gasoline imports into Iran is a practical absurdity, short of blockading the Straits of Hormuz, the entrance to the Persian Gulf.

Other sanctions have made life somewhat more uncomfortable for the Iranian middle and lower economic groups, but they have not stopped banking or trade. Anything available in the United States is also available in Iran, albeit at elevated prices. When prices go up in Iran due to inflation resulting from bad government economic policies, once again Iranian leaders blame the United States.

The international community is also not likely to support further economic sanctions against Iran. Russia and China in particular have lucrative trade agreements with Tehran, and expect to expand these relationships in the future. Moreover, each has a veto on the United Nations Security Council where such measures must be ratified.

The most disturbing aspect of the American call for tougher economic sanctions is that no one can say what they are designed to accomplish. Some see them as a measure to force Iran to suspend uranium enrichment. However, Iran maintains that uranium enrichment as an inalienable right under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), if used for peaceful purposes. Since there is no concrete evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, and Iranian leaders have themselves denounced the manufacture of nuclear weapons, Iranians are adamant that they will not be forced into doing something that no other signatory to the NPT is being required to do.

Although Iran’s internal politics are chaotic at present, in the long run the United States must engage Iran in dialogue about a whole host of issues – refugees, drug trafficking, environmental issues, regional security and containment of disease, to name just a few. The persistence of the Congressional clamor for these ineffective and meaningless sanctions only serves as a barrier to more productive relations.

William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minn. He is past president of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association, and former director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. His most recent book is “The ‘Great Satan’ vs. the ‘Mad Mullahs’: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other” (University of Chicago Press).

Friday, August 28, 2009

Nuclear drive a casualty of Iran's turmoil Experts say Tehran is unlikely to speed up its program (L.A. Times),0,4625620.story
Nuclear drive a casualty of Iran's turmoil

Experts say Tehran is unlikely to speed up its program, giving the U.S. and its allies more time to work with.

Commentary by William O. Beeman: Iran's nuclear program has served as an excuse for launching an attack on the Islamic Republic since 2003. It is clear that Iran is far away from mastering the fuel cycle that would allow it to create fuel for generation of energy. Iran's attackers use weasel-words like "nuclear weapons development capacity" to make the program seem vastly more threatening than it is. In fact, there is no evidence whatever that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. This does not stop politicians in the United States, Israel and elsewhere from presenting Iranian nuclear weapons development as a fait accompli. As Borzou Daragahi points out, there would be many bumps in the road before Iran could come close to developing a weapon, if such a program actually existed, and the current political turmoil sets the clock back even farther. In the meantime, Pakistan becomes less and less stable every day, and Pakistan has nuclear bombs ready to launch. No one in Washington or Tel Aviv seems to care.

By Borzou Daragahi

August 28, 2009

Reporting from Beirut

Iran's political crisis could prevent the nation from making any swift move to ratchet up its nuclear program, said analysts and officials, giving President Obama and Western allies more time to grapple with the issue.

The chaos over the disputed reelection of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad brings into question who calls the shots in Tehran, and what any deal with the Islamic Republic involving its nuclear program would look like.

The Obama administration, concerned that Tehran is seeking to amass the materials needed to manufacture nuclear weapons, set an informal deadline of September for Iran to respond positively to an offer to discuss the matter rather than risk new economic sanctions.

"The infighting in Tehran has sent up a smoke screen that further confuses the picture from the outside, and the picture was plenty opaque to begin with," said a U.S. official in Washington who is involved in formulating nuclear policy and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Tehran has long insisted that its nuclear research program is meant solely to provide electricity for its growing population. Its production of reactor-grade uranium has become a source of national pride, the atomic symbol emblazoned on the back of Iran's 50,000-rial bills.

But most Western arms-control experts believe Iran is trying to achieve the ability to quickly manufacture a nuclear bomb. And Iran continues to defy United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding that it stop producing the enriched uranium, material that, if further refined, could be turned into the fissile material for a bomb.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, is set to take up its latest quarterly status report on Iran's nuclear program in early September.

In recent weeks, Iran granted IAEA inspectors access to a heavy-water reactor and parts of the country's enrichment facility after previously barring them. The move suggests an effort by Tehran to ease pressure on itself and on its most likely supporters at the Security Council -- Russia and China -- before any new talks on sanctions.

Although Iranian scientists have continued to enrich low-grade uranium during the nation's political crisis, news agencies have reported that Tehran has not taken steps to increase its processing capacity during the last quarter. Experts say that may have more to do with technical quirks than political decisions.

For now, most Iran watchers agree that Tehran will not only be unable to respond positively to the Obama administration's offer of talks, but also is in too much political disarray to make the major decisions necessary to build a nuclear weapon. Such steps would include further enriching its uranium supply to weapons grade, or constructing controversial new facilities for speeding up the process.

"The nuclear dossier has been stalled and is in a stagnant position, with no back or forth moves," said Ahmad Shirzad, an Iranian nuclear scientist and political analyst. "The recent events in Iran put all important decision-making in limbo. The postelection events have not completely unfolded, and Mr. Ahmadinejad has not come to a conclusion what to do."

Iran's 20-year foray into nuclear technology has long benefited from a broad consensus among the nation's political elites, or at least acquiescence by foes of the program. Important institutions such as the Expediency Council, led by Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; the presidency; the Supreme National Security Council and parliament, along with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have played a role in the program's creation and sustenance.

Conservative Ahmadinejad likes to take credit for Iran's recent nuclear progress. But Tehran actually relaunched its dormant program under the 1980s premiership of his primary rival, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and the first breakthroughs on enrichment came during the presidency of Ahmadinejad's reformist predecessor, Mohammad Khatami.

"Nuclear policy has not changed regardless of the domestic problems, as the nuclear policy, like any other strategic policy, was predetermined more than two decades ago," said Ali Khorram, a former Iranian diplomat based in Tehran.

Since the disputed June election, Iran's feuding factions have been preoccupied with political infighting. Rafsanjani skipped Ahmadinejad's inauguration and the president skipped a session of the Expediency Council. At a ceremony honoring the new judiciary chief, who is a conservative rival to Ahmadinejad, the president arrived an hour late and left in haste after delivering a blistering speech calling on the jurist to go after those he termed elitists, alluding to Rafsanjani.

Within Iran's treacherous domestic political arena, any sign of weakness, or of bowing to the West, either by slowing Tehran's missile program or suspending the production of reactor-grade uranium, could be used by rivals to pounce, political analysts say. Therefore, it is likely that the current program, in which reactor-grade nuclear material is processed by at least 5,000 spinning centrifuges, will keep moving forward at its current pace.

"The nuclear program is a touchstone issue for the entire government," said the U.S. official. "No one on either side of the current controversy is going to risk his credibility by even suggesting a change in posture or a substantive pause."

Iran's political hard-liners have made dramatic moves during previous periods of domestic discord. Such measures as stoning women or questioning the Holocaust provoked an international reaction that unified squabbling domestic factions and silenced critics.

But because of the extent of the current political feuding and the stakes involved, experts say, it is unlikely that Tehran will make a dramatic move toward constructing a nuclear weapon.

"It will be hard to get an approval by all concerned," said Jalil Roshandel, an Iran expert at East Carolina University.

Moreover, he said, continued public support of Ahmadinejad's nuclear policies is no longer a given.

"Public opinion is divided, dispersed or, at best, indifferent," he said.

A "breakout" move on the nuclear issue risks not only public scorn, but also tighter sanctions, an embargo on sales of refined petroleum to Tehran or even armed conflict.

Iran's rulers may not want to risk testing the loyalty of an already volatile and angry populace..

"We must remember that the nuclear program is a means to an end," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iran expert based in Tel Aviv. "Khamenei would not sacrifice his regime over it."

Anger over Ahmadinejad's domestic policies has already emboldened figures close to the opposition to speak out more forcefully against his approach on the nuclear issue.

"The Iranian authorities should know what they should expect if they do not enter the negotiations seriously and do not adhere to the repeated resolutions of the Security Council on the suspension of the uranium enrichment program," warned a commentary in the reformist newspaper Mardom Salari.

Internal paralysis, international isolation and stagnant oil prices, analysts say, could work dramatically in the West's favor, giving Tehran the incentive to make a quick deal with the West in order to concentrate on shoring up domestic stability and its faltering economy.

"So far, since the election, Iran seems to be a bit more flexible than before," said Anoush Ehteshami, a professor of international relations at Durham University in Britain.

"Given the current political climate at home, it makes sense to try to contain the nuclear crisis for as long as possible."

But some warn that any deal with Iran's current government would strengthen its legitimacy, betraying an election protest movement that has captured the world's imagination and challenged decades-old ideas about Iran's political realities.

"The Iranian people will never forget if Western liberalism and the international community abandons the Iranian nation's struggle for freedom," said Reza Kaviani, a Tehran-based analyst and opposition supporter.

Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2009, The Los Angeles Times

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

With Each New Assessment, Iran's Nuclear Clock Is Reset Politics Plays a Role in How Intelligence Is Interpreted --(Jewish Daily Forward)

With Each New Assessment, Iran's Nuclear Clock Is Reset
Politics Plays a Role in How Intelligence Is Interpreted

By Gal Beckerman

Published August 19, 2009, issue of August 28, 2009.

Commentary by William O. Beeman: There is no evidence whatever that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. Yet American and Israeli politicians have continually made political hay by claiming that there is one, and that production of an Iranian nuclear bomb is "one year away." This has been going on every year since the early 1990's. Additionally, the Mujaheddin-e Khalk (MEK or MKO), a U.S.-certified terrorist group dedicated to the overthrow of Iran's government continues to curry favor with the west by supplying dubious information about Iran's nuclear intentions. This masquerade needs to be exposed. In the article below from the Jewish Daily Forward, Gal Beckerman points out the chicanery in these claims, and the venal motives of those who make them.

The senior Israeli official's tone was dire. In only a few years, the Iranians would be ready to launch a nuclear bomb. He minced no words. "If Iran is not interrupted in this program by some foreign power, it will have the device in more or less five years."

The year this apocalyptic prediction was made: 1995.

As we all know, Israel survived the year 2000. Iran did not get the bomb. And earlier this month, it was revealed that the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research's latest estimate has pushed that dreaded date back to 2013, when it posits that Iran will finally be able to produce highly enriched uranium, a key ingredient in any nuclear weapon.

Then again, the State Department could be as wrong as that Israeli official back in 1995. To listen to the drumbeat emanating from Tel Aviv, the Iranians are much, much closer. In March, Amos Yadlin, the head of Israeli military intelligence, announced that Iran had "crossed the technological threshold." In only a year, they would be equipped with what they need to build some kind of crude nuclear device.

It's hard to know how to make sense of all these divergent estimates. Though they have become more numerous and more conflicting since the beginning of this year, analyses of Iran's nuclear capabilities have always been a matter of broad interpretation. From the moment that Iran announced in the mid-1980s its intention to launch a nuclear program, intelligence agencies in Israel and the United States - which analysts agree both look at the same raw data - have set and reset the nuclear clock over and over again.

Israeli intelligence, in particular, has announced a "point of no return" almost every year, a continually unfulfilled prediction that some say erodes the credibility of its analysts.

What some see as the fine point of when exactly Iran gets the bomb is not inconsequential. The time frame for both diplomacy and a military response that would have serious ramifications hinge on this question. It is for this reason, a wide range of independent observers agree, that politics has played the most central role in how intelligence on Iran and its nuclear program is interpreted and packaged for the public.

"Clearly the fact that some of these assessments seem to change rather rapidly has fueled the suspicion that much of it is actually politically motivated," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council.

The problem, according to Parsi and others, is that the elements that make up any assessment of Iran's actual progress can be read differently.

From a technical standpoint, there are a series of steps on the path toward making a bomb, each of which can be interpreted as the menacing "threshold." Beginning with building large quantities of centrifuges to producing low-enriched uranium and then more highly enriched weapons-grade uranium to finally having a device to launch a bomb, the red lights could start flashing at any point.

By all accounts, Iran has managed to produce low-enriched uranium, possibly enough to make a crude bomb. Low-level enrichment for civilian nuclear uses is legal under international law. But based on its incomplete answers to the International Atomic Energy Agency, world leaders, neighboring countries and many security analysts are deeply concerned that this is not all Iran has in mind. The question of Iranian nuclear weapons development remains murky. According to the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, Iran stopped all work on a nuclear weapons program in 2003. But this piece of intelligence is also disputed.

"This is one of these cases that where you stand determines to a large extent what is your assessment," said Shlomo Brom, a former Brigadier General in the Israeli Army and now senior research fellow and director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. "If you are at the possible receiving end of this thing - and that is the feeling of most Israelis - then you don't want to take chances. You look at the worst possible scenario. It's only if you're in an institute somewhere in the Western world then you can make sober analysis and make predictions based on the more probable assumptions."

Further underlining the degree to which politics plays a role in these predictions is the long history of unrealized Armageddon scenarios - and it is not Israeli intelligence alone that has sounded the alarms.

In 1992, Robert Gates, then director of the CIA, pointedly upended conventional thinking about Iran's nuclear progress when he gave a much shorter time span for attainment of the bomb. "Is it a problem today?" he asked at the time, "probably not. But three, four, five years from now it could be a serious problem."

Another rash of predictions arrived in 1995. When Israeli government officials were quoted in American newspapers talking about a five-year timeline, officials with the Clinton administration quickly countered with qualifications and their own counter predictions. The small conflict led to a meeting in Jerusalem between William Perry, the defense secretary and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. They emerged from their discussions to announce that they were in agreement - Iran would get the bomb in seven to 15 years (next year, that is, at the latest).

Much of the speculation about Iran throughout the 1990s had to do with the possibility that its nuclear program was being boosted with outside help, from Russian loose nukes to technical help from North Korea. At least one of these outside elements did evade American intelligence, the Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan who is known to have aided the Iranians in advancing their program at least twice, in the late 1980s and mid 1990s.

This unknown variable of outside help also allowed for a wide range of timelines.

Throughout the last decade, the warnings have become more dire at the same time that it has become harder to see into what David Albright, a physicist who is president of the Institute for Science and International Security, called "the black box of Iran's decision making." This further unknown - what Iranian leaders intend - is one more fluid element that gives both the skeptics and alarmists an opportunity to project their own thinking and come up with independent predictions.

Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, for one, views Iran's leadership as "a messianic apocalyptic cult" who will not be deterred by Israel's own nuclear weapons capability. "When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran," he told the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg in May.

In contrast, Anthony Cordesman, a widely respected Middle East strategic analyst who has worked for both Democratic and Republican administrations, and Abdullah Toukan, an adviser to the late King Hussein of Jordan, present an Iran that is a rational, if hostile, actor, influenced by concrete geopolitical perceptions of its own. These include "unfriendly neighbors surrounding them, including nuclear tipped Pakistan" just to Iran's east; the "grave threat to its security" that Iran sees in America's military presence in Iraq immediately to its west and the presence of the American Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf waters lapping its south, the two men wrote in a recent study. This is seen also in the context of what was, until recently, America's declared policy of "regime change," they note. Finally, say Cordesman and Toukan, Iran's fear of "Israeli intentions to destabilize Iran and attack its nuclear facilities," drive it to develop its capabilities all the more.

"The Israelis always like to posit that Iran is one year away," Albright said. "There is an honesty to these assessments because they do have technical analysts in Israel who are looking very closely. They could be talking about a certain number of centrifuges built, a certain type of covert facility, various other things, but it's always one year away."

Many American analysts think these Israeli nightmare scenarios are distracting from what might be the most plausible explanation of Iran's intentions.

Gary Sick served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan and was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis. He believes that Iran has been slowly engaged since the 1970s in building a peaceful civilian nuclear program that has what he called "surge capacity" of 18 months. That is the amount of time it would take for Iran to boost low-enriched uranium for power plants and other non-military uses to highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium and deploy this as an atomic bomb, Sick said.

According to Sick, this interpretation is shared by many other analysts and backed up by statements from those who began the program under the Shah in the 1970s. But others warn that Iran may be developing a nuclear weapon capability secretly that it could deploy much more quickly.

Either way would mean that Iran is seeking a kind of nuclear ambiguity. It wants to be threatening without actually publicly introducing another nuclear weapon into the Middle East - a clear turning point likely only to set off a race by its neighbors to obtain nuclear weapons of their own. It is a position not dissimilar from the one now held by Israel, which still does not publicly disclose that it has the bomb.

Asked why this more nuanced scenario - one that would do nothing to assuage or discredit Israeli fears - is not more widely discussed, Sick answered, "It doesn't sell newspapers."

Contact Gal Beckerman at