Russ Wellen

In the course of telling “The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare,” the subtitle of his authoritative new book Manufactured Crisis (Just World Books), Gareth Porter not only assures us that, once and for all, Iran is not developing nuclear weapons. He also explains why Iran feels the need to operate in secret at times and withhold information. Porter begins by writing that, under the last Shah, “Iran had served as the keystone of policy in the region for a quarter century” for the United States. After he was overthrown, “US policy was, in effect, to watch for an opportunity to replace the Islamic regime so the United States could resume its former position of power in Tehran.”

As part of that policy, the United States backed Iraq in its war against Iran, followed by, Porter writes, “a series of interventions by the Reagan administration to prevent international assistance of any kind” to Iran’s attempts to develop a nuclear energy program. In the process, though, the United States violated Article IV of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), signed by both countries, which Porter cites.

Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

Denied international cooperation, Tehran turned to Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan’s infamous black market. 2002 saw the bombshell revelation by the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (MEK), a terrorist organization to both Iran and the United States (no mean feat), about the location of a uranium enrichment plant in Natanz. But, writes Porter, “Iran was not obligated by its safeguards agreement [more on those below  - RW] to notify the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] about the existence of the Natanz facility until 180 days before the introduction of nuclear fuel into it, which was still far from happening in August 2002.” Still, why did Iran keep it secret?

Fear of Israel, for starters. Porter writes:

Iran’s decision-makers were clearly calculating that notifying the IAEA about the Natanz facility would trigger hostile responses by the United States and/or Israel that would put the successful opening and operation of the facility at risk.
Another reason Iran resorted to secrecy was demonstrated when, in 1998, it reported experiments using uranium from South Africa to the IAEA. “However,” writes Porter, “when it came to nuclear activities using uranium coming from China, the Iranian attitude was much more secretive. … China had become Iran’s most important partner in nuclear cooperation but [China] was also subject to heavy political pressure from the United States to end that cooperation.” Thus neither Iran nor China reported a two-ton uranium sale to the IAEA “to avoid retaliations by the United States.”

[Author’s disclaimer: Such is the need to defend Iran from unsubstantiated allegations that opponents of nuclear energy, such as myself, find themselves in the awkward position of defending Iran’s right to enrich uranium.]

As you can see, the United States essentially forced Iran to be, and then blamed it for being, secret. Furthermore, Iran prevaricates for the same reason as anyone - to fend off questions that its interrogator has no business asking. In that situation, what Iran is practicing isn’t secrecy, but privacy or discretion. In a 2012 article about the NPT in Foreign Policy, Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist and Director of Emerging Technologies at the Cultural Intelligence Institute, writes that the “actual implementation” of the NPT articles mandating both non-proliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy

… is done via very precise Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements negotiated bilaterally between the IAEA and individual states; more than 140 such agreements exist. … In order to preserve national sovereignty, such agreements are typically very narrowly focused and don't give the IAEA much legal scope to carry out wide-ranging investigations into nuclear-weapons related activities.

Thus not only are safeguards agreements tailored to each individual signer of the NPT, but they operate within confined parameters. For example, the IAEA’s safeguards agreement with Iran is confined to making sure that no nuclear material winds up powering nuclear weapons. “Nothing else is covered,” writes Butt. Neither “computations possibly relevant to nuclear weaponry, nor … conventional weapons testing, even if such research may be relevant to nuclear weaponry.” Which may be “why Iran feels fully justified in denying the IAEA access to its Parchin military base.”

While, Butt writes, the “limited legal authority of the IAEA to carry out inspections is definitely a flaw [of the NPT] … such restrictions on the IAEA were purposefully introduced to preserve a measure of national sovereignty.” (Emphasis added.) “As a society we have delimited the police’s legal authority in many ways. … [They] have a mandate to stop crime, but they do not have the legal authority to inspect your bedroom at 3am. … The same was done with the IAEA.” (Butt’s emphasis.)

But this is nuclear weapons, for Christ sakes. If there’s one realm where nobody would object to surveillance to a fare-thee-well, you may be thinking, it’s this. It’s true that some NPT states sign the Additional Protocol, a “voluntary measure,” Butt writes, that “allows the IAEA to conduct more intrusive inspections than are normally permitted. [But, as] the IAEA itself states … the Agency’s legal authority to pursue the verification of possible nuclear weapons related activity is limited.’”

It’s difficult to blame Iran - which has seen its right to nuclear energy barred, its consideration of a latent nuclear weapons program misrepresented as developing an active nuclear-weapons program, and which is urged to undergo inspections even more exhaustive than those to which it’s submitted and those which are required by the IAEA - for whatever surreptitious behavior in which it has engaged.

Russ Wellen, who serves as the editor of the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points, is a student of the metaphysics of nuclear weapons.

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