Russ Wellen

This winter, to the surprise and relief of many, Iran agreed to limit its uranium enrichment to a concentration of 20 percent as part of an interim agreement with the P5+1 countries (United States, China, Russia, Britain, France, plus Germany). The figure is significant. Twenty percent is the threshold at which it becomes less difficult to enrich uranium to the higher concentration needed to manufacture nuclear weapons. Iran even agreed to reduce its stockpile of uranium by nearly 75 percent. The most recent round of talks began on May 14 in Vienna, but, when no deal was reached, the deadline was extended to November 24. While Iran clings to its enrichment capacity, in the form of centrifuge numbers, the U.S. Congress remains bewitched by the power of sanctions.

It’s at this point that the eyes of many glaze over at the sheer wonkishness of the nuts and bolts of Iran’s nuclear program (or any country’s), as well as the minutiae endemic to agreements and treaties. It seems that the comfort level more and more of us have reached with the technical doesn’t extend to technicalities. That’s why we owe a debt of gratitude to Gareth Porter, winner of the 2012 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Investigative Journalism. In his book Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare (Just World Books, 2014), he does much of the hard work for us by applying his interpretive, as well as investigative, talents to the question of Iran’s alleged nuclear-weapons program. 

But was Iran ever actually a bona fide nuclear weapons threat? Conventional wisdom certainly holds that it was. All too often, though, conventional wisdom is simply group delusion, generated in this case by, as Porter chronicles, disinformation from the governments of the United States and Israel, as well as the establishment media. Iran’s nuclear enrichment and energy program has long been portrayed as a cover for a nuclear weapons program, which in turn has paved the way for UN Security Council sanctions or, perhaps, even a U.S. military attack.

Porter writes that, according to the familiar narrative, “in the 1980s, Iran began with a secret enrichment program, in violation of its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA], and maintained that program for 18 years with the intention of producing nuclear weapons, or at least keeping that option open.” 

Of course, the pump of U.S. hostility towards Iran was primed by the hostage crisis in 1979, when, on the heels of the Iranian revolution, President Jimmy Carter admitted the deposed Shah into the United States for cancer treatment. Outraged Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held fifty-two diplomats and civilians for 444 days. Americans have held a grudge ever since for what they perceive as one of our greatest national humiliations. We conveniently forget (or weren’t aware) that a quarter century earlier, when Iran’s prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, sought to nationalize the oil industry then controlled by the British, the United States helped the British overthrow him. To be fair, the grudge tends to be accompanied by anger over the terrorism wreaked by Iran-sponsored Hezbollah, not to mention its precursor, thought responsible for, among other outrages, the 1983 bombing of a U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut, in which 241 American service persons were killed.

Nevertheless, in a demonstration of good faith toward the United States after 9/11, Iran took steps such as rounding up and expelling hundreds of suspected Arab terrorists after they crossed the border from Afghanistan. But that didn’t stop President George W. Bush, in a pivotal moment few can forget, from designating Iran a key component of the “axis of evil.” In addition, after September 11, the establishment media was disposed to be sympathetic to the Bush administration. It was also inclined to err on the side of skepticism toward Iran, which was viewed as the country that not only put radical Islamism on the map, but bore a dismal human rights record. Nor did the media wish, when it came to nuclear matters, to be caught unawares by what many basically thought of as shifty Persians with their cagey negotiating techniques. Besides, when it came to Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, where there’s smoke there’s fire, right? As it turns out, the smoke wasn’t smoke; it was fog generated by the government and media. In order to dispel these pieces of disinformation and misunderstanding, Porter felt compelled by this narrative to approach the subject from another angle.

The usual form in writing history involves blending official sources and other sources in a single narrative flow. But in the case of the Iran nuclear crisis and the nuclear scare that has gone with it, the heart of the story is in fact the deception propagated by official sources. Thus, the narrative of this book is organized primarily around the contrast between what the United States, Israel, and the IAEA were conveying to the public and reality that can be reconstructed from a deeper inquiry into the facts.

Porter, who has been wise in the ways of the U.S. government since reporting the Vietnam War, digs down to excavate layers far below the terra firma to which most establishment reporters confine themselves. Even for those who consider themselves well versed on the West’s relations with Iran, Manufactured Crisis is studded with facts and insights, often revealed in interviews he conducted, to which they may not have been exposed. Conscious of spoilers, this review will not give away too many of the book’s “gotcha” moments.

The origins of the crisis in its most recent manifestation lay in a 2002 announcement by the group that has the unique distinction of being viewed as a terrorist group by both the United States and Iran. The Mujahedeen-e-Khalk (MEK) revealed - or, more accurately, was informed by Israel, according to Porter - that Iran’s Natanz nuclear fuel production plant was supposedly being used to support a nuclear weapons program. While that was never borne out by IAEA inspections, Iran’s development of nuclear weapons soon became a foregone conclusion to many.

Another significant step the United States and Israel took to implicate Iran was the credence they gave to a large cache of documents, which came to be known as the “alleged studies,” found on a laptop - the so-called “laptop of death” - supposedly smuggled out of Iran. Some of the documents addressed ballistic missile design and high-explosives testing, but they were suspect because the research was primitive and they were riddled with errors. In other words, it was all sadly reminiscent of Curveball, the spy whose tale of nonexistent Iraqi mobile weapons labs became a key pretext for attacking Iraq. As with the Natanz announcement, the source of the laptop may have been the MEK. 

Before continuing, let’s backtrack and answer a question foremost in the minds of even casual followers of the Iran nuclear issue: If Iran wasn’t developing nuclear weapons, why has it been so secretive?

It was actually the United States that introduced Iran to nuclear energy with President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program. After relations with the United States soured, Iran, denied international cooperation on uranium enrichment to which it was entitled by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), turned to Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan’s infamous nuclear black market. As for informing the IAEA about construction of its facilities at Natanz and Arak, Porter writes, Iran had yet to reach the deadline required by its particular safeguards agreement (the IAEA customizes them to each state).

Then, much to the surprise of many, he explains that Tehran also kept quiet about the facilities because it feared that, if announced, Israel would bomb them. In yet another detail of which few are aware, he informs us that Iran was also protecting China, which had become Iran’s most important partner in nuclear cooperation. With the United States applying heavy pressure on it to end that cooperation, China itself refrained from informing the IAEA of a sizeable uranium sale to Iran.

Besides the secrecy, however, another aspect of Iran’s nuclear program invoked skepticism: Supreme Leader Ayatalloh Ali Khameini’s fatwas against the possession of nuclear weapons. True, in light of Iran’s poor human rights record, his concern about a humanitarian cause appeared hypocritical. But key to the fatwas’ credibility, as Porter explains, is remembering that Khameini’s predecessor, Ayataollah Ruhollah Khomeini, chose not to retaliate against Iraq’s use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war, which killed 20,000 Iranians, and injured 100,000. Even though Iran’s chemical industry was more advanced than Iraq’s, and the Iranian military was keen to retaliate in kind, Khomeini forbade it on grounds of Islamic jurisprudence.

To learn not only why Iran refrained from publicizing Khomeini’s stance during the war, but also understand two realpolitik reasons why Iran decided against developing nuclear weapons, read Manufactured Crisis. (We’ve given away enough already.) Meanwhile, it wasn’t until 2003, when scrutiny into Iran’s program had reached new heights, that, as Khomeini did with chemical weapons, Khameini used Islamic principles to justify his opposition to nuclear weapons. Besides emphasizing his message to the West, this approach was also designed to silence internal advocacy of nuclear weapons.

According to current Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani, then coordinator of nuclear policy for Iran, it may have had its intended effect. As quoted by Porter, he said that the later fatwas were “more important to us than the NPT” or “any other law.” On another occasion he said, “We don’t need a bomb. … If we have the mastery of the fuel cycle, our neighbors in the region will draw the necessary inference.” Equally important to Tehran was its accumulating stock of low-enriched uranium, which it viewed as a form of diplomatic leverage against the West.
Israel, meanwhile, didn’t always view Iran as its nemesis. Even after the Islamic Revolution, with Iraq as a common enemy, it aided Iran militarily during the Iran-Iraq War. Things changed when Israel labelled Iran an enemy state, a designation that likely served multiple purposes. In this instance, Porter argues that hyping the threat of Iran provided a diversion from Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s unpopular peace negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization. 

When George W. Bush was elected, his administration unabashedly hoped to turn Iraq into a base of operations for the United States in the Middle East. Next, it hoped to remove the “Islamic” from “Islamic Republic of Iran.” When, in 2003, Iran offered to negotiate on everything from enrichment to Israel to Hezbollah, the Bush administration demonstrated absolutely no interest. In fact, Porter was told by Iran hand Hillary Mann Leverett, who worked in Middle-Eastern affairs for the Bush administration, that “They were not really interested in keeping Iran’s enrichment program in check.” In another juicy morsel, he writes, “In one conversation with Leverett in 2003, people in Cheney’s office made it clear that they didn’t want to focus on the nuclear issue, because, as they explained, ‘After regime change, we may not want to oppose nuclear weapons by Iran.’”

Let that sink in for a minute. The casualness about nonproliferation gives you some insight into how the United States holds a country that it considers its enemy to a different nuclear standard than those it considers allies (oblivious, meanwhile, to how that undermines the entire nonproliferation regime).

In 2004, the United States ratcheted up the pressure on Iran when John Bolton, then undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, provided the IAEA with satellite photographs of a plot at Iran’s Parchin military complex where, he claimed, tests were carried out that simulated the conditions of a nuclear weapons detonation. When the IAEA inspected the site, though, any evidence to back Bolton’s claims again came up short.

In 2005, Iran, in what Porter terms an “extraordinary concession,” reached out to Britain, France, and Germany with a deal designed to provide guarantees to them that Iran wasn’t diverting nuclear material into a weapons program. But, out of deference to the Bush administration, the Europeans demanded Iran end its enrichment entirely without offering much in return. In response, Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lifted the suspension of uranium enrichment to which Tehran had previously agreed. The UN Security Council reacted by adopting a series of resolutions sanctioning Iran, while President Bush signed an executive order freezing the assets of individual Iranians involved with the country’s nuclear program. Then, in 2010, the Senate and House passed the greatly enhanced Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act, which President Obama signed into law. And while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never intended to attack Iran’s nuclear enrichment sites, the Obama administration cynically used his non-stop saber rattling to pressure Iran. 

In the end, one can’t help but wonder if the U.S. campaign against Iran was intended less to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons than to marginalize those who knew the truth from obstructing U.S. plans for regime change in Tehran. But, writes Porter, “The inability or unwillingness of most members of the US political elite” - not to mention the establishment media - “to confront the truth about the origins and development of the crisis postponed for many years the adoption of a rational policy toward Iran.” The West essentially forced Iran to operate in the shadows and then blamed it for keeping secrets.

With its comprehensive timeline, clear-eyed analysis, and the eye-opening new information Porter has unearthed, Manufactured Crisis stands at the forefront of books about the West’s relations with Iran. Since the Iraq War segued seamlessly into tensions with Iran, Americans may not have noticed that its government was utilizing the same tactic of creating false pretexts for hostilities with Iran. Even though the crisis shows signs of winding down, it becomes more important than ever to read Manufactured Crisis to familiarize ourselves with the roadmap that the United States uses to turn the world against Middle-Eastern and Central Asian states in order to further its influence in the region.

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.