Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant
Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant. Photo by Reuters
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A narrative is a story that we tell ourselves, and not necessarily what happened in reality. For example, the “Iranian threat” narrative, which has become the common wisdom in Israeli public discourse. A new book by Gareth Porter, an American historian and researcher specializing in U.S. national security, shows how the actual state of the Iranian nuclear program does not match the Iranian threat narrative.

The book’s title, “Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Nuclear Scare” (Just World Books), already tells us that it is going against the current. Porter appears to be the only researcher who has read with an unprejudiced eye all the reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency from the past decade. He also had access to American intelligence reports on the Iranian issue from recent decades. In addition, Porter interviewed generations of American officials and analyzed the testimony of senior officials before Congress.

The result is a highly detailed and well-documented book for all interested in understanding how we arrived at the Iranian nuclear crisis, and the “attack scenarios,” and invented facts and intelligence reports whose purpose was to support the preconceptions. At the same time, the book is invaluable for those wishing to understand what is being discussed in the intensive nuclear talks that have been taking place Iran and the superpowers (or, more accurately, Iran and the U.S.) since the signing of last November’s interim agreement, which surprised many Israelis.

According to Porter, it was a hidden political agenda of U.S. decision makers (from long before Israel entered the picture) that gave rise to the Iranian nuclear crisis. This is one of the book’s main subjects, and the starting point for a discussion with which we in Israel are unfamiliar.

The story begins with U.S. support for the Iraqis during the 1980s Iraq-Iran war. The critical point comes with the collapse of the Soviet empire. According to Porter, that event and the end of the Cold War pulled out the rug from under the CIA’s raison d’être. The solution the Americans found to continue providing the organization with a tremendous budget was the invention of a new threat – the merging of weapons of mass destruction (an ambiguous term in itself) and terror. Iran, which rose to the top of the list, provided the threat that “saved” the CIA.

The empowering of the CIA’s organizational interests was reinforced by the gallant neoconservatives, led by ideologues Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton, who had in the meantime reached senior positions in the government. They launched a campaign to delegitimize the Islamic Republic with the aim of toppling the regime (using the sanitized term “regime change”).

Running through Porter’s book is the well-substantiated claim that U.S. and Israeli policies on Iran derived from their political and organizational interests, and not necessarily from careful factual analysis of the Iranian nuclear program, which was subject to IAEA monitoring, or of the intentions of the Iranian leadership.

According to Porter, no systematic analysis was made of the goals of the Iranian nuclear program, and neither U.S. nor Israeli policy makers devoted any thought to why all of Iran’s official declarations on the subject were in line with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Furthermore, in U.S. discussions until 2007, and in Israel until today, hovering overhead is the nuclear “axiom” that Iran is dashing toward a bomb via the route of uranium-enrichment centrifuges. Porter and the IAEA found no proof of the dash to the bomb.

Following is Haaretz’s interview with Porter, conducted via email.

You have spent years of research analyzing IAEA reports, intelligence reports and interviewing officials about the Iran nuclear issue. What motivated you to write your latest book?

“It was the realization that a narrative about the Iranian nuclear issue had gained unchallenged credence, but that I had discovered over the years a number of major ‘anomalies’ – important facts that could not be reconciled with the narrative. I also came to realize that I was the only journalist who was closely tracking the evidence surrounding the issue. And finally – and perhaps most importantly – I realized that it is was impossible to convey the truth ... in an article or series of articles; I had to write a book.”

Is it fair to say that your book shows us that the whole nuclear crisis as it has unfolded over the past 10 years is about U.S. and Israeli attempts to prevent Iran from developing a non-militarized nuclear program, even though such a program is permitted under the NPT, and that this obscured the fact that Iran never intended to develop nuclear weapons?

“Yes, I put considerable emphasis on the early history of the interaction between Iran’s nuclear program and policy, and the policies of the United States and Israel toward the program. I show how the Reagan administration’s intervention, beginning as early as 1983, to pressure Germany and France to refuse to cooperate with Iran in completing the Bushehr reactor, and to refuse to provide the enriched uranium reactor fuel for Bushehr, meant that Iran had to either give up its nuclear rights under the NPT altogether or go to the black market, in defiance of U.S. policy, to get its own independent enrichment capability. And despite subsequent U.S. and Israeli charges that Iran was interested in enrichment for nuclear weapons, there was and is no evidence whatever to support that charge.”

In my Haaretz blog, I emphasize the paradigm change of the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, and still valid today, which concluded that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The Israeli public is unaware of this halt. Furthermore, many commentators believe that U.S. intelligence “corrected” itself and that the 2007 estimate has been annulled. Could you enlighten our readers about the important 2007 NIE?

“The 2007 NIE broke with previous NIEs [in 2001 and 2005], which had concluded that Iran was then running a nuclear weapons program. It concluded instead, with ‘high confidence,’ that Iran had halted its work on nuclear weapons. That conclusion was of course opposed by the Bush administration and Israel, because it had been the charge that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons that justified the threat of military force against Iran. And it did indeed make the ‘military option’ irrelevant to U.S. policy for the rest of the Bush administration and for much of the Obama administration.” 

According to the 2007 NIE, however, some nuclear weapons research was carried out in Iran until 2003. Could you elaborate on what kind of research was undertaken; when, where and by whom, and what its scope was?

“Precisely who was carrying out research and what kind of research is still completely unclear, despite my effort to get any additional information on the subject from Thomas Fingar, who was in charge of the estimate. What was said by U.S. intelligence officials to be ‘snippets of conversation’ intercepted by U.S. intelligence in 2007 appears to indicate that some research related to nuclear weapons was being undertaken. But how many people were involved remains entirely unclear. And the testimony of the French ambassador to Tehran, as well as other evidence presented in my book, strongly suggests that the Supreme National Security Council had not authorized it and was not happy that it was going on.

“Not only did [Iran’s then-president] Hassan Rouhani order it halted in October 2003, when he was named the first coordinator of Iran’s nuclear policy, but Rouhani prevailed on the Supreme Leader to declare any work on nuclear weapons illicit under Islam in order to compel the researchers to give up their work on weapons. Understanding that episode correctly is clearly necessary to comprehending Iran’s nuclear policy accurately. 

“Unfortunately, as I argue in my book, the evidence indicates that the team of intelligence analysts, who had been wrong about the existence of a nuclear weapons program in 2005 and again in an early draft of the 2007 estimate, got it wrong in their conclusion that the Iranian government had an actual nuclear weapons program [before] late 2003.”

In your book, you explain in great detail the sought-after “smoking gun,” i.e. the mysterious “laptop studies” and the Parchin “bomb test chamber.” The Israeli public is unfamiliar with the details of these “cases.” Could you explain the “possible military dimensions” and comment on the credibility of the “evidence”?

“I devote an entire chapter to the ‘mysterious laptop documents’ and show that they were actually fabricated by Israeli intelligence and given to the Mujahedin-e-Khalq [a militant Iranian opposition group] to pass on to German intelligence in mid-2004. The ‘giveaway’ that they were fabrications is the fundamental error in a series of studies depicting efforts to integrate a nuclear weapon into the Iranian intermediate-range missile, which shows the Shahab-3 that Iran had abandoned in 2000 in favor of a much-improved model that was first tested in August 2004 – too late to correct the mistake before the papers were passed to the MEK. 

“Among the indicators that the documents originated in Israel is the fact that the MEK is not sophisticated enough to have fabricated such a large number of documents, and the well-known history of the terrorist organization’s close working relations with Israeli intelligence. Equally important is the fact that former IAEA director general ElBaradei revealed in his memoirs that Israel had passed on documents and intelligence reports to the IAEA directly in 2008 and 2009, which depicted Iran work on nuclear weapons even after 2003 – obviously prompted by the 2007 NIE.

“Those documents included information alleging that Iran had built a large metal cylinder to carry out tests of nuclear weapons designs at its Parchin military base. The IAEA made that allegation a major news theme by publishing it in its November 2011 report.  But no other evidence except the Israeli intelligence report has ever been produced to support that highly dubious charge. “

The emphasis in your book is on the centrifuges and the “enrichment track to the bomb.” Can you comment on the Arak heavy water reactor that is linked in Israel to the “plutonium track” and is behind the preemptive scenarios that have been developed in the Israeli press.

“The main weakness of the argument that Arak is an Iranian scheme for a ‘plutonium track’ to a nuclear weapon is simple: Iran has already agreed to arrangements under which it would be prevented from maintaining control of the plutonium produced by the reactor. In other words, all of the plutonium would be exported to another country. But there is a second major reason that it is not the threat that is being claimed: To build a plutonium reprocessing plant requires extensive construction as well as time, and it cannot be concealed.”

What is your assessment of the current negotiations between Iran and the P5+1? Is a final agreement to close the Iranian file on the table?

“I am pessimistic about the outcome of these talks, in the coming months at least, because the Obama administration – influenced by the false narrative surrounding the issue and overconfident about its ability to pressure an Iran it assumes has been significantly weakened by the sanctions – is planning to demand that Iran give up all but a very few thousand of its 19,000 centrifuges for many, many years. That demand, based on a notion of Iranian ‘breakout’ that is quite divorced from reality, is an obvious deal-breaker. Iran cannot and will not agree to give up its ability to provide nuclear fuel for more nuclear plants, for which it is planning. In my view, this demand will lead to a much higher level of tensions unless and until it is substantially altered.”

In your view, what is behind the Israeli-Iranian rivalry? Is there a chance for Israeli-Iranian détente following the achievement of a final agreement in the Vienna talks and the possibility of new openings in U.S.-Iran relations?

“In my view there have been political considerations on both sides of the Iran-Israel relationship that have stood in the way of a detente over the past 15 years: On the Israeli side, the first Netanyahu government in 1996 was actually willing to give detente a try, so there is no inherent reason why it could not happen again. It was the opportunity to use the U.S. to put intense pressure on Iran, if not to use force for regime change, that swayed successive Israeli governments to take the ‘existential threat’ approach to Iran. If and when the U.S. pursues a truly independent policy toward Iran, that Israeli motive will disappear.  

“On the Iranian side, the main obstacle to softening of its attitude toward Israel, in my view, has been the degree to which taking a hard line toward Israel makes Iran popular in the Sunni Arab street and counterbalances, at least to some extent, the anti-Iran policy of the Sunni regimes. So Iran-Israel detente has become hostage, to a great extent, to both the pro-Israel stance of the U.S. and the Sunni-Shi’a cold war.”

A final question: Is there a possibility that you are wrong, that you have been misled by some optimistic and naïve theories?

“My operational principle as an investigative journalist is that if there is a single verifiable fact that conflicts with my general understanding of an issue, I need to look more closely to understand why that anomaly exists. In the case of Iran’s nuclear program, I have found an unbroken string of anomalies that undermine the credibility of official U.S.-Israeli narrative, but I have yet to find a single fact that would invalidate my reconstruction of the history of the issue.”

The writer, a former IDF analyst and associate researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, is an independent researcher on nuclear and strategic issues, and author of Haaretz’s “Strategic Discourse” blog (in Hebrew).