Iran's nuclear project

Dean Calma/IAEA

A meeting of representatives from France, Iran, Russia and the United States is held at the IAEA´s Headquarters in Vienna.

Article Highlights

  • The new IAEA report ends the fiction that energy concerns motivate the Islamic Republic's nuclear quest

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  • Tehran's explanation that all it wanted was energy security never made sense

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  • Only overwhelming pain will convince the supreme leader that the Islamic Republic cannot shoulder the costs of his quest

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Sometime this week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will release a report which, according to press leaks, concludes that Iranian nuclear scientists have sought to create a nuclear-bomb trigger and conducted extensive computer modeling of a nuclear weapon. Such findings end the fiction that energy concerns motivate the Islamic Republic's nuclear quest.

Tehran's explanation that all it wanted was energy security never made sense. After all, Iranian officials had said they planned to build eight nuclear reactors by 2020. The Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center calculated that, given Iran's indigenous uranium reserves, it would exhaust its nuclear fuel by 2023 if all eight proposed reactors operated at capacity. That is hardly the stuff of energy independence. The explanation makes even less sense given that, for a fraction of the investment, Tehran could expand its gasoline pipeline network and upgrade its oil-refinery capability to ensure energy security for centuries to come.

Nor do the lengths to which the Iranian regime went to keep its enrichment program secret suggest a civilian-energy motivation. Civilian power plants do not need to be constructed either in secret or under mountains. That the IAEA has repeatedly caught Iranian officials lying with regard to their facility's activities and the origins of its equipment simply adds to the suspicion.

"The Islamic Republic is an ideological regime in pursuit of a revolutionary goal, one whose attainment presents a price too high for the United States and its regional allies to bear."--Michael Rubin

Iran's Manhattan Project

While Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, has said that the Islamic Republic harbors no nuclear-weapon ambitions, his denial is disinformation. Within Shiite jurisprudence, there is a concept called taqiya, best defined as religious dissimulation. Classical Shiite theology limits taqiya to self-preservation in the face of tyranny, but Iranian authorities have developed a broader notion. As Ayatollah Nasir Makarem Shirazi, an important theologian close to the supreme leader, explained in May 2008, the Islamic Republic considers taqiya to be “secret holy warfare.”

Many Iranian leaders--especially those close to Khamenei--embrace Iran's nuclear goals much more openly. Almost a decade ago, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president whom many diplomats consider a pragmatist--declared, “The use of an atomic bomb against Israel would totally destroy Israel, while the same against the Islamic world would only cause damage. Such a scenario is not inconceivable.” On Feb. 14, 2005, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Kharrazi, the head of Iranian Hezbollah, declared, “We are able to produce atomic bombs and we will do that.”

Declarations of nuclear ambition have, in Persia, become the rule rather than the exception. Each week, clerics appointed by the supreme leader give Friday sermons in Tehran and the provincial capitals. The theocratic equivalents of the State of the Union address, the sermons are designed to outline Khamenei's thinking. On May 29, 2005, Gholam Reza Hasani, the supreme leader's personal representative to the West Azerbaijan province, declared possession of nuclear weapons to be one of Iran's top goals. “An atom bomb . . . must be produced as well,” he said. “That is because the Qur'an has told Muslims to ‘get strong and amass all the forces at your disposal to be strong.'” The following year, a Qom theologian close to Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi said that possession of nuclear weapons was only “natural” for the Islamic Republic.

Fraudulent Findings

The IAEA's findings are not only an indictment of Iran, however. They also reveal the fundamental corruption of Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian diplomat who was the IAEA's director general from December 1997 to November 2009. While his job was to administer a technocratic agency, ElBaradei repeatedly intervened to distort the inspectors' findings. Rather than confront the Islamic Republic on its cheating, he coached Iranian officials on their public diplomacy. He also repeatedly ignored mounting evidence of secret Iranian facilities until these were publicly exposed by other means. ElBaradei was an ideologue empowered by the international community to pursue a personal agenda. His Nobel Prize is just one more shame upon the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

The IAEA report should also embarrass Thomas Fingar, Vann H. Van Diepen, and Kenneth Brill. Fingar was concurrently chairman of the National Intelligence Council and deputy director of national intelligence for analysis; Van Diepen, whom Secretary of State Clinton has taken under her wing, was national intelligence officer for weapons of mass destruction and proliferation; Brill was director of the National Counterproliferation Center. Colleagues knew each as deeply political and agenda-driven. As analysts began to question the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which changed definitions and manipulated evidence to exculpate Iran, each hid behind righteous indignation that anyone might question his professionalism. Fingar, Van Diepen, and Brill feared that if they laid out the evidence before the elected president, Bush and his advisers might pursue a policy with which they and their unelected, unconfirmed friends disagreed.

Analysts in some of our allies' intelligence services were unencumbered by such conceit. The Bundesnachrichtendienst, Germany's external-intelligence service, dissented from the NIE and, on Aug. 28, 2008, noted “the development of a new missile launcher and the similarities between Iran's acquisition efforts and those of countries with already known nuclear weapons programs, such as Pakistan and North Korea.”

Diplomacy's Folly

Much of the 2007 NIE was fiction. The biggest difference between the 2003 NIE and its 2007 counterpart was the conclusion that Iran had stopped its weapons program. The 2007 NIE, however, went beyond normal intelligence analysis and actively sought to guide policy. Against a backdrop of speculation that Bush might use military force against Iran, the 2007 NIE concluded that Iran's supposed decision to cease nuclear-weapons work was a result of diplomacy. Therefore, the estimate concluded, Iran was susceptible to diplomatic persuasion. If this was the consensus opinion of the intelligence community, it was a deeply flawed and tenuous conclusion. After all, 2003 also coincided with Iran's shock at the speed with which American troops occupied Iraq and ended Saddam's quarter-century rule. American troops had done in three weeks what Iranian troops had failed to do in an eight-year war. By falsely endorsing diplomacy's effectiveness, committing America to an ineffective strategy for years to come, the 2007 NIE represented an intelligence failure whose repercussions may be even more devastating than the CIA's failure to accurately access Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction programs ahead of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The 2007 NIE's conclusions led the Bush administration to reinvigorate diplomacy. This enabled Tehran to run down the clock to the verge of nuclear capability. Factional discord within the Islamic Republic exposed the Iranians' insincerity, as both reformers and hardliners sought to take credit for Iran's nuclear advances. On June 14, 2008, for example, Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, an aide to former president Muhammad Khatami, criticized Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current president, for defiant rhetoric which enabled the international community to rally support for sanctions. Ramezanzadeh counseled Ahmadinejad to accept Khatami's approach: “We should prove to the entire world that we want power plants for electricity. Afterwards, we can proceed with other activities.” The purpose of dialogue, he argued, was not compromise, but avoiding sanctions. “We had an overt policy, which was one of negotiation and confidence building, and a covert policy, which was continuation of the activities,” he said.

Just last month, Hassan Rowhani, Khatami's nuclear negotiator, bragged to Etemaad, a reformist daily, about how he used talks to enable Iranian progress. “When I was entrusted with this portfolio, we had no production in Isfahan. We couldn't produce uranium tetrafluoride or uranium hexafluoride. Even if Natanz [the fuel-enrichment plant in Isfahan] had been filled with centrifuges, we didn't have the material to inject into them. There was a small amount of uranium hexafluoride which we had previously procured from certain countries and this was what we had at our disposal. But the Isfahan facilities had to be completed before [they] could transform yellow cake to low enriched uranium. We used the opportunity to do so and completed the Isfahan facilities.” This was not all. Rowhani bragged, “We had no heavy water either, but managed to achieve it during this period.” The heavy-water plant in Arak can produce plutonium as a byproduct.

As for talks between the Iranian government and European foreign ministers, Rowhani explains, “The reason for inviting the three European foreign ministers to Tehran and for the Saadabad negotiations was to make Europe oppose the United States so that the issue was not submitted to the Security Council.” By the time the Security Council took up sanctions (which Moscow and Beijing watered down), Tehran had already achieved what it wanted. “The Islamic Republic acted very wisely in my view and did not allow the United States to succeed,” Rowhani said. “It managed to oppose the United States and did not allow the nuclear case to be submitted to the Security Council. . . . This was my objective.”

Time for a Chalice of Poison

If there is a silver lining to the IAEA's report, it is that Iranian intentions are now clear and Tehran's insincerity has been exposed. The Islamic Republic is an ideological regime in pursuit of a revolutionary goal, one whose attainment presents a price too high for the United States and its regional allies to bear.

Diplomacy has never resolved problems with Iran. While Carter-administration officials bend over backwards to credit their diplomacy for resolving the Iran hostage crisis--after only 444 days--the late Peter Rodman pointed out that Ayatollah Khomeini agreed to negotiate only after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran made the cost of Tehran's isolation too great to bear.

Iranian forces had driven back and stalemated the Iraqi invaders by 1982. Many Iranians--including even Khomeini, according to recent memoirs--considered negotiating for peace, but harder-line elements in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps insisted on pursuing war until victory. The war continued for six more years, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. Finally, Khomeini had had enough and declared a ceasefire. He announced that accepting the terms of the U.N. settlement was like drinking from a chalice of poison, but that he was doing it for the good of the country. Again, the costs of defiance had become too great.

President Obama fancies himself a student of history, so it is important that he not ignore it. Incremental strategies will not influence Iran; only overwhelming pain will convince the supreme leader that the Islamic Republic cannot shoulder the costs of his quest.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.

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