Iran and the IAEA: Once again, Inconclusive Evidence
November 20, 2011
Seymour M. Hersh / The New Yorker &
Commentary: "I've been reporting on Iran and the bomb for the past decade, with a focus on the repeatedly inability of the best and the brightest to find definitive evidence of a nuclear-weapons production program in Iran. The new IAEA report, therefore, leaves us where we've been since 2002, when George Bush declared Iran to be a member of the Axis of Evil -- with lots of belligerent talk but no definitive evidence of a nuclear-weapons program."
Iran and the IAEA
Seymour M. Hersh / The New Yorker
NEW YORK CITY (November 18, 2011) -- The first question in last Saturday night's Republican debate on foreign policy dealt with Iran, and a newly published report by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The report, which raised renewed concern about the "possible existence of undeclared nuclear facilities and material in Iran," struck a darker tone than previous assessments. But it was carefully hedged. On the debate platform, however, any ambiguity was lost.
One of the moderators said that the IAEA report had provided "additional credible evidence that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon" and asked what various candidates, upon winning the Presidency, would do to stop Iran. Herman Cain said he would assist those who are trying to overthrow the government. Newt Gingrich said he would coordinate with the Israeli government and maximize covert operations to block the Iranian weapons program.
Mitt Romney called the state of Iran's nuclear program Obama's "greatest failing, from a foreign-policy standpoint" and added, "Look, one thing you can know ... and that is if we reelect Barack Obama Iran will have a nuclear weapon." The Iranian bomb was a sure thing Saturday night.
I've been reporting on Iran and the bomb for The New Yorker for the past decade, with a focus on the repeatedly inability of the best and the brightest of the Joint Special Operations Command to find definitive evidence of a nuclear-weapons production program in Iran. The goal of the high-risk American covert operations was to find something physical -- a "smoking calutron," as a knowledgeable official once told me -- to show the world that Iran was working on warheads at an undisclosed site, to make the evidence public, and then to attack and destroy the site.
The Times reported, in its lead story the day after the report came out, that IAEA investigators "have amassed a trove of new evidence that, they say, makes a ‘credible' case" that Iran may be carrying out nuclear-weapons activities. The newspaper quoted a Western diplomat as declaring that "the level of detail is unbelievable.... The report describes virtually all the steps to make a nuclear warhead and the progress Iran has achieved in each of those steps. It reads likes a menu." The Times set the tone for much of the coverage. (A second Times story that day on the IAEA report noted, more cautiously, that "it is true that the basic allegations in the report are not substantially new, and have been discussed by experts for years.")
But how definitive, or transformative, were the findings? The IAEA said it had continued in recent years "to receive, collect and evaluate information relevant to possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program" and, as a result, it has been able "to refine its analysis." The net effect has been to create "more concern."
But Robert Kelley, a retired IAEA director and nuclear engineer who previously spent more than thirty years with the Department of Energy's nuclear-weapons program, told me that he could find very little new information in the IAEA report. He noted that hundreds of pages of material appears to come from a single source: a laptop computer, allegedly supplied to the IAEA by a Western intelligence agency, whose provenance could not be established. Those materials, and others, "were old news," Kelley said, and known to many journalists. "I wonder why this same stuff is now considered ‘new information' by the same reporters."
A nuanced assessment of the IAEA report was published by the Arms Control Association (ACA), a nonprofit whose mission is to encourage public support for effective arms control. The ACA noted that the IAEA did "reinforce what the nonproliferation community has recognized for some times: that Iran engaged in various nuclear weapons development activities until 2003, then stopped many of them, but continued others." (The American intelligence community reached the same conclusion in a still classified 2007 estimate.)
The IAEA's report "suggests," the ACA paper said, that Iran "is working to shorten the timeframe to build the bomb once and if it makes that decision. But it remains apparent that a nuclear-armed Iran is still not imminent nor is it inevitable."
Greg Thielmann, a former State Department and Senate Intelligence Committee analyst who was one of the authors of the ACA assessment, told me, "There is troubling evidence suggesting that studies are still going on, but there is nothing that indicates that Iran is really building a bomb." He added, "Those who want to drum up support for a bombing attack on Iran sort of aggressively misrepresented the report."
Joseph Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshare Fund, a disarmament group, who serves on Hillary Clinton's International Security Advisory Board, said, "I was briefed on most of this stuff several years ago at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna. There's little new in the report. Most of this information is well known to experts who follow the issue." Cirincione noted that, "post-2003, the report only cites computer modelling and a few other experiments." (A senior IAEA official similarly told me, "I was underwhelmed by the information.")
The report did note that its on-site camera inspection process of Iran's civilian nuclear enrichment facilities -- mandated under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory -- "continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material." In other words, all of the low enriched uranium now known to be produced inside Iran is accounted for; if highly enriched uranium is being used for the manufacture of a bomb, it would have to have another, unknown source.
The shift in tone at the IAEA seems linked to a change at the top. The IAEA's report had extra weight because the Agency has had a reputation for years as a reliable arbiter on Iran. Mohammed ElBaradei, who retired as the IAEA's Director General two years ago, was viewed internationally, although not always in Washington, as an honest broker -- a view that lead to the awarding of a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. ElBaradei's replacement is Yukiya Amano of Japan. Late last year, a classified U.S. Embassy cable from Vienna, the site of the IAEA headquarters, described Amano as being "ready for prime time."
According to the cable, which was obtained by WikiLeaks, in a meeting in September, 2009, with Glyn Davies, the American permanent representative to the IAEA, said, "Amano reminded Ambassador on several occasions that he would need to make concessions to the G-77 [the group of developing countries], which correctly required him to be fair-minded and independent, but that he was solidly in the U.S. court on every strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program." The cable added that Amano's "willingness to speak candidly with U.S. interlocutors on his strategy ... bodes well for our future relationship."
It is possible, of course, that Iran has simply circumvented the reconnaissance efforts of America and the IAEA, perhaps even building Dick Cheney's nightmare: a hidden underground nuclear-weapons fabrication facility. Iran's track record with the IAEA has been far from good: its leadership began construction of its initial uranium facilities in the nineteen-eighties without informing the Agency, in violation of the nonproliferation treaty. Over the next decade and a half, under prodding from ElBaradei and the West, the Iranians began acknowledging their deceit and opened their enrichment facilities, and their records, to IAEA inspectors.
The new report, therefore, leaves us where we've been since 2002, when George Bush declared Iran to be a member of the Axis of Evil -- with lots of belligerent talk but no definitive evidence of a nuclear-weapons program.
Both China and Russia signed on to the Nov. 18 IAEA board of directors resolution condemning Iran's opaque nuclear program. Let's not be dramatic: no elected official one is beating war drums - especially none from the beleaguered West. NATO countries that would be able to contribute substantially to a 'war on Iran' simply cannot afford -- politically or economically -- to do so.
The strategy of Western countries vis-a-vis Iran has been and continues to be to steepen sanctions to the point that continuing to keep secret vital aspects of its nuclear program -- civilian or not -- becomes so expensive that it is forced to abandon it.
Warrentrout is right. With nuclear-armed Pakistan and India on one side, nuclear-armed Israel to the other, and an unfriendly Saudi Arabian next door, Tehran has every reason to hedge its national security with a nuclear firewall. If not for existential security threats, then to gain some leverage a la DPRK on the international stage.
I think we can all agree that the world does not need another nuclear-armed state. Iran could prove to the world its sincere intention to pursue a civil nuclear energy program (and only a civil nuclear energy program) by inviting independent experts into the country to verify. Until then, the world is left to wonder whether Iran is building a nuclear bomb.
If the goal has been since 2003 to start a war with Iran, eight years seems like a long time to wait to carry it out. Eight years of pursuing the matter, in accordance with international law and through international institutions of which Iran is a member, illustrates a tremendous amount of restraint.
And remember that the IAEA, the US and most every other power condemning Iran today were under different leadership in 2003, when the supposed plan to invade Iran was hatched. It may just be that the potential development of nuclear weapons in Iran is more important an issue to ignore for fear that it may upset casual conspiracy theorist observers.
-- Posted 11/19/2011, 3:32:11pm by macoombs
In 2002/2003 Washington twisted the arm of the intelligence services to come up with the desired "evidence" to justify the invasion of Iraq. The U.S. has now done the same thing with the IAEA, except this time, thanks to Wikileaks, we have the smoking gun that points to Amano as the bad apple in a hitherto uncorrupted UN agency.
-- Posted 11/19/2011, 11:52:16am by Procivic
"Truth is treason in the empire of lies." -- Ron Paul
Only Ron Paul, of all the presidential candidates of both major parties, has repeatedly spoken out clearly and forcefully against the belligerent war propaganda and calculated lies in the bipartisan lead up to war with Iran, against the bipartisan campaign for punitive sanctions against Iran, and against further covert operations to destabilize the fragile geopolitical situation in the Mideast. He is not afraid to speak truth to power.
The principled constitutionalist and noninterventionist Paul was right from the start about our disastrous preemptive imperial wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, right from the start about the destructive 'blowback' fomenting more hatred directed towards America, right from the start about the Federal Reserve's monetary policies creating the housing bubble which led to the 2008 financial meltdown, right from the start about the War on Drugs, the USA Patriot Act and the TSA imposing a fascist police state upon the American people.
Ron Paul 2012. Right Then. Right Now. Right For America.
-- Posted 11/19/2011, 10:48:04am by anarchteacher
All I know I learned in Vietnam: Do not trust the brass and ever more the suits that got us there. Because when the shit hits the fan, everybody's got to duck. And this war may be the big one. And then it'll be too late to say: Opps, sorry 'bout that. Question authority would be my guiding principle.
-- Posted 11/19/2011, 7:44:50am by rewiredgdog
War is a feeling in the bones, an old OSS/later CIA veteran told us. Suez solveable in 1956, Quemoy/Matsu a shouting match without a shoot-out, and Cuba a close call in 1962. But Egypt telegraphed their punch in 1967, did the same in 1973, but came close.... The old war horses knew when the talking had gone too far, and shooting was in the next scene.
We are in the bravado talk stages now, with legions of suicide bombers already set, hundreds more waiting their turn. Interesting comparison here between Islam and Judeo- Christianity: Mothers of Islam send their sons to die for their god…. The God of the Old/New testament sent his Son to die for us! Noam Chomsky meddles with Jerusalem, ignoring explicit and detailed warnings in the Old Testament of his faith. That aside, Madrassas in Saudi Arabia (never mind allegations of encouraging terrorist acts) and Pakistan for two, include unequivocal instruction -- several lines in the Qur'an -- calling for elimination of Israel from "Islamic land" ignoring presence of the Jew in Jerusalem some 2000 years prior to arrival of the "prophet".
It really matters less about Iran as a focal point, than widespread drift to eliminate Israel now surging up again as we saw in 1967 and 1973. Big operators like Russia and China and the EU, not only the USA, should counsel their Islamic business associates and diplomatic/military contacts to leave Israel alone. No such wisdom seems apparent, and so that feeling of foreboding grows... This time, will Damascus be demolished as aftermath of Syrian attack on Tel Aviv? Or Egypt? Are they willing to put the Aswan Dam in jeopardy this time around?
This has a surreal quality about it; as we dance around Iran, with a larger panorama of consequences waiting to overtake us all as leaders East and west lack the nerve and skill to rein in Iran's flirtations with a nuclear arsenal -and threats against Israel. Same old script. America is too beholden to oil to act rationally. Simple US transportation policy to rail-based transport/distribution would dramatically change the world call on liquid motor fuel, cut oil income to the oil patch war preparations. This seems another place where American policymakers lack nerve and skill. The hooks are in our jaws....
-- Posted 11/19/2011, 3:15:44am by tahoevalleylines
Mr Hersh, you're decrying false "conventional wisdom" on the IAEA report but you're also promoting your own falsehoods. Iran's enrichment program was not "secret" and Iran has never "violated the NPT."
There is no particular reason to assume that Iran had a nuclear weapons program prior to 2003 either -- certainly the IAEA has never endorsed that view, and finally accusing Iran of seeking a "latent" nuclear weapons capability is nonsense when 140 other countries already have this "latent" capability because it is inherent in having ANY nuclear program. http://www.iranaffairs.com/iran_affairs/2011/11/seymour-hershs-errors-on-iran-nuclear-program.html
-- Posted 11/19/2011, 1:56:17am by hass
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