The Iranian Nuclear Showdown

Former CIA analyst

(Author’s note: As a member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, an organization of former US intellligence officers from the CIA, DIA, Department of State and Department of Defense, I took part in 2002 in the preparation of a series of public statements countering the Bush administration’s alleged intelligence behind its rationale for the invasion of Iraq. These statements were based not only on our past experience with presidential manipulation of intelligence in Vietnam and the Iran-Contra era but with information we received from alarmed former colleagues still within the intelligence services. We warned that not only was the information about supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, particularly nuclear weapons, suspect and more than likely false, but that the overall strategy behind the invasion plan overrated prospects of success and vastly underestimated the probable cost to the United States in lives and money.

Our misgivings, we now know, were all too correct. That is why we look with growing alarm at the manner in which the administration has approached the problem-if, in fact, it is a problem-posed by Iran’s long-established program of developing a nuclear energy system, a program which could eventually give the country the ability to produce a nuclear weapon. This Iran, as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970, pledges not to do. It has submitted to the regular inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency which has found no evidence of a weapons program.

In my belief, as the writer of the following analysis, the Bush administration representation of Iran, unarguably a conservative Shiite Islamic state supportive of Shiite minorities in Iraq and Lebanon, among other countries, as a reckless and aggressive nation, a danger to the region or even to the United States, has no grounding in history. My analysis demonstrates that Iran, on the contrary, has over the past half century been the victim of both covert and overt aggression-in much of which the US has been involved.

It is difficult for me to understand not only why the Bush administration is pursuing its aggressive policy against Iran, especially at a time when its position in Iraq is crumbling toward utter failure, but how it has been able to enlist much of the European Union countries in its support. The analysis explores the issue.–DM)

For almost a half century Iran, both under the government of Shah Reza Pahlavi and the succeeding Islamic governments after the Shah’s overthrow in 1978, has had a policy of developing nuclear plants for electric power generation. Prior to 1978 the policy had the full support and encouragement of the United States and other western governments which used Iran as a major Middle Eastern ally against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. For example, in 1974 Iran contracted with the American research firm SRI International (the former Stanford Research Institute) for assistance in the design and construction of such plants.

Things changed after the overthrow of the Shah and the subsequent US Embassy hostage crisis, during the course of which American Army Special Forces attempted a military rescue raid in Iran which proved an embarrassing failure.. Not only were diplomatic relations between Teheran and Washington broken and never restored, but the US prohibited all direct trade between US business and Iran and sequestered all Iranian assets in the US, including some $18 billion in deposits in American banks, assets which the US government still holds. Admittedly, the ban was covertly lifted during the Reagan presidency when advanced US weapons were sold, through Israeli channels, to Iran and the proceeds diverted to the support of US-directed forces (the “Contras”) seeking to overthrow the Nicaraguan government-thus, the “Iran-Contra” scandal. However, this was a momentary digression from the policy, partly rationalized as a means of restoring US influence in Iran’s military or establishing links with “moderate elements in Iran” with an eye toward repeating the pro-US military coup of 1953 which ousted Iran’s elected government of Mohammed Mossadeq and established the essentially US-controlled monarchy of the Shah. (It might be noted in the context of the present US effort to have Iran sanctioned by the UN Security Council, that prior to the 1953 coup Great Britain, furious at Mossadeq because of his nationalization of British-owned oil fields, unsuccessfully attempted to have the Security Council punish Iran).

Indeed, such was US hostility toward the post-Shah government and its Islamic fundamentalist religious leader, the Ayatolla Khomeini-despite the fact that it was by any definition anti-communist, possibly even more so than the also fundamentalist mujahaddin rebellion the US organized and supported in neighboring Afghanistan-that Washington and its western allies to greater or lesser degrees encouraged, financed, armed, provided intelligence to, and even directly participated in the war of aggression which Iraq launched against Iran in 1980. This participation climaxed in 1988 when a US cruiser operating in Iranian national waters mistakenly shot down an Iranian civil airliner, killing the 100 plus passengers aboard.

Ironically, this western aid included scientific and industrial support for Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs. This support proved critical because it was only by resort to massive use of chemical weapons that Iraq-which had disastrously underestimated Iran’s ability to rebuild its armed forces following 1978 when most of the pro-Shah senior officer corps left the country-was able to prevent Iran’s enthusiastic Islamic volunteers from routing Saddam Hussein’s secular baathist regulars. In any event, the war was a disaster for both countries with deaths in the hundreds of thousands and huge economic losses. Less noticed then, but a major factor in current US strategic calculations, was the fact that Iraq’s very large Shia Muslim population tended to a great degree to identify with largely Shia Iran and to reject their own secular government whose popular support base, insofar as it was religious, was drawn from Sunni Muslims, traditionally foes of the Shiites they regard as heretics.

When the war ended in 1988, with the United Nations negotiating a ceasefire and then supervising withdrawal of both sides to pre-war borders and repatriation of prisoners, Iran turned its energies to restoring its economy. Iraq, on the other hand, feeling betrayed by its Arab neighbors, particularly Kuwait which Baghdad believed had not only failed to provide promised financial assistance but had actually taken advantage of the war to steal oil from Iraqi fields, committed the extraordinary error of launching its August 1990 attack on Kuwait. Admittedly, Saddam had some reason to believe that his old allies in Washington would tolerate his assault. US Ambassador April Glaspie in Baghdad famously told him on July 25 that the United States “had no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts like your border disagreement with Kuwait.The issue is not associated with America.”

How wrong was Saddam’s belief, because the George H.W. Bush administration seized the opportunity to lead an international coalition to war against Iraq-the Gulf War–; totally crush his painfully reconstructed military forces; and usher in the decade-long era of brutal United Nations economic sanctions that almost completely destroyed what was left of Iraq’s once thriving economy and social structure. Saddam and the Baath Party remained in control of the government, somehow retaining the capability of bloodily suppressing a major Shiite rebellion in the southern third of the country and maintaining tenuous control over the Kurdish provinces in the north despite British and US-imposed “no fly regions”-non-UN-authorized activities which prevented the Iraqi air force from supporting Baghdad’s military operations there.

While Iraq sank deeper into misery-an impoverished international outcast-Iran, although still seen by the US as an enemy, made a relatively rapid recovery. It continued satisfactory trade relations with everyone but the US and, after the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini, experienced social and political moderation. Certainly, the Shia religious leaders who succeeded Khomeini retained an effective veto over the elected civil government, but by and large Iran’s large and cosmopolitan middle and upper classes were not subjected to any Taliban-like repression or even the severe life style restrictions of Saudi Arabia. Compared to many other nations of the Middle East Iran’s political system was relatively open. The result of the 2005 national elections which confounded most observers by giving the presidential office to Mahmoud Ahmajinedad, the populist and religiously conservative mayor of Tehran over much better known and wealthier candidates from the Iranian elite is evidence of that.

Iran’s conduct of its foreign affairs following the war with Iraq shows no record of disruptive international or regional behavior. As a member of OPEC it has cooperated with that body’s policies. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union Teheran quickly established cordial political and economic relationships with the new Russian Federation as well as with the new Near Eastern states formed from the old USSR-the so-called ‘Stans. Trade with western Europe has continued; Germany, for instance, exports about $5 billion worth of products annually to Iran. Likewise, Tehran has worked diligently to improve its diplomatic and economic relationships with the rising Asian economic powers of China and India as well as with Japan, which gets over 15 per cent of its petroleum from Iran. Fully conscious of the dangers posed by the Taliban regime in its eastern neighbor of Afghanistan to its own relatively moderate Islamism and comparatively open political system, Iran worked closely with others in the region to counter the efforts of the mujaheddin and, after, 2001 cooperated with the United States in suppressing alQuaeda’s activities in the region. Iran, with a significant drug abuse problem among its population, has also been active in efforts to stop the opium and heroin traffic emanating from Afghanistan. Indeed, Iran was notably cooperative with the anti-Iraq coalition during the Gulf War.


More to the point here is that Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970 by which, while having the right to develop peaceful uses of nuclear energy, it pledged not to make nuclear weapons and to submit to the inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a UN body established in 1957, to ensure that it was not doing so. Indeed, Iran has allowed these inspections over the years, and, following the US invasion of Iraq, partly rationalized by charges that Iraq-also an NPT signatory-had or was developing nuclear weapons, went beyond what the NPT required it to do by accepting a so-called “additional protocol” proposed by the European Union. Under this it agreed to suspend its NPT-authorized right to enrich uranium for its nuclear power plants, currently under construction with Russian assistance, while the IAEA conducted detailed investigations to ascertain that Iran was not, as the United States was openly accusing it of doing, using its nuclear power program as a cover for weapons manufacture. After an extraordinary examination, in which Iran cooperated fully, IAEA chief Mohammed Al Baradei, issued a report in November 2004, stating that Iran was in “substantive compliance” not only with its NPT obligations but with those of the “additional protocol” as well.

He did point out, it should be noted, that Iran had previously not reported on or completely explained some activities and possession of traces of some materials. However, having said this, he went on to state that he had found “no indication” that Iran had ever diverted any “special nuclear materials” to a military purpose.A fairminded observer, especially in light of renewed nuclear weapons design work in the United States-also an NPT signatory-might say that since Iran has been engaged in nuclear energy work for over 30 years and during much of that time under threat or actual attack by enemies possessing nuclear weapons-among them the US and Israel-it would be surprising if there had not from time to time been discussion or actual planning for nuclear weapons development in Teheran. Al Baradei’s finding of “substantial compliance” probably means that whatever the Iranians had done in this way had not, in fact, been “substantial” in the sense of establishing a meaningful weapons production capability.

However much or little credit one gives to official Iranian statements of policy on nuclear weapons, it is worth recalling that at his inauguration President Aboudinejad made a point of denouncing them and promised that Iran would remain a non-nuclear weapons state. Of equal, if not greater, significance is the fact that the real power in Iran, the man who, among other things, controls its armed forces, is the head of the Shiite clergy, Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei. He has issued a fatwa-a religious ruling-against nuclear weapons.

Granted, Iran, like every other Islamic nation, sees Israel as an enemy, something, as its current president has unwisely said, that should be wiped off the map. It also sponsors the armed Lebanese Shiite group, Hizbollah, which has commited the crime of effectively defending Lebanese territory against Israeli incursions. However, everything taken into consideration, one could make the case that Iran over the years has been a very respectable global citizen and, indeed, if anything has been more sinned against than sinning.


It is against this background that one has to try to explain why the United States ignores, indeed, denounces, the IAEA report’s conclusion that Iran is today in “substantial compliance” and instead seizes on its note of possible prior incomplete reporting to charge Iran with being “a threat to peace and security” to be referred to the UN Security Council for possible sanctioning or other action. Indeed, when other permanent members of the Security Council, such as Russia and China, question the need for even economic sanctions, senior Bush administration officials, especially Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and UN Ambassador John Bolton, echoed by Israeli government spokesmen, mutter darkly that the use of military force against Iran “remains on the table” as an option. It is even more of a question as to why this issue of possible past Iranian incomplete reporting-and the emphasis here is on “possible”-that both the European Union and the majority of the 39 member countries on the IAEA board-have elevated this to a major international crisis.

It may be that the US and EU intelligence services have more convincing evidence about Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons programs and intentions than they have revealed to date. If so, it is puzzling that they have not gone beyond broad accusations and seem to rely on allegations by Iranian exile organizations seeking to restore the monarchy. All this is unhappily reminiscent of the run up to the invasion of Iraq with charges of WMD. Indeed, given the total discrediting of the charges made by US and UK intelligence agencies about Iraq, supported by politically motivated ?migr? groups, it is astonishing that the accusations are not laughed out of the court of world public opinion.

Nevertheless, a US Congress-so badly stung only three years ago by accepting the false representations of the Bush administration about Iraq-snaps eagerly at the Iran bait. Moreover, this time it is the Congress that takes the initiative, rejecting White House cautions about taking unilateral action that would hinder administration efforts to build an international consensus against Iran. On March 15, the House International Relations Committee in a bipartisan 35 to 3 vote, endorsed legislation that would deny US economic assistance to any country that invested in Iran’s energy sector or allowed a private entity to do so. Democratic hawk Tom Lantos argued that this would inflict “economic pain on Tehran” and “starve” it of the resources needed to fund its nuclear program. The resolution will probably pass in the House, but indications are that the Senate will reject it. One cannot resist the temptation of saying to the Congress, “Fool me once; shame on you. Fool me twice; shame on me.”

As of now, the matter is before the Security Council, the IAEA accepting Rice’s demand that its whole dossier on Iran’s nuclear power program be sent there. It is not clear what will be the result of the Council’s consideration of the dossier. As noted, IAEA’s documentation is far more exculpatory of Iran than otherwise. Moreover, the presidency of the Council has passed from the aggressive, to say the least, US Ambassador Bolton to the Argentine Ambassador Cesar Mayoral who is certainly unlikely to push hard for sanctions. Moreover, permanent Council members China and Russia, both having veto power, are opposed to any punitive action. Granted, both are not completely happy with Iran for not accepting the proposal for abandoning uranium enrichment activities on its own soil and working in partnership with Russia in a Russian plant. Both of them, while accepting that Iran is within its treaty rights in demanding that it have the capability for producing fuel for its nuclear power plants, clearly wish that Iran would compromise on this point, defusing the crisis and, importantly, not forcing them into a confrontation with the US and the EU. That said, in the final analysis it is clear that neither China nor Russia, especially the former, will endorse or take part in any economic or security measures directed against Iran and they will, if necessary, veto any such measures should they come to a vote.

Of all the questions about the “Iranian nuclear crisis” surely the most basic one is why has the United States made it such a major issue? Secondarily, but surely even more puzzling is why has the European Union shown itself so willing to carry Bush administration water in what is by any measure a very dubious cause?

With regard to the US, a factor, ridiculous as it sounds, is desire to punish Iran for overthrowing the Shah and the taking of the embassy hostages twenty-eight years ago. More important is the underlying longterm policy of wanting direct control over the oil resources of the Middle East. This policy, despite the fact that there is little evidence of any inability of the US to access oil in the global market, is intensified by the growingly recognized fact that China and India are becoming ever more powerful competitors for the oil of the region. It is hard to take really seriously Washington claims that Iran-a country of 70 million people, industrially underdeveloped, with no modern record of military adventurism-represents a threat to either the US or its neighbors, with or without a nuclear capability. However, that is not the way the Bush administration, which interprets anything other than total subservience as a threat to US national interests, sees it.

As for the Europeans, it can be argued that, with the exception of the UK and Italy, having taken a principled but totally ineffectual stand against the US aggression in Iraq, they fear that if the US somehow does succeed in its goal of turning Iraq into a quasi-US colony and then is able somehow to subdue Iran, that they will be frozen out of Middle Eastern picture in the future. Perhaps their governing elites worry that failure to join in will mean they will no longer be taken seriously.

Certainly there has been not entirely unfounded speculation that Germany’s new Chancellor, Angela Merkel, sees herself in the role of Margaret Thatcher to George Bush’s Ronald Reagan. Certainly France’s political leadership, shocked by the rejection of the EU constitution and uncertain about how to deal with its growing and restive Islamic immigrant population, has lost the confidence it showed when it opposed the Iraq invasion. Certainly also there can be no real belief in either Berlin or Paris that Iran, whether it enriches its own uranium or not, poses any “threat” to them now or in the foreseeable future.

What they must know, as the King of Jordan warned this week, is that any military attack on Iran, by either the US or Israel, will send the smouldering Middle East and the rest of the Islamic world up in flames, with tragic consequences for the planet. Even the establishment of a sanctions regimen against Iran for, essentially, the crime of insisting on its treaty rights, while Israel holds its several hundred nuclear weapons and the US, while blatantly announcing the modernization of its own nuclear bomb stocks and, in its just-issued strategic doctrine paper, announces that it will use nuclear weapons in any future conflicts when and how it wishes, is likely to have very negative results.

It is a good sign that the UK’s foreign minister, Jack Straw, has recently very pointedly distanced himself and his country from Washington on the Iran strategy by saying that the use of military force to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue has been ruled out. Russia and China, as emphasized here, definitely oppose either sanctions or armed force. The rest of the EU, having shown solidarity to this point, appears ready to draw back. The United States, even as Iraq descends into civil war and where the Shiite majority of its population identifies with Iran, is increasingly isolated.

Will Washington, regardless of the weakness of its case and its limited international support, still press on? If it fails to carry the Security Council, as it probably will, will it then take unilateral military or economic action? Military action is madness; unilateral economic sanctions are basically cutting of the American nose to spite the American face.

The Iran nuclear issue. An unnecessary crisis, totally manufactured and fatuously pursued. Just one more Bush administration fiasco.

DAVID MacMICHAEL is a former CIA analyst and a member of the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.