The Irrationality of the Case against Iran’s Nuclear Program

President Obama has informed the Iranians they have one “last chance” to avoid attack. They must suspend higher uranium enrichment, close down the Fordow  enrichment facility, and “surrender” their stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 per cent purity. Iranian officials respond matter-of-factly that  such demands are “irrational.” (Some Israeli officials, eager to build the case for attack, are reportedly delighted with the Iranian response.)

Seasoned U.S. analysts seem to agree with the Iranian assessment.Stephen M Walt writes  in Foreign Policy, “For the life of me, I can’t figure out what the Obama administration is thinking  about Iran… I’m puzzled.” Gary Sick, writing for CNN, predicts dire consequences of an attack  on Iran and seems to question its wisdom. So why is Obama being so confrontational? So  irrational?

The president as usual tries to position himself in the middle, chiding Republican opponents for “loose talk” about war while assuring Israeli prime minister Netanyahu that the U.S.  will move in “lock step” with Israel. But what is the logic of offering Iran a “last chance” to stop doing what it is legally entitled to do? The only logic I can see here—and it is a perverse form—resides in the assumption that as the bombs start to fall Washington will be able to say, “We were patient, we went that last mile, and gave them their opportunity, but they defied the international community and so we (or Israel) had to attack.” It is 2003 all over again.

Recall that Obama was elected in large part due to his opposition to the war in Iraq.  In a 2002 speech he declared that he opposed “the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul  Wolfowitz and other arm-chair, weekend warriors in this Administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships  borne.” But he never really denounced the campaign of lies, or expressed moral indignation  at the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, the uprooting of millions, the spread of  ethnic and sectarian conflicts following the U.S. attack Rather, he saw the war as a “strategic  blunder.” Still, he was widely regarded as the “anti-war” candidate.

Once elected, however, he proved to be a virtual Bush clone in foreign affairs.  He chose  hawkish Hilary Clinton (who had strongly supported the attack on Iraq and defended her position until late in her campaign) as Secretary of State, to the applause of the neocons who  correctly anticipated that she would provide continuity with their own regime-change policies. He ordered U.S. troops out of Iraq, but he can’t take credit for the withdrawal. It occurred in accordance with the agreement between the Bush administration and the Iraqi government   worked out in 2008.  (Indeed Obama attempted to renegotiate the agreement to allow for the  continued presence of U.S. troops and bases but was thwarted by the Iraqis who detested the  occupation. In other words: it is despite not because of Obama that the U.S. has pulled its  troops out of Iraq.)

On Iran, Obama made it clear from his very first post-election press conference that he  would maintain a policy of confrontation. Asked about Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s  message congratulating him on his election, he sidestepped the question but sternly (and obviously  according to a script) declared that “Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon” is “unacceptable.”  And ever since his administration has promoted the assumption that Iran has a secret, active  military nuclear program which must be stopped by any means necessary.

(This is the case even when, as in recent days, the White House agrees that there is no hard evidence for the existence of a nuclear weapons program! The more or less open discussion with the Israelis involves the establishment of the “red line” that would justify military action. What seems to really be “unacceptable” is the mere knowledge and ability to produce nuclear weapons. But you can’t say that too often in public. You can’t say, “We will deny Iran the right to reach the technological level that many other countries have done, legally and without our objection—because we don’t like Iran!)

Exactly like George W. Bush, Obama has repeatedly stated that he leaves “no options  off the table” including military force.

How have we reached this “last chance” interval? The irrationality is in fact mind-boggling.  How is it that while the entire U.S. intelligence community has on the basis of exhaustive research  and analysis concluded—twice—that Iran terminated its (incipient) program of research in 2003  and does not have a nuclear weapons program; and while the Joint Chiefs of Staff is firmly opposed  to an attack on Iran; and while the IAEA has repeatedly reported no evidence for diversion of  enriched uranium for military  purposes— Obama can still treat Iran’s civilian program as an  imminent danger? And threaten war?

Since 9/11 we have seen how powerful campaigns of misinformation can shape public opinion.  Hermann Goering’s observation (that if you tell people they’re under attack you can always drag the  people along to support a military response) has been repeatedly confirmed. To justify the attack  on Iraq, Madison Avenue techniques were used: coordinated talking-points made in televised interviews  (“We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud over New York City); leaking of dubious  “intelligence products” through cooperative journalists like Judith Miller and Jeffrey Goldberg;  proliferating charges of  “drones of death” carrying biological and chemical weapons, al-Qaeda training  camps, meetings between al-Qaeda figures and Baathist officials including Saddam himself, mobile  biological weapons factories, etc.

All lies! When no evidence of weapons of mass production or al-Qaeda ties surfaced,  the administration brushed it off as the result of “faulty intelligence” and urged people to look  forward, not backward.

This is what Obama said too, as he took office. He was urged by some to have the Justice  Department prosecute those responsible for the criminal war based on lies. “We need to look forward, not backwards,” he replied. He then moved forward to accelerate the Afghan War,  increasing U.S. troops from around 10,000 to over 90,000. He moved on to bomb Pakistan and  Yemen with drones, to bomb Libya to achieve regime change, and is now threatening Syria.  The current administration is as bloody as the last one.

Preparations for an attack on Iran have been made, like those for the Iraq War, through a media  campaign involving terrifying phrases and accusations. “Mushroom cloud over New York” has been  replaced with “existential threat,” “nuclear holocaust,” “threats to wipe Israel off the map,” “calls for the  destruction of Israel.”  This is fear-mongering with a twist. Few are suggesting that Iran constitutes a major threat to the U.S.; instead the focus is on the putative threat to Israel.

Many have pointed out that key architects of the Iraq War (including Richard Perle,  Douglas Feith, and David Wurmser) authored a report under Perle’s leadership in 1996 for incoming  Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. (They did so presumably in their capacity as   U.S.-Israeli dual nationals.) The
paper, A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,  advocated pre-emptive strikes against Iran and Syria,  regime change in Iraq,  and the abandonment  of  “land for peace” negotiations with Palestinians. In fact, the Israeli government was delighted  with the toppling of Saddam Hussein, a supporter of militant Palestinian groups. But the war  propagandists said little about Israel’s interests in regime change. They surely didn’t want to  encourage the perception that this would be a “war for Israel.”

This time is different. Obama might tell Jeffrey Goldberg—as he did in an interview last week—that the U.S. would “still be a profound national-security interest of the United  States to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon” even if “Israel weren’t in the picture.”  But Israel’s plainly at the center of  the political discourse on Iran in this country.

Norman Podhoretz, the “father of neoconservativism,” begged the Bush administration  to bomb Iran in 2007, arguing that the world was at a crossroads such as 1938, and that  appeasement was likely to produce another holocaust. We’ve been hearing this shrill rhetoric  for years. It is illogical. Ahmadinejad is not a Hitler. He has limited powers under the Iranian  system, and does not control foreign policy. If he was inclined to annihilate Jews, you’d think  he’d begin with the 25,000 or so Jews in Iran, but he distinguishes them from Zionists and says  he respects their rights.

Let’s dissect some of the sensationalistic language underlying the (joint U.S.-Israeli)  drive for confrontation.

Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

If you do a Google search, you’ll find tens of thousands of  journalistic references to this concept as though it were a fact. I have not seen a poll showing how many people in this country truly assume that such a program exists, but I’d wager most do.  So the Big Lie has been effective.

What if mainstream journalists made it a point to constantly reiterate the following?

The Iranians have consistently stated that they do not have or want a nuclear weapons  program.  They want to enrich uranium for nuclear medicine and for electrical power.  They are not necessarily doing anything other than what Brazil, Argentina, Japan and  other countries have done under IAEA investigation, and as signatories to the  Non-Proliferation Treaty, they are absolutely entitled to do so. (The language of the treaty is clear: signatory nations have the “inalienable right” to develop civilian Nuclear programs.)

The chief decision-maker in Iran is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. His religious  edicts (fatwa) are considered binding law by Shiite Muslims. In 2005 he issued a fatwa  banning the production, stockpiling or use of nuclear weapons as un-Islamic.

The entire U.S. intelligence community (CIA, FBI, military intelligence, etc.) in two  National Intelligence Estimates (in 2007 and 2010) concluded with a high degree of  confidence that Iran does not have an active nuclear program.

Israeli intelligence has concluded the same thing.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has never found any evidence for a  nuclear weapons program. It has found some evidence for concealment of information,  and complained of some lack of cooperation.  But due to political manipulation, and the  appointment of Yukiya Amano as director in 2009, the agency has become increasingly  critical of Iran, packaging dated and dubious data to put pressure on Tehran. (A U.S.  diplomatic cable leaked by the Guardian states that while campaigning for the  appointment to replace the independent, respected scientist and Nobel Peace Prize winner  Mohamed ElBaradei  “Amano reminded [the] ambassador on several occasions that he  would need to make concessions to the G-77 [the developing countries group], which  correctly required him to be fair-minded and independent, but that he was solidly in  the US court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the  handling of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.” The 2005 IAEA resolution  leading to UNSC sanctions against Iran was determined by politics, not science.  22 of 35 then-member nations of the Agency voted to declare Iran in “non-compliance”  with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It was basically a matter of NATO nations voting as a  bloc, with Algeria, Brazil, China, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russian Federation, South  Africa, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Venezuela, Vietnam, and Yemen opposed or abstaining.)

The most recent IAEA report, widely reported as damning, really just repeats old  charges. The principle one involves the design of a nuclear warhead found on a laptop  computer allegedly stolen from a dead Iranian nuclear scientist and presented to the  U.S. in 2004. It’s thought to have been provided through the Mujahaddin Khalq (MEK),  a militant organization of Iranian exiles (which fought on behalf of Iraq during  the  Iraq-Iran War, when the U.S. was supporting Saddam’s invasion of the neighboring  Country, and which happens to be listed by the State Department as a “terrorist”  organization) or by Israeli intelligence. In 2005 after the U.S. shared the find with the IAEA,  the New York Times quoted a “senior European diplomat” as stating,  “I can fabricate  that data”; the material, he said, “is open to doubt.” Iran has stated that the laptop  evidence is fake. It does not seem to have caused U.S. intelligence agencies to alter their  assessment that Iran has no active nuclear weapons program.

Last month the IAEA delegation to Iran was denied admission to the Parchin military Base. The IAEA mandate does not include demanding spot checks on military bases, and the Iranians claim that the request last month was inappropriate. Amano depicted this as a matter of  serious concern, stoking suspicion of  nuclear activity.  However Iran consented to thorough examination of base sites by the IAEA in 2004, 2005 (twice) and 2006, and the agency found nothing suspicious.

Iran has called for the destruction of Israel.

How many times have we heard that? But what are the  specific quotes? The Iranian leadership, along with many and varied forces in the world (including some Israeli Jewish historians), believe that the state of Israel was established through savage  violence at the expense of the indigenous Palestinian population. They believe the refugee problem  was due to Zionist terrorism—which is in fact not a terribly controversial thesis on this planet. (There seems little question that between April 9, 1948 when the terror began and May 15 when Arab armies “invaded” on Palestinians’ behalf over 300,000 had fled for their lives, while the Israeli Haganeh forces systematically wiped 170 Palestinian towns and villages off the map.) Iranians like many people around the world do not like the concept of a “Jewish state” established at others’  expense and feel a sense of solidarity with the Palestinians.

Some Iranian leaders address gatherings where the people shout, “Death to Israel!” just  as they shout, “Death to America!” But how does the rhetoric translate into action?

What if mainstream journalists made it a point to constantly reiterate the following?

In the spring of 2003, the Iranian government of President Mohamed Khatami (usually  depicted as a “moderate” and advocate of “the dialogue of civilizations”) sent a letter  to the U.S. State Department via the Swiss ambassador to Tehran (who handles  U.S.-Iranian relations). The letter proposed normalization of U.S.-Iranian relations,  and acknowledged the need to discuss Iranian support for groups the U.S. lists as  “terrorist” and also its nuclear program. It indicated that Iran would support the  2002 Arab Peace Initiative endorsed by the Arab League. (This entails support  for a two-state solution and recognition of Israel.) Vice President Cheney was infuriated,  insisted that the administration ignore the letter, and berated the Swiss diplomat for even passing it on.

Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be “wiped off the map”.

You even see: “…has repeatedly  called for this. It’s not true.

(Keep in mind that the mainstream media has been inclined to circulate disinformation  about him Ahmadinejad from the day he was elected in June 2005. He was falsely identified as one of the students who took U.S. embassy personnel hostage during the 1979-81 Hostage Crisis,  and President Bush publicly referred to “his involvement” in it. The CIA subsequently quietly concluded that he hadn’t been involved.)

The key statement was made at a conference in Tehran October 2005. Numerous translators have  questioned this rendering of his comments, some arguing that there is no such expression as “wipe off the map” in Persian (Farsi).  The statement by Ahmadinejad is actually a paraphrase of a statement  by the Ayatollah Khomeni (d. 1989), who declared that Israel would go the way of the Shah of Iran’s  regime, and that of the Soviet Union.   Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor of Middle East history fluent in Farsi, smelled  “the whiff of war propaganda” in the widely reproduced quotation.  His own translation runs as follows:   “the Imam said that this regime occupying Jerusalem (een rezhim-e eshghalgar-e qods) must  [vanish from] the page of time (bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shaved).

 The vigorously pro-Israel Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) translated the  phrase as “this regime” must be “eliminated from the pages of history.” The word for “page” can also  be translated as “stage.” The Khomeini statement seems a prediction, rather than a call for specific  action. (And is it not entirely thinkable that demographics, settlement, and culture might produce within the next hundred years a multicultural, multi-ethnic, non-religious state in what is now Israel/Palestine? Even some prominent Israeli Jews have suggested this.)

In any case the Iranian Foreign Ministry responded to the furor with a clarification.  In February 2006 the Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, answered a question at a news  conference about Ahmadinejad’s statement.  “How is it possible to remove a country from the  map?” he asked. “[Ahmadinejad] is talking about the regime. We do not recognize legally this regime.”

Ahmadinejad himself has repeatedly said that his remark was misinterpreted. In January 2006,  complaining about the “hue and cry” over his statement, he said “Let the Palestinians participate in free elections and they will say what they want.” In July 2008 he told a meeting of the D-8 nations  (Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Turkey) that his country would never initiate military action but that the Israeli regime would eventually collapse on its own.

Later that year he was asked by a journalist:  “If the Palestinian leaders agree to a two-state  solution, could Iran live with an Israeli state?” His response: “If [the Palestinians] want to keep the  Zionists, they can stay … Whatever the people decide, we will respect it. I mean, it’s very much in  correspondence with our proposal to allow Palestinian people to decide through free referendums.”

What if mainstream journalists made it a point to constantly reiterate the following?

Iranian government officials have repeatedly stated that they will defer to the  Palestinians in deciding the their future, and expressed openness to the Saudi  two-state solution endorsed by the Arab League.

Existential threat.

Israeli politicians echoed by U.S. columnists continually refer to the Iranian  nuclear program as  a threat to the very existence of the state of Israel.  But intelligence experts,  like Ephraim Halevy, who headed Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad from 1998 to 2002, disagree.  “The State of Israel cannot be destroyed,” he told journalists last November. He added:[Iran is] far from posing an existential threat to Israel”  and warned, “An attack on Iran could affect not  only Israel, but the entire region for 100 years.” He even declared that Jewish extremism within  Israel was a greater problem than Iran:  “The growing Haredi radicalization poses a bigger risk  than Ahmadinejad.”

Those raising the fear of an existential threat meet with the logical reply: “Given that Israel  is armed with (undeclared) nuclear weapons, and could respond many times over to an Iranian attack,  why would rational people in Iran ever bomb Israel?” The fear-mongers’ reply is simple: “We’re not  dealing with rational people.”

The Iranian leaders, they argue, are Islamist fanatics, eager to court martyrdom and unconcerned  about their people’s well-being. They are so driven by anti-Semitism that they would sacrifice  millions of Iranians just to wipe out the Jews as Hitler failed to do. The key quote summoned in  support of this argument is from former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani  in 2001: “If a  day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in its possession, the  strategy of colonization would face a stalemate because the application of an atomic bomb  would not leave anything in Israel but the same thing would just produce damage in the Muslim  world.”

This statement (in a Friday sermon) noted the obvious. At present, Israel enjoys a regional  nuclear monopoly (although we should note that Pakistan, a country in “the world of Islam,”  already had nuclear weapons at the time Rafsanjani spoke.) If nearby Muslim countries had  nuclear weapons, Israel’s freedom of action (“strategy of colonization”) would be limited. The  statement, while ambiguous, does not threaten Israel but implies that given its size an relatively  small population Israel would fare far worse in a nuclear exchange than a country like Iran—if Iran were to emulate Israel and acquire nukes.

I have seen this quotation reproduced with the significant section “…the strategy of colonization  would face a stalemate because…” omitted, making the statement seem more ominous than it is. It has been used too often as “evidence” that the Iranian leadership positively looks forward to incurring  damage to Iran so long as it can bomb Israel, leaving nothing.

This of course requires one to believe that the Iranians are not only eager to annihilate Israeli  Jews but indifferent to the lives of Palestinians (about 20% of the Israeli total) and the  approximately five percent of Israelis who are neither Jews nor Arabs. Rafsanjani is generally considered a “moderate” and political foe of Ahmadinejad. This interpretation of his statement is (once again) fear-mongering.

What if mainstream journalists made it a point to constantly reiterate the following?

Iran has not attacked another country in several hundred years. It has no territorial claims  on its neighbors and enjoys good relations with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia,  Azerbaijan and Iraq. It spends less than two percent of its GDP on military spending, as  compared to Israel’s over six percent, and just about half as much in dollar terms as Israel.  Iran spends $89 per capita per year on military spending, as opposed to $1,882 in Israel  and $2,141 in the U.S. (the highest in the world).

U.S. and Israeli military and intelligence officials agree that the Iranian leadership is  rational and not reckless. The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen.  Martin Dempsey, recently told CNN that “the Iranian regime is a rational actor.”   Meir Dagan, another former Mossad chief (Halevy’s successor, from 2002 to 2009),   recently told CBS, “The regime in Iran is a very rational regime… No doubt that the  Iranian regime is maybe not exactly rational based on what I call Western-thinking,  but no doubt they are considering all the implications of their actions.” Dagan  meanwhile calls an Israeli attack on Iran “the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.”

Nuclear holocaust.

A brilliant propaganda expression, combining the terrifying imagery of  the mushroom cloud with the memory of systematic round-ups and genocide.

But if the Iranian leadership seeks to imitate the Nazis and effect a “final solution” to the  Jewish question, why did Ayatollah Khomeini issue a fatwa in 1979, when he returned to Iran,  Requiring respect for the rights of Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians? Why does Iran have a  community of some 25,000 Jews (the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside of  Israel)? Why does the Iranian constitution specify (Art. 64), that out of the 270 members of the  legislature “the Zoroastrians and Jews will each elect one representative; Assyrian and Chaldean  Christians will jointly elect one representative; and Armenian Christians in the north and those  in the south of the country will each elect one representative”?

These are surely inconvenient truths to some, who want to exaggerate to oppression of Jews in Iran to support their apocalyptic Chicken Little scenarios. One finds a classic example in two pieces  published in the National Post of Canada in May 2006 alleging that the Iranian parliament had passed laws requiring “special insignia” for Jews and other religious minorities. Written by the extreme rightwing journalist Amir Taheri, an Iranian expatriate who had firmly supported the Shah, and Chris Wattie, a Canadian journalist who’d been embedded with Canadian forces in Afghanistan  and glorified their mission, it was picked up by UPI.

It was published in Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post and Jerusalem Post. U.S. State  Department spokesman Sean McCormack was asked about it in a press briefing. “Despicable,”  he raged,  just like “Germany under Hitler.” Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal  Center in Los Angeles, readily accepted the report. “This  is reminiscent of the Holocaust,” he  stated. “”Iran is moving closer and closer to the ideology of the Nazis.” But it was 100%  disinformation! It was quickly refuted by (among others) by the Iranian ambassador to Canada and the indignant Jewish representative in the Iranian parliament. The paper retracted the  story and apologized, but some damage had been done—as was surely the intention.

Also in 2006, Netanyahu offered this splendid historical analogy: “In 1938,” he averred, “Hitler didn’t say he wanted to destroy [the Jews]; Ahmadinejad is saying clearly that this is his intention, and we aren’t even shouting. At least call it a crime against humanity. We must make the world see that the issue here is a program for genocide.” Outgoing US UN Ambassador John Bolton called on the UN International Court of Criminal Justice to charge Ahmadinejad with “inciting genocide.” “It’s time to take action,” he told a Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations symposium. “We’re being given early warning, unambiguously, on what his intentions are.” A mushroom cloud over Tel Aviv!

What if mainstream journalists made it a point to constantly reiterate the following?

There are over 30 operating synagogues in Iran, kosher stores and restaurants and  Hebrew schools.

While by law there is one member of parliament elected per 150,000 people, the Jewish  community of 25,000 is guaranteed one seat.

While life is oppressive for everyone in Iran, an Islamist theocracy, Jews hold jobs in government ministries and state-owned firms. Their lot may be unhappy, like the lot of most Iranians. But it hardly resembles the lot of Jews in Hitler’s Germany.

“The stupidest idea I ever heard,” says the former Mossad chief. Still, the U.S. government  headed by “hope” and “change” candidate Obama is telling Iran to submit to U.S. diktat while it has the chance, or get bombed.

It is all, as the Iranian diplomats observe, irrational.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at:


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: