FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

How the Clinton Administration Nixed an Iran Nuke Deal

by GARETH PORTER

In 1998, the Defence Department vetoed a delegation of prominent U.S. nuclear specialists to go to Iran to investigate its nuclear programme at the invitation of the government of newly-elected Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, according to the nuclear scientist who was organising the mission.

The Pentagon objected to the delegation’s mission even though it was offered the option of including one or more scientists of its own choosing on the delegation, according to Dr. Behrad Nakhai, the nuclear scientist who was organising it.

The Pentagon veto of the nuclear scientists’ delegation eliminated the Khatami government’s most promising initiative to promote a thaw in U.S.-Iran relations by weakening a key U.S. argument for viewing Iran as a threat.

The Bill Clinton administration had been accusing Iran of wanting nuclear weapons, based not on intelligence on the nuclear programme but on the assumption that Iran would use enriched uranium for nuclear weapons rather than for civilian power.

In a series of interviews with IPS, Nakhai, an Iranian who had come to the United States after high school, got a PhD in nuclear engineering from the University of Tennessee in 1979 and was a research scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, provided a detailed account of the episode.

Iran’s mission to the U.N. informed Nakhai in late February 1998 that President Khatami and the new head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, Gholam-Reza Aghazadeh, wanted him to put together a group of nuclear scientists to visit Iran to study the Iranian nuclear programme, Nakhai recalled.

The Iranian invitation came in the wake of President Khatami’s January 1998 interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour calling for a “crack in the wall of distrust” between the United States and Iran and his appeal to the U.S. people for “the exchange of professors, writers, scholars, artists, journalists and tourists”.

Although those appeals had been followed by a public rejection by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of official talks between Iran and the United States, Khatami appeared determined to reduce tensions with Washington.

Nakhai recalled that he asked Iranian officials at the U.N. mission how big the delegation could be and was told, “You decide and we will issue the visas.” Iran would also foot the bill for the trip, they said.

“Where can I take them?” asked Nakhai, and the Iranians responded, “You decide. No restrictions.” The Iranians said the U.S. scientists could meet with whomever they chose, according to Nakhai’s account.

On Mar. 5, Nakhai began to contact prominent nuclear scientists and engineers.

Related IPS Articles

Saudi Insider Likely Key to Aramco Cyber-Attack

Obama Aides Launch Preemptive Attack on New Iran Plan

Anti-Iran Hawks Maintain P.R. Offensive

 

His first call was to Dr. Richard T. Lahey, chairman of the department of nuclear engineering at Renssellaer Polytechnic Institute and one of the world’s most eminent nuclear scientists. Lahey had headed a group of scientists who went to China after détente to study the Chinese nuclear programme.

After being assured by Nakhai that there would be no restrictions on what the scientists could see and where they could go, Lahey expressed interest in the proposed delegation, Nakhai recalled.

In an e-mail to Lahey that same day, which Nakhai has provided to IPS, Nakhai wrote, “The 7-10 days visit will entail sessions with government officials, discussions with University and Laboratory faculties, and tours of facilities.” Nakhai suggested late spring for the delegation trip.

At Nakhai’s request, Lahey offered to contact other prominent nuclear scientists, and in a Mar. 24 e-mail to Nakhai, also provided to IPS, Lahey said, “I have now heard from a number of top specialists in the field of Nuclear Energy and Safety who would be interested in going to Iran on a technology exchange visit.”

Lahey said Prof. Theo Theofanous of University of California Santa Barbara, Professor John J. Dorning of the University of Virginia and Dr. Rusi Taleyarkhan of Oak Ridge National Laboratory had expressed their willingness to join Lahey on such a delegation.

Leahy’s e-mail also said Nakhai would need to contact the State Department “to make sure that we have formal permission to go on this trip.” Most prominent nuclear scientists had security clearances from the Department of Energy, he noted, and could lose their clearances if they made the trip without official approval.

In mid-March, Nakhai recalls, he called the State Department’s Iran desk officer, J. Christopher Stevens. Stevens went on to become ambassador to Libya in 2012 but was killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on Sep. 11.

In their third conversation that same week, Stevens told the scientist that the trip was “a good idea”, according to Nakhai. But Stevens said Nakhai would have to “clear it with the Department of Defence”.

Stevens gave Nakhai the telephone number for the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Near East and South Asia Alina Romanowski, the top adviser to the secretary of defence on Near East matters. But when Nakhai called Romanowski, he got a decidedly negative response to the proposed trip.

Romanowski was unequivocally opposed to the idea, according to Nakhai, arguing that the scientists wouldn’t be able to get the truth in Iran. “They will mislead you,” Nakhai recalled her saying. “They will not show you everything.”

“I told her these scientists could not be easily fooled,” Nakhai said. He pointed to Lahey’s experience in leading a mission to China during the Richard Nixon administration.

Nakhai then told Romanowski that the group would ask to go wherever the Defence Department wanted them to go.

Nakhai asked her to think it over, and said he would call back later.

When Nakhai called back a week later, Romanowski gave him the same answer and the same argument, Nakhai said.

In a later conversation with Romanowski, Nakhai recalled, he offered her assurances that he would include an expert on nuclear weapons on the delegation. He also referred to his contacts with the American Nuclear Society -the premier professional association of specialists on civilian nuclear power – and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

And in yet another phone conversation with Romanowski, Nakhai said, he invited the Pentagon to “send somebody of your own choosing as part of the delegation.” But Romanowski’s opposition remained unchanged.

Nearly two months after he had first contacted the Defence Department official, Nakhai pulled the plug on the project in May 1998.

Romanowski is now deputy assistant administrator in the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Middle East Bureau. Responding to a query from IPS Thursday, a spokesman for USAID, Ben Edwards, said, “Ms Romanowski cannot comment about the DoD in her current capacity at USAID.”

Robert Pelletreau, who had been assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asia in 1994-97 and had been deputy assistant secretary of defence for the same region in 1983-85, told IPS the decision to oppose the delegation trip would have been made at a higher level at DOD with input from the Joint Staff and others.

DOD’s reluctance to see a gesture toward Iran that the State Department was supporting might have been a factor, according to Pelletreau, along with distrust of an initiative coming from an Iranian scientist with no ties to the Pentagon.

The DOD’s rejection of the nuclear scientists’ mission came at a crucial turning point in Iran’s nuclear programme. Iran had begun testing centrifuges secretly and making plans for the construction of a uranium enrichment facility.

Although the delegation of scientists would not have uncovered those facts, it probably would have anticipated the construction of both uranium conversion and enrichment facilities, and could have analysed whether the profile of Iran’s nuclear programme indicated that it was indeed for civilian power or not.

Such a report might have challenged the Clinton administration’s line on the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons.

Nakhai believes the Pentagon wanted to protect that line. “They had anticipated that the nuclear programme would be useful for pressure on Iran,” Nakhai said, “and they didn’t want any reduction in that pressure point.”

GARETH PORTER is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam“, was published in 2006. Porter received the UK-based Martha Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

More articles by:

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

June 26, 2017
William Hawes – Jason Holland
Lies That Capitalists Tell Us
Chairman Brandon Sazue
Out of the Shadow of Custer: Zinke Proves He’s No “Champion” of Indian Country With his Grizzly Lies
Patrick Cockburn
Grenfell Tower: the Tragic Price of the Rolled-Back Stat
Joseph Mangano
Tritium: Toxic Tip of the Nuclear Iceberg
Ray McGovern
Hersh’s Big Scoop: Bad Intel Behind Trump’s Syria Attack
Roy Eidelson
Heart of Darkness: Observations on a Torture Notebook
Geoff Beckman
Why Democrats Lose: the Case of Jon Ossoff
Matthew Stevenson
Travels Around Trump’s America
David Macaray
Law Enforcement’s Dirty Little Secret
Colin Todhunter
Future Shock: Imagining India
Yoav Litvin
Animals at the Roger Waters Concert
Binoy Kampmark
Pride in San Francisco
Stansfield Smith
North Koreans in South Korea Face Imprisonment for Wanting to Return Home
Hamid Yazdan Panah
Remembering Native American Civil Rights Pioneer, Lehman Brightman
James Porteous
Seventeen-Year-Old Nabra Hassanen Was Murdered
Weekend Edition
June 23, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Democrats in the Dead Zone
Gary Leupp
Trump, Qatar and the Danger of Total Confusion
Andrew Levine
The “Democracies” We Deserve
Jeffrey St. Clair - Joshua Frank
The FBI’s “Operation Backfire” and the Case of Briana Waters
Rob Urie
Cannibal Corpse
Joseph G. Ramsey
Savage Calculations: On the Exoneration of Philando Castile’s Killer
John Wight
Trump’s Attack on Cuba
Dave Lindorff
We Need a Mass Movement to Demand Radical Progressive Change
Brian Cloughley
Moving Closer to Doom
David Rosen
The Sex Offender: the 21st Century Witch
John Feffer
All Signs Point to Trump’s Coming War With Iran
Jennifer L. Lieberman
What’s Really New About the Gig Economy?
Pete Dolack
Analyzing the Failures of Syriza
Vijay Prashad
The Russian Nexus
Mike Whitney
Putin Tries to Avoid a Wider War With the US
Gregory Barrett
“Realpolitik” in Berlin: Merkel Fawns Over Kissinger
Louis Yako
The Road to Understanding Syria Goes Through Iraq
Graham Peebles
Grenfell Tower: A Disaster Waiting to Happen
Ezra Rosser
The Poverty State of Mind and the State’s Obligations to the Poor
Ron Jacobs
Andrew Jackson and the American Psyche
Pepe Escobar
Fear and Loathing on the Afghan Silk Road
Andre Vltchek
Why I Reject Western Courts and Justice
Lawrence Davidson
On Hidden Cultural Corruptors
Christopher Brauchli
The Routinization of Mass Shootings in America
Missy Comley Beattie
The Poor Need Not Apply
Martin Billheimer
White Man’s Country and the Iron Room
Joseph Natoli
What to Wonder Now
Tom Clifford
Hong Kong: the Chinese Meant Business
Thomas Knapp
The Castile Doctrine: Cops Without Consequences
Nyla Ali Khan
Borders Versus Memory
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail