Countering the Conniptions Over Qom

Iran’s nuclear program is once again center stage, the dominant subject of discussions at the national and international levels. On Sept. 21, Iran sent a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) informing it of the construction of a uranium enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom, 90 miles south of Tehran.

In a press conference on Sept. 25 in the midst of the G-20 conference in Pittsburgh, President Barack Obama, flanked by Gordon Brown, the United Kingdom’s prime minister, and Nicholas Sarkozy, France’s president, declared that the day before the United States and its allies had provided the IAEA with detailed intelligence about the Qom facility.

Since then the War Party has declared that the construction of the Qom facility is a gross violation of Iran’s Safeguards Agreement and the smoking gun for a nuclear weapons program. Absent in all the rhetoric, proclamations, and warnings about the "danger" of Iran’s nonexistent "nuclear weapons program" has been a sober assessment of the situation based on Iran’s obligations toward the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA.

Reporting that China is skeptical about the new claims, Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com said, "Shouldn’t the American media infuse its coverage with some of that same skepticism, along with a similar desire to see actual evidence to support the claims being made?  Isn’t that exactly the lesson every rational person should have learned from the Iraq War?" 

There is little evidence that any lesson from the Iraqi fiasco has been learned.

What are the facts? In 1974 Iran signed its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangements of the Safeguards Agreement stipulated that Iran must declare to the IAEA the existence of any nuclear facility no later than 180 days before introducing any nuclear materials into the facility. That is why, despite much propaganda, the construction of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility was perfectly legal.

In 1992, the Board of Governors of the IAEA replaced the original Code 3.1 with the modified Code 3.1, which requires a member state to notify the IAEA “as soon as the decision to construct or to authorize construction has been taken, whichever is earlier” (emphasis mine).

On Feb. 26, 2003, Iran agreed to voluntarily implement the modified Code 3.1 until the Majlis, Iran’s parliament, ratified it. But in February 2007, the Board of Governors of the IAEA sent Iran’s nuclear dossier to the United Nations Security Council. Iran contends that the IAEA acted illegally.

In retaliation, Iran notified the IAEA in March 2007 that it would no longer voluntarily abide by the modified Code 3.1. Iran reverted to the original Code 3.1. Although the IAEA contends that Iran cannot revert to the original agreement without its consent, Iran’s argument is on solid ground, because the Majlis never ratified the modified Subsidiary Arrangements. It also presented evidence that the preliminary work on the Qom facility may have begun in the early 1990s, when the 180-day advanced notification was required.

But all the media talks about are Iran’s "nuclear weapons program" and its "violation of its obligations" and the various scenarios for imposing crippling sanctions on Iran, or even attacking it. But the fact is that even our national leaders and our allies lie, exaggerate, and threaten.

In the press conference, Brown said that the Qom facility is clear evidence of Iran’s "serial deception." Serial deception? Since 2003 every one of Iran’s nuclear facilities has been inspected and monitored by the IAEA. The agency itself has declared that the inspection has been the most intrusive of any of its members during its entire history.

"The size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program," Brown said. Really? No one knows the actual size of the facility. No non-Iranian has ever been in that facility.

"Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow, denying its people access to the opportunity they deserve, and threatening the stability and security of the region and the world," Brown added. While the middle statement is indeed true about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government, what rules has Iran broken when its nuclear program has been inspected far more than any other nation’s?

Sarkozy said the 5+1 group – the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany – expect a "serious response" by Iran. "Everything must be put on the table now," Sarkozy warned, implying that sanctions and military attacks on Iran are on the table

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, military analyst Anthony H. Cordesman declared that "whether or not Iran ties all of its efforts into a formal nuclear weapons program, it has acquired all of the elements necessary to make and deliver such weapons." Note that there has never been any credible evidence for a nuclear weapons program in Iran.

Cordesman continued, "Just Friday [Sept. 25], Iran confirmed that it has been developing a second uranium-enrichment facility on a military base near Qom, doing little to dispel the long-standing concerns of Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the U.S. that Iran is developing nuclear weapons" (emphasis mine).

There are two errors in this short paragraph. One is that Iran declared, not confirmed, the existence of the Qom facility to the IAEA before the U.S., Britain, and France did. The second error is contending that China and Russia have had "long-standing concerns" that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. To the contrary, they have never accepted the premise.

Cordesman also said that "Iran has acquired North Korean and other nuclear weapons design data…. Iran has all of the technology and production and manufacturing capabilities needed for fission weapons. It has acquired the technology to make the explosives needed for a gun or implosion device, the triggering components, and the neutron initiator and reflectors." None of this has been proven, and Cordesman provided no evidence to back his claims up.

Eliot A. Cohen, the great Middle East expert, opined in the Wall Street Journal, "Pressure, be it gentle or severe, will not erase that nuclear program. The choices are now what they ever were: an American or an Israeli strike, which would probably cause a substantial war, or living in a world with Iranian nuclear weapons, which may also result in war, perhaps nuclear, over a longer period of time." Cohen wants war with Iran, as he always has!

Even Paul Wolfowitz, the brain behind the invasion of Iraq, got into the act. Writing in the Financial Times of London, Wolfowitz demanded that the U.S. "confront Tehran now in pursuit of a nuclear-free world." The U.S. took Wolfowitz’s suggestion and confronted Iraq over its nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, and we know where we ended up.

What about the mainstream media?ABC News senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper reported, "They found it [the facility] near the city of Qom, heavily protected and heavily disguised.” What were the Iranians supposed to do? Make the facility a sitting duck?

Tapper also reported, "A senior administration official tells ABC News, primary source intelligence – meaning firsthand accounts and/or satellite imaging – provided unambiguous intelligence that this is a facility to enrich weapons-grade uranium" (emphasis mine). How did the "senior official" conclude this? There is not a single centrifuge in the facility yet!

Tapper continued, "Obama administration officials dismissed the [Iran’s] letter to the IAEA as ‘too little, too late,’ and ‘a very cursory admission’ to the IAEA years after construction of such a facility whose use is undeniable does not constitute living up to its obligations.” "Too little, too late" for what? Iran reported the existence of the facility before it was supposed to.

The Times of London, that bastion of truthfulness, claimed, "It was three years ago that American intelligence agents began picking up signs that someone was tunneling into the side of a mountain in the desert outside the holy city of Qom." Actually, the Iranians might have begun building the tunnels in the early 1990s.

The Times continued, "Last week, as Tehran finally woke up to the knowledge that the plant’s security had been breached, it rushed to declare its existence to the IAEA, hoping to preempt other reports and prove its openness and cooperation." So the Iranian leaders were so naïve that they actually believed the U.S. satellites were not watching what they were doing all these years?

Richard Spencer of the London Daily Telegraph, a newspaper that has published many brazen lies about Iran’s nuclear program, wrote, "Iran has dashed hopes the latest revelations about its nuclear program would shame it into concessions by saying it would refuse to discuss them at talks with Western powers on Thursday [Oct. 1]." First of all, no nation gives up its rights over wrongdoing that it has not committed. Second, the very fact that Iran agreed to transfer three-fourths of its low-enriched uranium to Russia for further enrichment only goes to show how accurate Spencer and the Daily Telegraph were!

Under the scary title "A Nuclear Debate: Is Iran Designing Warheads?" William J. Broad, Mark Mazzetti, and David E. Sanger of the New York Times wrote, "Some nuclear experts speculate that it is only part of something larger. But a senior American official with access to intelligence about it said he believed the secret plant was itself ‘the big one.’" In what sense is the facility big?

Broad et al. continued, "If Mr. Obama can convince Israel that the exposure of the Qom plant has dealt a significant setback to the Iranian effort, he may buy some time from the Israelis." So the U.S. is now at the mercy of Israel? Should we not feel ashamed about that?

In an editorial on Oct. 3, the New York Times claimed, "For years, Iran has cheated and lied and made just-in-time concessions to sidestep any real punishment." List the lies, please! The Times was also upset that the Ahmadinejad regime has agreed to send most of Iran’s low-enriched uranium abroad: "It could be good news – delaying the day when Iran would be able to build a nuclear weapon and, we hope, quieting calls in Israel for military action." So the Times also believes that the U.S. government’s main task is to placate Israel.

In the allegedly liberal Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer, an expert at stating whatever it takes to provoke wars, wrote, "The Obama administration strives mightily for shows of allied unity, good feeling, and pious concern about Iran’s nuclear program – whereas the real objective is stopping that program. This feel-good posturing is worse than useless, because all the time spent achieving gestures is precious time granted Iran to finish its race to acquire the bomb." What happened to the November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that said that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program, which was reaffirmed two weeks ago, as reported by Newsweek?

On Sept. 26, the pro-war editorial page of the Washington Post argued, "It follows that outside powers will have little chance of stopping the nuclear program through peaceful means unless the two leaders [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinejad] lose power in the ongoing domestic conflict. Strong sanctions could help the Iranian opposition if average citizens blame the regime for shortages, rising prices, or other economic disruptions." The Post seems to want both war and sanctions!

The chorus of U.S. senators and congressmen, such as Evan Bayh, Joe Lieberman, and Jon Kyl, who have been trying to push the Obama administration to impose crippling sanctions on Iran also did their part in calling for sanctions.

Fortunately, all the lies and exaggerations could not change the reality. Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the IAEA, said after visiting Tehran this weekend that the IAEA inspectors would visit the Qom facility on Oct. 25 and ensure that it was for "peaceful purposes." He added, “I see that we are shifting gears from confrontation into transparency and cooperation.”

Iran’s democratic movement is strongly against any sanctions or military threats. After the June 12 presidential election, Ahmadinejad’s government does not have any legitimacy in the view of a large majority of Iranians. Thus, if the West does not threaten Iran with sanctions and military attacks and negotiates in good faith, while making the gross violation of the human rights of Iranians part of the negotiations and pressing Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad to respect and implement Iran’s international obligations under all the treaties that it has signed regarding human rights, the nuclear program will not become a propaganda tool of Iran’s hardliners.

Nothing should be done to divert attention from the political and economic failures of the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad government.

Read more by Muhammad Sahimi

Author: Muhammad Sahimi

Muhammad Sahimi, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and the NIOC Chair in Petroleum Engineering at the University of Southern California, is co-founder and editor of the website, Iran News & Middle East Reports.