Iran’s Ever Imminent Nukes: A History of Hysteria

For nearly three decades we have been hearing or reading dire predictions by the officials of the United States, Israel, and their allies that Iran is on the verge of developing nuclear weapons. Such “warnings” have been common, but none has come true. Now that the talk of imposing “crippling sanctions” on or even attacking Iran is heating up again, it is instructive to take a look at the history of such false prophecies.

The most astonishing aspect of the predictions about Iran’s “imminent” nuclear bomb is that, when Iran actually declared in the 1970s that it was indeed pursuing nuclear weapons, the West and Israel were absolutely silent, but Iran’s declarations since the mid-1980s that it is not seeking nuclear weapons have been greeted with disbelief and mockery.

On June 25, 1974, the Christian Science Monitor published “More Fingers on Nuclear Trigger?” The piece quoted Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as saying that Iran would have nuclear weapons “without a doubt and sooner than one would think.” In an article in the 1987 book A European Non-Proliferation Policy: Prospects and Problems, Dr. Akbar Etemad, who was the Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran under the shah, wrote that scientists at Tehran Nuclear Research Center (TNRC) had carried out experiments in which plutonium was extracted from spent fuel generated by the Tehran 5 MW research reactor that the United States supplied to Iran in 1967. Note that the most important use for plutonium is in a nuclear bomb. It is also known that the shah assembled at the TNRC a nuclear-weapon design team.

Asadollah Alam, a prime minister under the shah in the early 1960s and his longtime confidant and minister of the Imperial Court, wrote in his memoirs (volume 1, p. 107) that in the mid-1970s the shah ordered the establishment of a “University of Military Sciences and Technology.” The mission of the university, which was supposed to be in Esfahan (where some of Iran’s current nuclear facilities are located) and controlled solely by Iran’s armed forces, was to carry out research and development in the area of chemical and nuclear weapons. The shah even authorized stealing the necessary science and technology from other countries, if need be, in order for Iran to fully acquire the know-how to make chemical and nuclear weapons. (For the history of U.S. involvement in Iran’s nuclear program, see here.)

None of these activities, of course, provoked any public reaction by the U.S., Israel, and their allies, and for a good reason: the shah was their ally (some say puppet), having been put back in power after the CIA overthrew the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. The U.S. supported the shah’s dictatorship, and Israel’s Mossad played a key role in setting up his dreaded security agency, the SAVAK, and training its agents. The U.S., Israel, and their allies always claim that they do not trust Iran because it hid its nuclear program for 18 years. But did Iran really do that? Beginning in 1982, Iran began pressing West Germany to complete the two nuclear reactors in Bushehr that the shah had paid for, but which had been left incomplete after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. But Germany refused to complete the reactors. Nor did it return to Iran the unspent funds and the equipment that Iran had already paid for. Thus, Iran’s efforts indicated clearly that it was pursuing a nuclear power program, and was doing so with utmost transparency.

Iran’s initial transparency was, in fact, even deeper than trying to convince Germany to finish the two reactors. In 1983, Iran asked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to provide it with technical assistance in setting up a pilot plant for the production of uranium hexafluoride, the feedstock for uranium enrichment. During the shah’s reign, work had begun on converting one type of uranium oxide, U3O8, into another type, UO2 (used in the production of uranium hexafluoride), and with France’s help, ENTEC, an Iranian nuclear establishment, had been set up to work on the complete nuclear fuel cycle. According to item A, Article XI of the IAEA Statute, helping a member state with such a project is one of its main functions.

The IAEA did dispatch a team of experts to Iran, who recommended that the Agency help ENTEC scientists gain practical experience with the matter and provide expert services in a number of areas, including the fuel cycle. The report stated clearly the IAEA’s intention to “Contribute to the formation of local expertise and manpower needed to sustain an ambitious program in the field of nuclear power reactor technology and fuel cycle technology.” But, as Mark Hibbs wrote in Nuclear Fuel (August 4, 2003), the technical assistance never materialized, because “Sources said that when in 1983 the recommendation of an IAEA mission to Iran were passed on to the IAEA technical cooperation program, the U.S. government ‘directly intervened’ to discourage the IAEA from assisting Iran in production of uranium oxide and uranium hexafluoride.” According to Hibbs, a former U.S. official said, “We stopped that in its track.” Therefore, as early as 1983 the IAEA and the U.S. knew about Iran’s plans for setting up a uranium enrichment program. It was the U.S. that forced Iran to construct the Natanz facility for uranium enrichment in secret, although even that was not illegal.

Since then, the dire predictions about Iran obtaining nuclear weapons have been made frequently. First, in April 1984, Jane’s Defense Weekly reported that West German intelligence believed that Iran could have a nuclear bomb within two years. Twenty-six years later, that bomb has not been produced.

On June 27, 1984, the late Sen. Alan Cranston was quoted by The Age, a broadsheet daily newspaper published in Melbourne, Australia, claiming that Iran was seven years away from being able to build its own nuclear weapon. When Cranston passed away in 2000, Iran’s nuclear bomb was nowhere to be found.

On April 12, 1987, David Segal published a piece in the Washington Post titled “Atomic Ayatollahs: Just What the Mideast Needs – an Iranian Bomb,” sounding the alarm about Iran’s forthcoming nuclear weapon.

The next year, in 1988, it was America’s reliable ally Saddam Hussein who put the world on notice that Tehran was already at the nuclear threshold.

In late 1991, in congressional reports and CIA assessments, the first Bush administration estimated that there was a “high degree of certainty that the government of Iran has acquired all or virtually all of the components required for the construction of two to three nuclear weapons.” In 1992, the CIA changed its mind and predicted that Iran would have nuclear arms by 2000, then pushed that back to 2003.

A February 1992 report by the House of Representatives suggested that Iran would have two or three operational nuclear weapons by February-April 1992.

And, of course, David Albright, the all-world nuclear expert, also weighed in in March 1992. In an article written with Mark Hibbs in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, he claimed that the spotlight had shifted to Iran and its nuclear program.

I almost forgot to mention the sensational reports in Europe in May 1992 by several right-wing European newspapers that Iran already had two nuclear bombs. “Iran has obtained at least two nuclear warheads out of a batch officially listed as ‘missing’ from the newly independent republic of Kazakhstan, formerly part of the Soviet Union. Two of the nuclear weapons were smuggled across the border from Kazakhstan into Iran last year [1991] and are now under the control of Reza Amrollahi, the head of the Iranian Organization for Atomic Energy.” Iran and Kazakhstan do not have common borders, and Amrollahi, who was privy to such an important state secret, was sacked by former president Mohammad Khatami in 1997 and has been living a quiet life in Tehran ever since as a professor.

Things got more interesting in early March 1992 when The Arms Control Reporter reported that by December 1991 Iran had four (not two) nuclear weapons, which it had obtained from the former Soviet Union, including a nuclear artillery shell, two nuclear warheads that could be launched on Scud missiles, and one nuclear weapon that could be delivered by a MiG-27 aircraft.

1993 was a very busy year for making grim predictions about Iranian nuclear weapons. On Jan. 23, 1993, Charles Radin of the Boston Globe quoted Gad Yaacobi, then Israel’s envoy to the United Nations, claiming that Iran was devoting $800 million per year to the development of nuclear weapons.

A month later on Feb. 24, new CIA Director James Woolsey (who would later play a leading role in the propaganda for invading Iraq) said that the U.S. was concerned about Iran’s nuclear potential, even though “Iran is still eight to ten years away from being able to produce its own nuclear weapon.”

Then, on March 21, 1993, U.S. News and World Report reported that North Korea and Iran had an agreement to develop nuclear weapons. On April 8, Douglas Jehl of the New York Times reported that the Clinton administration claimed that Iran had paid North Korea $600 million for further development of the Nodong missile to deliver nuclear or chemical warheads.

Perhaps Gad Yaacobi had underestimated Iran’s spending on nuclear weapons. On April 14, 1993, Paris Match, the conservative French weekly, reported that Iran was investing $2 billion per year to develop its nuclear weapons capability. Foreign Report claimed on April 22, 1993, that North Korea was supplying Iran with nuclear know-how and enriched uranium. In May 1993, it was reported that U.S. intelligence analysts had alleged that Iran had sought weapons-related nuclear equipment from Ukraine. It did not, of course, matter that both nations denied the allegations.

On June 25, 1993, the AFP reported that the Swiss were major suppliers for Iran’s nuclear weapons program. After Maariv in Israel repeated that claim, even Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin denied it, saying, “They do not know what they are talking about.” But the fabrication factory was producing nonstop. On Sept. 2, 1993, the Intelligence Newsletter reported that the French firm CKD was delivering nuclear materials to Iran. On Oct. 25, 1993, U.S. News and World Report used that great source of expertise for the mainstream media – unidentified intelligence sources – to claim that scientists working in the Soviet Union’s nuclear program in Kazakhstan sold weapons-grade uranium to Iran. And on Dec. 13, 1993, Theresa Hitchens and Brendan McNally of Defense News reported that the CIA “believes that Iran could have nuclear weapons within eight to 10 years.”

After Russia agreed in 1995 to complete the Unit One reactor in Bushehr (which Germany had refused to do), the fabrication machine went into full gear. It was claimed by Israel and the Clinton administration that the reactor would be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium for a bomb, even though the Russian VVER-1000 reactor is a very poor choice for that purpose.

In January 1995, John Holum, the director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, testified before the Congress that “Iran could have the bomb by 2003.” Defense Secretary William Perry said that “Iran may be less than five years from building an atomic bomb.” Bill Clinton, whose administration demonized Iran throughout the 1990s, and the man who said he personally would take up arms to defend Israel, even though he had dodged military service for his own country, stated, “Our problem is with the unacceptable behavior of the Iranian government … and [its] acquisition of weapons and technologies of mass destruction, including nuclear.” Secretary of State Warren Christopher referred to Iran as an “outlaw state” and “public enemy number one,” while House Speaker Newt Gingrich exclaimed that Iran’s desire for nuclear weapons was “to annihilate Tel Aviv and in the long run annihilate Chicago or Atlanta.” And in The Nonproliferation Review (Vol. 2, 1995), Greg Gerardi reported, “Current U.S. and Israeli intelligence sources estimate Iran will have nuclear weapons in a 5-10 year time frame.” Note how the time frame has become so mobile! David Albright weighed in again with an article titled “An Iranian Bomb?” in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 51 (March-August 1995).

To prove his loyalty to Israel, Clinton provided the CIA with $18 million to try to topple the Tehran government in 1996. What do you expect? It was an election year. On April 29, 1996, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said that he believed that “in four years, Iran may reach nuclear weapons.”

In 1997 Israel predicted a new date for Iran having a nuclear bomb: 2005

On Oct. 21, 1998, Gen. Anthony Zinni, head of U.S. Central Command, said Iran “could have the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons within five years.” “If I were a betting man,” he said, “I would say they are on track within five years, they would have the capability.” Since the new fabrications had not worked, the old ones were activated. Steve Rodan claimed on April 9, 1998, in that model of truthfulness, the Jerusalem Post, “Documents obtained by the Jerusalem Post show Iran has four nuclear bombs.”

A CIA assessment of Iran’s nuclear capabilities publicized on Jan. 17, 2000, said that the Agency could not rule out the possibility that Iran possessed nuclear weapons. The assessment was based on the CIA’s admission that it could not monitor Iran’s nuclear activities with any precision.

Then the George W. Bush administration came to power, and Iran became an even more “imminent” threat. In the heyday of the warmongers after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Pentagon delivered a classified version of the congressionally mandated Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) on Dec. 31, 2001. It listed Iran among the countries that “could be involved in immediate, potential, or unexpected contingencies.”

Demonizing Iran became so fashionable during the Bush years that members of Congress began lying brazenly. A report by Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), then chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, issued on Aug. 23, 2006, stated, “Iran has conducted a clandestine uranium enrichment program for nearly two decades in violation of its IAEA safeguards agreement, and despite its claim to the contrary, Iran is seeking nuclear weapons.” It also claimed that “Iran is currently enriching uranium to weapons grade using a 164-machine centrifuge cascade at this facility in Natanz” and “spent fuel from the LWR [light water reactor] that Russia is building for Iran in the city of Bushehr can produce enough weapons-grade plutonium for 30 weapons per year if the fuel rods were diverted and reprocessed.” As I explained elsewhere, all the allegations were lies. They provoked the IAEA to take the unusual step of sending an angry letter to Hoekstra. The letter took “strong exception to the incorrect and misleading assertion” that the IAEA had removed a senior safeguards inspector for “allegedly raising concerns about Iranian deception,” and it branded as “outrageous and dishonest” the report’s suggestion that he was removed for not adhering “to an unstated IAEA policy barring IAEA officials from telling the truth” about Iran.

European right-wing newspapers were also hard at work, propagating lies so outrageous that they forced the IAEA to issue angry statements, denying the fabrications. I have documented them before and will not repeat them here.

In a more recent dire prediction, Amos Harel of Ha’aretz reported on July 11, 2007 that “Iran will cross the ‘technological threshold’ enabling it to independently manufacture nuclear weapons within six months to a year and attain nuclear capability as early as mid-2009, according to Israel’s Military Intelligence.”

Right after the Obama administration took over, Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times reported on Feb. 12, 2009, that the Obama administration had made it clear that it believed there was no question that Tehran was seeking the bomb.

And just the other day, Hillary Clinton claimed that Iran has violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Apparently, the secretary of state does not know that there is a vast difference – technically and legally – between violating the NPT and being in non-compliance with some provisions of the Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. An NPT violation happens when a member state develops a nuclear bomb, helps another state to do so, or transfers its nuclear technology to a non-member state.

Clinton should hire better lawyers who are loyal to the true national interests of the United States, not rely on pro-Israel “experts” who will settle for nothing short of military attacks on Iran.

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.