If there was a meter to measure White House statements – or the tweets that pass for them – the needle would be wildly swinging from "willing to talk" to "locked and loaded." But, the needle never needed to be so jittery.
Iran’s Need to Enrich
A gust of the wind of international law is needed to push aside the fog of the emotional atmosphere created by the deception and hysteria of Washington and its stenographers in the media. The policy of maximum pressure requires the U.S. to cast every Iranian move as terrorism and every nuclear advance as the illegal move of a rogue nation. But, in opposing and obstructing Iran’s nuclear program, it is America, and not Iran, that is acting outside the framework of international law. Iran has every right to a full civilian nuclear program that includes the domestic enriching of uranium.
Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which Iran is a signatory, guarantees that "Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty." It goes on to promise that all signatories to the NPT "have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy."
So, any discussion of the Iran conflict must begin with the premise that Iran has the right to acquire equipment for a nuclear program that enriches uranium for civilian purposes: up to about 3.5% to run its power reactors to produce energy and up to about 19.5% to produce medical isotopes for imaging and treating cancer in its hospitals.
Part of the fog of confusion that is a goal of the maximum pressure policy is to cast doubt on Iran’s civilian intentions by insisting that a country so rich in oil has no need of a nuclear power. Aside from ignoring the civilian need for isotopes for fighting cancer and the blatantly visible reality that America is an oil rich country with a nuclear program, the claim is disingenuous and dependent on historical amnesia.
It was the US in the 1970s that pushed the shah to develop a nuclear power program – even though he occasionally hinted at his openness to developing nuclear weapons – to hedge against the limitations and finiteness of its oil. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger encouraged the Iranian pursuit of nuclear energy as providing "for the growing needs of Iran’s economy and free[ing] remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals." Declassified documents from the Ford administration endorse Iran’s plans to pursue a nuclear power program and even express the intent to sell Iran equipment. The US would ultimately even supply Iran with enriched uranium. The document cautions against a time when Iran’s oil production will be insufficient for its needs. In The Iran Agenda Today, Reese Erlich says that as early as the 1960s, Iran realized the need to enhance its energy industry. The number of Iranians who used electricity soared from fewer than half a million in 1963 to more than two million by 1976. Iran realized, not only that its oil production could eventually be insufficient to meet its energy needs, but that they could bring in way more money by exporting oil than by burning it to generate power that could be generated by nuclear power plants.
Later American pressure to deny Iran its legal right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes would push Iran into a position that was exploited by the US to create the current conflict with Iran. Then Iranian Ambassador to the U.N. Javad Zarif recognized this manipulation when he complained that Iran was being sanctioned by the US and by the US pressured Security Council for exercising the same NPT Article IV right that the US and so many other countries were exercising. In a 2006 speech before the Security Council, Zarif accused the United States of "abusing" sanctions and the Security Council "to compel Iran to abandon the exercise of its NPT guaranteed right to peaceful nuclear technology. . . ." "We are here," he reminded the world, "because we did not accept that unlawful demand."
Iran’s Secret Program: Driving Iran Underground
In his new book, Deal Breaker: Donald Trump and the Unmaking of the Iran Nuclear Agreement, former Chief UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter concludes that "The American efforts to deny Iran access to legitimate sources of nuclear technology, which Iran was permitted to have under the terms of the NPT, drove Iran to meet its needs through the black market."
Before the US forced Iran to enrich uranium to higher levels, it forced Iran to build its program in secret. It did this in two ways: by pressuring Iran and by pressuring any country that was willing to help Iran.
Iran hoped to undertake a peaceful, public nuclear program. But when the former was blocked, the latter became impossible. Ritter quotes now Iranian president, then chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rouhani as saying that, after reviewing all the issues, Iran had concluded that "even if we fully cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) . . . we would still be sent to the UN Security Council [sanctioned] . . . therefore, we had to find other solutions to cooperate with the IAEA and not go to the UN Security Council."
Iran had correctly realized, as Ritter says, that "No amount of negotiations would change the reality that currently existed – America did not want Iran to have an enrichment capability. . .." If they pursued a civilian nuclear program in the open, America would cripple them with sanctions even though it was entirely legal. So, if they were to pursue a civilian nuclear program, they would have to go underground. "If we presented a full picture of our nuclear program, according to regulations, what would the Americans do, given that the Americans insist on taking us to the Security Council?" Rouhani asked. If the Security Council could not resist American pressure – and it could not – then Iran would have to pursue its legal right in the shadows.
Iran set down the legal NPT road to a civilian nuclear program only to run in to roadblocks at every turn, so they had to "choose," in the words of Rouhani, "a different path:" a secret path to their legal destination.
But it was not Iran alone that was stymied by American threats and pressure. Any country who tried to help Iran develop a peaceful nuclear program was stymied too. Sometimes, the secrets Iran kept, they kept to protect others.
Iran turned a number of times to Europe, especially to Britain, France and Germany to help. They turned to them for negotiations, and they turned to them for a way to keep their program public. They invited them to Iran to witness the program and find a way to keep it public without being referred by the US to the Security Council for sanctioning. But the US blocked the path through Europe too. France’s Iranian ambassador, Francois Nicoullaud, resignedly told the Iranians that "For the US, the enrichment in Iran is a redline which the UE cannot cross." It was a legal, but the US would not let Europe help Iran past American roadblocks.
American pressure was not just exerted on Europe. When Russia signed a deal with Iran to help it build a single reactor, American diplomatic pressure on Russia stalled the project. When Iran turned to China, though Iran received Chinese blueprints for a uranium conversion facility, the States prevented China from building it. When in 1991, the IAEA caught Iran with undeclared uranium from China, the Iranians had kept the shipment secret to protect their Chinese suppliers. In Manufactured Crisis, Gareth Porter explains that Iran was respecting China’s need for secrecy so China could avoid retaliation from the US China feared that if they were seen to be helping America’s enemy – however legally – America would pull out of the U.S.-China nuclear cooperation agreement that was about to go before congress.
No matter what road Iran tried to drive their legal nuclear program down, the US blocked the road. America’s obstructionism was against the NPT, was illegal, and had the effect of forcing Iran to drive off road: not to drive illegally, but to drive secretly. Had America respected Iran’s NPT rights and honored their NPT obligations, there would never have been a conflict.
More Road Blocks: Driving Iran to Enrich
When Iran started down the road of a nuclear program, they were only enriching uranium to 3.5%, the level needed to run its power reactors to produce energy. They didn’t need or intend to enrich higher because in 1988, they signed an agreement with Argentina to receive 23 kilograms of fuel enriched to 20% so they could produce medical isotopes in their medical research reactor for imaging and treating cancer. When that 23 kilograms was nearly used up, Iran requested that the IAEA help it purchase more under IAEA supervision, which it has every right to do, like every other country who is signatory to the NPT. But the US and Europe stepped in, put up the roadblocks and prevented the purchase, leaving Iran without the ability the rest of the modern world has to use nuclear fuel to treat cancer.
In a second attempt to acquire 20% uranium, the US offered Iran a deal that would have Iran send its 3.5% enriched uranium out of the country to be enriched into fuel rods for medical reactors and then sent back to Iran. Hoping to acquire the more highly enriched uranium and not produce it on Iranian soil, Iran agreed to the deal in principle. The problem only occurred when the States demanded that Iran ship out all its 3.5% uranium immediately . . . even though it would take a year, or even several years, to receive back the 19.5% enriched uranium needed for its medical reactor. The Americans were tricking Iran. That bit of small print would not only achieve the American goal of emptying Iran of all enriched uranium, it would also defy the point of the whole plan and leave Iran without medical isotopes, forcing its cancer facilities to shut down. Desperately trying to avoid American punishment for enriching its own more highly enriched uranium, Iran made a counterproposal: they would send out their 3.5% uranium in batches, and when the enriched uranium for medical isotopes was returned in a so-called "simultaneous exchange," it would send out the next batch. Fair enough: but America ignored the offer.
Then two new countries tried to smooth the road and remove the roadblocks. Brazil and Turkey took up the "policy of engagement" – this time in earnest – and brokered a very similar uranium swap deal, minus the American sleight of hand. The Iranians, to the dismay of those in the States who were using the nuclear negotiations, not to arrive at an agreement, but precisely not to arrive at an agreement in order to justify regime change, agreed to it. The US and her allies, for the second time, ignored it, reprimanded meddlesome Brazil and Turkey, and pushed ahead, instead, with more sanctions on Iran.
Gareth Porter adds that the States pressured France not to provide any enriched uranium to Iran despite Iran’s intent to continue relying on Western Europe for enriched uranium instead of enriching their own.
Iran only turned to enriching uranium to 19.5% when every legal attempt to acquire it under IAEA supervision was frustrated by the States. Had the States allowed Iran to acquire the 19.5% uranium needed by their hospitals in the same way that every other country governed by the NPT acquired it, Iran would never have enriched to the higher 19.5% level.
Acts of War: How the US and Israel Have Already Gone to War with Iran
America also created the conflict with Iran by engaging in conflict with Iran. Though no declared war has broken out between the two nations, America has twice committed acts of war against Iran over the nuclear issue: the first was the attack on Iranian nuclear scientists; the second was the attack on Iranian nuclear infrastructure.
On January 12, 2010, Massoud Ali-Mohammadi was killed when a remote-control bomb planted on a motorcycle detonated next to his car. The investigation undertaken by Iranian security forces led to the arrest of ten Iranians who were accused of working for the Israeli Mossad. One of them, Jamali Fashi, who had a computer and cell phones that tied him both to Mossad in general and to the assassinations specifically, confessed to being recruited and trained by Mossad to assassinate Ali-Mohammadi.
In November 2010, Majid Shahriyari, was killed when motorcycle riders attached a magnetized bomb to his car. On the same day, assassins tried to kill Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani in the same way but failed when he noticed the suspicious motorcyclists and jumped out of his car. Also a scientist, Abbasi-Davani was named head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Association a few months later. He says that British spies shadowed him to gather information ahead of the failed assassination attempt.
The Iranian physicist and nuclear scientist Darioush Rezainejad was killed when two gunmen on motorcycles opened fire on him while he was entering his garage. His wife was also wounded. This was the fourth consecutive assassination or attempted assassination employing motorcyclists. According to the IAEA, Rezainejad played a key role in Iran’s nuclear program. Iran has blamed the United States, Britain and Israel for his assassination. And "a source in Israel’s intelligence community" told Germany’s Der Spiegal that Mossad was behind the assassination of Rezainejad.
In January 11, 2012, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a scientist involved in purchasing equipment for Iran’s nuclear program, was assassinated when a motorcycle placed a magnetized bomb on the roof of his moving car. Thirteen people found to be working for an Israeli spy ring were arrested.
A fifth important player in the Iranian nuclear game was killed in November when a massive explosion at the military arms depot that houses Iran’s long-range Shahab missiles killed seventeen and wounded fifteen more. Included in the dead was Major General Hassan Moqqadam, a pioneer in Iranian missile development. An earlier explosion occurred at a Shahab missile base in October of 2010. Time Magazine revealed in November 2011 that a western intelligence source says that Mossad is behind the explosion.
Two senior officials in the Obama administration revealed to NBC news that the assassinations were carried out by the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group that spent many years on America’s terrorist list. They also confirm that the MEK was being financed, armed and trained by the Israeli Mossad and that the assassinations were carried out with the awareness of the Obama administration. The Americans, too, have secretly trained and supported the MEK.
The United States also escalated the undeclared war in a way that had never been done before. The US has admitted direct responsibility for a barrage of cyberattacks against Iran. The now best known is Stuxnet, the computer virus that infected Iran’s centrifuges and sent them spinning wildly out of control before playing back previously recorded tapes of normal operations that plant operators watched unsuspectingly while the centrifuges spun faster and faster until they literally tore themselves apart. The New York Times says that, according to intelligence and military experts, the Dimona nuclear complex in Israel was the testing ground for the virus. There are nuclear centrifuges in Dimona that are virtually identical to Iran’s, making it a perfect model to test the effectiveness of the virus. Stuxnet seems to have wiped out about 20% of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. And Stuxnet, it turns out, was only the beginning. The New York Times has revealed that the US ordered sophisticated attacks on the computers that run Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities. A virus much larger than Stuxnet, known as Flame, attacked Iranian computers. This virus maps and monitors the system of Iranian computers and sends back intelligence that is used to prepare for cyber war campaigns like the one undertaken by Stuxnet. Officials have now confirmed that Flame is one part of a joint project of America’s CIA and NSA and Israel’s secret military unit 8200.
Adding the word "cyber" before the word "attack" doesn’t make it any less of an attack. The US and Israel attacked Iran. A NATO study has admitted that Stuxnet qualified as an “illegal act of force." According to Stephen Cohen, after the US accused Russia of hacking computers, NATO issued a statement saying that "hacking a member state might now be regarded as war against the entire military alliance, requiring military retaliation." That is, cyber attacks are an act of war, not only justifying, but requiring military retaliation. Iran did not retaliate. Iran has assassinated no American scientists nor attacked any US nuclear facilities.
Broken Promises: How America Ruined the Peace
The best chance for peace over the nuclear issue was the hard won 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement signed by Iran, the US, U.K, France, Russia, China and Germany and supported by UN Security Council Resolution 2231. That international commitment was shattered not by Iran nor the rest of the world. It was shattered by the United States.
At the insistence of the congress, the President of the United States had the opportunity every ninety days to certify that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA. If Iran is in compliance, the US must continue to honor the agreement; if Iran is not in compliance, then the US can pull out of the agreement. But, the US can only pull out of the JCPOA if Iran is not in compliance with the agreement. Pulling out of the JCPOA if Iran has not violated its obligations would be contrary to the US’s international commitment.
But Iran was never for a moment out of compliance. The IAEA repeatedly verified – in eleven consecutive reports since January 2016 – that Iran is fully complying with their obligations under the agreement. And the United States pulled out of the agreement over the unanimous objection of its allies: "the agreement is working," scolded European Union High Commissioner, Frederica Mogherini, "and is delivering for its purpose. . .." The international community was furious that the US thought it had the unilateral right to cancel what was not a bilateral agreement between Iran and the US but an agreement between the Iran and the world. It is not Iran that is acting illegally as a rogue nation in defiance of the world: it is the United States.
The tragedy of the current dangerous conflict is that the world never had to be here. If America had honored its NPT obligations and permitted Iran to publicly pursue its NPT rights, there would be no conflict. At every marker on the road, the US escalated the conflict by forcing Iran to enrich to higher levels and intensified the conflict by introducing assassinations and cyber attacks. Finally, the US illegally broke the agreement that could finally have ended the nuclear conflict and brought peace.
Ted Snider writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.