Iran

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Iran has had a turbulent history in just its recent past. From a democracy in the 1950s, Iran seems to have moved backwards, from an authoritarian regime (backed by Britain and the US) that overthrew the democratic one, to a religious fundamentalist regime toppling the authoritarian one and taking an anti-US stance.

The US ended its support for Iran and instead supported Iraq in a brutal war through the 1980s against Iran where over 1 million people died. More recently, Iran was described as being part of an “axis of evil” by US President George Bush, as part of his “war on terror.”

The US has also accused Iran of pursuing the development of nuclear weapons, while Iran says it is only pursuing peaceful development. Internally, movements towards moderate policies and democratic values are gaining traction, but not with hardliners in power trying to hold on. This section looks into these and related issues.

Map of the Middle East

Source: World Atlas

This web page has the following sub-sections:

  1. Brief Post World War II Overview
    1. US and Britain Overthrow Democratically Elected Leader in 1950s and Install the Shah
    2. Shah’s authoritarianism leads to Islamic Fundamentalists Overthrowing Shah
    3. Iran and Iraq War Leaves Both Countries Shattered
  2. Relation with Israel
  3. US and Iran: Thorny Relations
    1. US armed Iran while supporting Iraq
    2. US accuses Iran of being in the Axis of Evil
    3. US accuses Iran of developing nuclear weapons
    4. Spin, “Diplomacy”, and Use of Fear
    5. US lies and exaggerates about extent of nuclear development
    6. US and IAEA have so far been unable to prove Iran is developing nuclear weapons
    7. Regurgitating old stories as new information to justify sanctions?
    8. US initially provided Iran nuclear know-how
    9. US, India, and Iran
      1. Former senior US Bush Administration official admits India’s vote against Iran was coerced
    10. Is the US undermining the IAEA?
    11. US lets Europe negotiate with Iran
    12. Iran takes British Soldiers Hostage
    13. US war with Iran?
  4. Iran’s real policies and actions complicate Bush’s position
    1. Ahmadinejad does not actually have much power. Supreme Leader does
    2. Iran Supreme Leader issued Fatwa against nuclear weapons
    3. Iran has actually offered peace to Israel. US refused
    4. Iran condemns North Korea’s nuclear weapons test
  5. Geopolitics; US and Iran vying for interest in the region?
    1. US Problems in Iraq: Strengthening Iran’s Influence?
    2. Highlighting Iran’s nuclear ambitions to temper Iran’s wider interests
    3. US attempting to keep China and Russia out of Middle East?
  6. Moves towards reforms, democracy?
    1. Regime Change in Iran
    2. US Support of opposition groups actually undermines democracy further
    3. Pro Democracy Reformist, Khatami, loses out to Hard-liner, Ahmadinejad
    4. Death of Dissident Cleric Leads to Clashes Between State and Opposition Supporters
  7. Future prospects?

Brief Post World War II Overview

US and Britain Overthrow Democratically Elected Leader in 1950s and Install the Shah

Iran was unique in the region for having successfully resisted colonialism, mainly by the British Empire and Imperial Russia. In the 1920s, Reza Shah Pahlavi staged a coup against the ruling dynasty and embarked on a modernization drive, building industry, railroads, national education, etc. His autocratic rule however, was disliked.

During World War II, in order to prevent a potential pro-Nazi coup orchestrated by the Axis powers, the Soviet Union and Britain invaded Iran securing the petroleum infrastructure. Seeing the Shah’s son as being more supportive, the Allies forced the Shah to step aside. Iran became a major route of arms from Allies in the west, to the Soviets during the war.

In 1951, a pro-democracy nationalist, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh rose to prominence in Iran and was democratically elected as Iran’s first Prime Minister. In 1953, the Mossadegh government chose to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later renamed to the British Petroleum Company, now known as BP), which controlled of the nation’s oil reserves, feeling that proceeds from oil should be used to invest in the development of Iran, rather than siphoned off as profits.

This was a risky move by Iran, for they would risked the wrath of the British who stood to lose a lot of power, wealth and influence gained via control of such a major energy source.

However, this move to nationalize such an industry has to be taken in context: This was at a time amid global feelings of nationalism, with both burgeoning and fledgling movements to oust former colonial rulers who had weakened themselves during the Second World War as they fought each other. The “third world” had seen its chance to break free, and so feelings of nationalism and revolution were ripe around the world.

Iran was one of the few early successful democratic regimes, though development would be a challenge. Nationalizing the oil company was therefore part of this drive for non-alignment away from the superpowers’ influence.

For Britain, this was another “nail in the coffin” of their once great empire that stretched across the globe. Having “lost” their prime jewel, India, a few years earlier, their world status was unofficially reduced and no longer were they the great empire. Losing other places around the world must have been quite shocking and disappointing to those who still held colonial attitudes. However, they had partnered with a new power that had risen during the Second World War: the US.

As explained in the Control of Resources section in more depth, the US now took on a role to help transform the global system into one that it could dominate but also help rebuild Europe to stave off a rising “Communist threat.”

Furthermore, as J.W. Smith puts it (see previous link), the “populations on the periphery of empire who provided their cheap resources [were] taking the rhetoric of democracy seriously and breaking free,” which alarmed historic colonial empires.

Breakaway countries posed the threat that they may side with the Soviets, rather than be associated with the West, due to the feelings of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism.

Other countries, while breaking away from colonialism, may not have necessarily defected to the Soviet side, but may have attempted an independent form of development.

Iran’s nationalizing of the oil company signaled such a threat, for it was important to Britain’s wealth. Like so many other countries throughout the world in the 1950s, 60s and 70s and even 80s, popular regimes that were, or showed, democratic tendencies were treated with suspicion, for fear of “going Communist.”

Sometimes this fear would be used as an excuse to get involved in those countries for other reasons (usually economic and geopolitical ones, to continue the traditions of imperial adventures and colonial aspirations of control and dominance).

Hence, the US and Europe supported and tolerated so many dictatorships, for puppet regimes were easier to control and manipulate, and they could put their own populations in order, rather than US and Europe resorting to (too many) expensive wars. Of course, where it was deemed necessary, as always happens throughout history, military might would be employed (Vietnam being one vivid example).

After Mossadegh’s announcement of the nationalization of the oil industry, Britain responded with an embargo. The embargo had serious effects on the economy, thus allowing criticism against Mossadegh to fester. Convincing the US of a communist link, Britain managed to get the US to agree to deal with Iran. Operation Ajax, a CIA-backed plot, allowed the Shah’s son, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, to overthrow Mossadegh.

This operation involved a lot of illegal propaganda in a foreign country (unfortunately not uncommon), which Dan De Luce, of the British newspaper, the Guardian summarized:

The CIA—with British assistance—undermined Mossadegh’s government by bribing influential figures, planting false reports in newspapers and provoking street violence. Led by an agent named Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, the CIA leaned on a young, insecure Shah to issue a decree dismissing Mossadegh as prime minister. By the end of Operation Ajax, some 300 people had died in firefights in the streets of Tehran.

The crushing of Iran’s first democratic government ushered in more than two decades of dictatorship under the Shah, who relied heavily on US aid and arms. The anti-American backlash that toppled the Shah in 1979 shook the whole region and helped spread Islamic militancy, with Iran’s new hardline theocracy declaring undying hostility to the US.

Dan De Luce, The Specter of Operation Ajax, The Guardian, August 20, 2003

For roughly a quarter-century, Iran suffered repressive and autocratic rule by the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi. He was seen by the West favorably for he had a Western education and liked many aspects of “modernism” (though not democracy, it would appear).

Shah’s authoritarianism leads to Islamic Fundamentalists Overthrowing Shah

The Shah’s rule seemed paradoxical for some. While he supported women’s rights, extending suffrage to them, he also supported royalists in Yemen’s civil war. He maintained close diplomatic relations with both Saudi Arabia and Israel. He also instituted land reform which wrestled away land from some elites, with the idea of redistributing it to small farmers.

However, corruption and lack of sufficient land caused resentment among many farmers. The Islamic clergy also saw various sources of their power diminishing, as clergy were also required to pass examinations, and as family and educational systems underwent changes.

However, rather than democratizing, the Shah instituted one-party rule, stating concerns and fears of a communist party taking power. His authoritarian rule caused much controversy. The religious clergy were therefore able to gather a lot of support.

The excesses of the Shah’s authoritarian rule fueled what eventually became the Iranian Revolution of February 1979 which saw his overthrow.

However, one autocratic regime was replaced by another. This revolution, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, ushered in rule by a conservative religious clergy, the mullahs, and saw Iran become the Islamic Republic of Iran.

A documentary on PBS in 2000 (unfortunately I do not recall the name) revealed that many people had supported the revolution and overthrow of the Shah, including many women, indicating how bad life was under the Shah. They were however eventually disillusioned by the religious clergy they had supported for not fulfilling many promises they thought they would. Many women interviewed regretted how their lives had become more oppressed, for example.

Iranian students held US embassy personnel hostage for over a year, accusing them of trying to overthrow the revolutionary government and reinstall the shah. Khomeini encouraged the hostage crisis, rather than stop it, and this episode marked the beginning of thorny relations with the US, who feared Iran not so much militarily, but from its potential ability to export Islamic revolutions all over the Middle East, threatening the “stability” that the US had created for itself.

Neighboring Iraq also saw an opportunity to gain more power, as Khomeini had disbanded the once mighty military.

Just as Christianity has many branches, such as Catholicism and Protestantism, so too does Islam, with Shia and Sunni Muslims. Furthermore, culturally, Iranians are not Arabs like Iraqis are, and historically, Iraq (as Mesopotamia) and Iran (as Persia) had often been involved in conflicts, wars, and territorial disputes. The 1980s looked set to continue that pattern, as many of these these cultural and religious differences contributed to their terribly costly and destructive war of the 80s, known as the Persian Gulf War.

Iran and Iraq War Leaves Both Countries Shattered

Iran and Iraq have had border disputes for centuries. These ultimately spilled into a terrible war from 1980 to 1988 that witnessed all sorts of war crimes from both sides. This war cost 1 million casualties in Iran alone, and over $1 trillion between the two countries.

The US and the Reagan regime supported Iraq and then ruler, Saddam Hussein, because Iran’s Islamic Revolution had seen their favored “puppet regime” in Iran overthrown. Providing military, economic, and political assistance to Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s army waged a long war.

Both sides attacked each other’s oil tankers (and even tankers belonging to countries not involved in the conflict—Iran attacked other Arab countries’ tankers for example). Both also attacked each others’ cities, and as has been thoroughly discussed now in the build up to the US war on Iraq, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons (weapons of mass destruction) against Iran.

Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, perhaps with ambitions to be the leading Arab nation and have a strong Middle East centered around Iraq, had been favored by the US in this war who were happy to ignore Iraqi war crimes, as from their point of view, defeat of Iran was paramount.

Later, Hussein’s ambitions to unite Arab lands under one large nation (with him as ruler no doubt) was one of the concerns raised in 1991 after he overstepped his bounds (as a dictator subservient to US ambitions in the region) and invaded Kuwait. US raised the specter of a Hitler or anti-Christ type of force in the region, that had to be quashed.

As David Gowan noted in his book, Global Gamble, (Verso, 1999) and J.W. Smith in his work on Economic Democracy, (IED Press, 2006), this was an example of one power (the US) not tolerating another power (a potentially enlarged Iraq or a united Arab people) for it threatened access to important resources—a major source for US world dominance. Having served its use, Iraq was to remain subservient again, or face repercussions.

Political activist, Stephen Shalom, lists a time-line of the Iraq war from the perspective of US interest and notes the following key events:

When Iraq invades Iran, the U.S. opposes any Security Council action to condemn the invasion. U.S. soon removes Iraq from its list of nations supporting terrorism and allows U.S. arms to be transferred to Iraq. At the same time, U.S. lets Israel provide arms to Iran and in 1985 U.S. provides arms directly (though secretly) to Iran. U.S. provides intelligence information to Iraq. Iraq uses chemical weapons in 1984; U.S. restores diplomatic relations with Iraq. 1987 U.S. sends its navy into the Persian Gulf, taking Iraq’s side; an overly-aggressive U.S. ship shoots down an Iranian civilian airliner, killing 290.

Stephen Shalom, The United States and Middle East—Why do “They” Hate Us?, ZNet, December 12, 2001

What is interesting about the above is that the US seemed to be involved in pitting both sides against each other. The Iran-Contra scandal (US selling arms to Iran and using proceeds to fund guerrillas in Nicaragua) revealed more murky goings on, that even saw Israel being the conduit for the arms sales (discussed further below).

Internationally, other actors also backed different sides in this war: the US, France, UK, Germany, many Arab countries (including Egypt and Saudi Arabia), China and the Soviet Union all backed Iraq in various ways, from providing chemical weapons, other military equipment, financing, and more. Support for Iran came from Syria, Libya, North Korea, Cuba, and Yugoslavia. (One can see how some wars since have reflected these “sides”. Iraq later overstepped its bounds and fell out of favor with the US, which is now well known.)

Commentators note that many Iranians look back to this period with anger and sadness at Western involvement against them and for not doing anything to stop the chemical warfare, and in effect being isolated internationally.

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Relation with Israel

Outside Israel, Iran has the largest Jewish population in the region. Many leading figures in Israel have come from Iran originally, as well.

Under the Shah, Israel enjoyed a good relationship with Iran. However, with the Islamic Revolution, the ruling clergy and Israel have had a more hostile relationship with Iran not recognizing Israel.

Yet, even during this non-relationship, Israel was used as a conduit by the United States to sell weapons to Iran as part of the Iran-Contra scandal (discussed further below).

In more recent years, as the US has stepped up criticism of Iran’s nuclear program as being a nuclear weapons program (discussed further below), Israel has planned for the possibility of taking out various missile and other targets in Iran. Israel has also considered using tactical nuclear weapons to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities, The Sunday Times reveals.

Although it has not admitted it officially, Israel is widely believed to have 200-400 nuclear weapons and is the only nuclear power in the region. In the past it has bombed an Iraqi facility suspected of being part of a nuclear weapons program.

Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and the overflow into South Lebanon gave rise to militant opposition, Hezbollah perhaps being the most well known amongst them. Regarded as a terrorist organization by many nations, Iran and some others feel it is an organization fighting a legitimate cause and has actively backed Hezbollah.

Fred Halliday, a noted expert on Middle East affairs and professor of international relations at the prestigious London School of Economics, had managed to talk to Hezbollah’s deputy head, and its political strategist, Sheikh Naim Qassem, who noted that Hezbollah regards the Iranian spiritual leader, in this case Khamenei, as its ultimate authority. “All major political decisions regarding Hezbollah are referred to … Iran.”

The decision by Hezbollah to enter Lebanese politics in 1992, for example, was determined by “Ayatollah Khamenei himself who took the final decision, in favour of participation.”

Qassem also admitted helping Hamas and Islamic Jihad inside Israel and Palestine, even though they are Sunni Muslims, not Shi’a like Hezbollah. He also said Hezbollah’s actual activities were limited to within Lebanon, and the disputed area of the Shebaa farms near the Syrian border. If true, Iran isn’t directly supporting suicide bombers in Israel as some have claimed, though it could certainly be indirect.

However, Iran has constantly denounced Israel, and various rulers and leading officials have announced death to Israel in various forms. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s outrageous claims of wiping off Israel from the map and questioning the Holocaust is just the most recent episode, unfortunately.

Yet, recognizing the new geopolitical realities and because Ahmadinejad is not the real source of power in Iran, as discussed further below, the ruling clergy had actually offered peace and normalized relations with Israel and to put pressure on Hezbollah to become a fully political unit, which the US refused.

The recent conflict in Lebanon between Hezbollah and Israel, which saw Israel suffer a humiliating defeat, on the one hand need not have happened with hindsight, and on the other hand, has strengthened Iran and Hezbollah’s influence in the region further.

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US and Iran: Thorny Relations

As discussed further below, relations during and since Iran’s Islamic Revolution has been thorny to say the least. The Iran-Contra scandal revealed US selling weapons to its own enemy for other agendas. More recently, as part of the US “War on Terror”, Iran has been labeled as being part of the “Axis of Evil”, accused of developing nuclear weapons, and being threatening to other countries in the region, in particular Israel.

US armed Iran while supporting Iraq

Even though the US has seen Iran as an avowed enemy since the Islamic Revolution, and the US encouraged and supported Saddam Hussein’s long war against Iran, the Iran-Contra scandal revealed that the US sold arms to Iran.

This episode was one of the largest scandals in US history whereby the US sold arms to Iran and used proceeds to fund the Contras, a brutal anti-communist guerrilla organization in Nicaragua accused of many crimes against humanity and believed to be responsible for the deaths of some 30,000 people.

But some of these arms deals originated from the Iranian hostage crisis which had occurred during then-US President, Jimmy Carter’s watch, where he lost a lot of popularity over it.

A documentary that aired on a British cable channel (cannot recall details unfortunately) explained how Reagan, challenging Carter in the US presidential race, used a propaganda stunt that also helped him achieve popular support. Reagan and George H. W. Bush had struck a deal with the Iranian mullahs to provide weapons if they released the hostages the day after he was sworn in as President, rather than before, during Carter’s term.

Investigative journalist for Associated Press, Newsweek, PBS and others, Robert Parry, broke many of the Iran-Contra stories and is quoted here for further details and insight:

In exchange [for the hostages’ release], the Republicans agreed to let Iran obtain U.S.-manufactured military supplies through Israel. The Iranians kept their word, releasing the hostages immediately upon Reagan’s swearing-in on Jan. 20, 1981.

Over the next few years, the Republican-Israel-Iran weapons pipeline operated mostly in secret, only exploding into public view with the Iran-Contra scandal in late 1986. Even then, the Reagan-Bush team was able to limit congressional and other investigations, keeping the full history—and the 1980 chapter—hidden from the American people.

The false history surrounding the Iranian hostage crisis also has led to the mistaken conclusion that it was only the specter of Ronald Reagan’s tough-guy image that made Iran buckle in January 1981 and that, therefore, the Iranians respect only force.

The hostage release on Reagan’s Inauguration Day bathed the new President in an aura of heroism…. It was viewed as a case study of how U.S. toughness could restore the proper international order.

In effect, while Americans thought they were witnessing one reality … another truth existed beneath the surface, one so troubling that the Reagan-Bush political apparatus has made keeping the secret a top priority for a quarter century.

The American people must never be allowed to think that the Reagan-Bush era began with collusion between Republican operatives and Islamic terrorists, an act that many might view as treason.

Robert Parry, The Bushes & the Truth About Iran, Consortium News, September 21, 2006

Parry continues to detail how successive administrations have sought to keep that information away from the public.

(Given some of the recent tensions between Iran and Israel, it would be natural to wonder why Israel would have agreed to deliver US weapons to Iran. Parry notes that at that time Israel, although detesting Iran, thought that being a non-Arab country might be a potential ally. It is perhaps a bitter irony that today these two nations are perhaps at complete opposites, with Iran’s support of Hezbollah as the recent crisis in Lebanon showed.)

US accuses Iran of being in the Axis of Evil

Into the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were signs of Iran moving toward a more moderate state, and increasing democratization (though only in the most earliest of forms). However, after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the US quickly moved to an aggressive stance against major countries it had long disliked, and labeled Iran as being part of an “Axis of Evil” trying to invoke the ominous image of Hitler and the “Axis powers.” At the same time US President George Bush called for a reinvigorated push for democracy (starting with an invasion of Iraq, that has now seen the country immersed in a civil war).

With Iran, however, this democratization push has had the reverse effect. By supporting outside forces and openly indicating it would fund opposition forces within Iran as well, the US helped push the Iranian ruling regime to a more aggressive and authoritarian position. As such, the reformist Khatami fell out of favor with the ruling clergy who backed the more hard-line Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. (This is discussed further below.)

Forcing democracy from the outside has almost never worked, and the experience of Iraq clearly shows that (putting aside for the moment whether the realpolitik agenda of the US is actually democracy or other geopolitical aims such as consolidating power).

US accuses Iran of developing nuclear weapons

Iran, with Russian assistance, has been developing a nuclear program. Iran has long insisted it is for the development of nuclear energy, not weapons, which the US Bush Administration had asserted, and the Obama Administration also maintains.

The US and some other Western countries have wondered why Iran, with such large oil and gas reserves would want or need nuclear power. Iran has answered that it wants to diversify its sources, which has not convinced the US.

The BBC asked eight commentators for their views about the Iran nuclear issue. One of them was Radzhab Safarov, director of Moscow-based Center for Iranian Research, and an advisor to the Russian State Duma chairman. Safarov said that Russia “is not worried about allegations that Iran might possess technology of dual nature” because the “Iranian nuclear program has a completely peaceful nature, and there is no evidence to the contrary.”

He further notes that if Russia suspected a covert nuclear weapons program, Russia would “have blocked this project and suspended co-operation with Iran in this field, because it would have been against its own interests” as their common border in the Caspian sea would “threaten Russia’s national interests” in the area.

Safarov, also makes an interesting comment: “I don’t think any country has a right to interfere with the Iranian nuclear program, because it is a completely internal affair.” This is of interest for a few reasons:

  • The “interference” is occurring because Iran is regarded by the Bush Administration as an enemy, part of what they call the “Axis of Evil”. If it was a nation on more friendly terms it is possible that a more reasonable approach to deterrence would be adopted rather than the hostile approach currently seen (and also leaving it to Europeans to attempt negotiated alternatives). Some limited assistance has even been given to friendly countries. For example, US assistance is possibly happening with Pakistan currently. The US has also helped Israel in the past (as have the French).
  • On the other hand, just as the Bush Administration claims Iran is misleading the world about its nuclear program, could the Bush Administration be making claims to pursue its own political and economic agendas against Iran?

Stephen Zunes, writing for “Foreign Policy In Focus”, is highly critical of the US position on Iran:

Having already successfully fooled most of Congress and the American public into believing that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program, the Bush administration and congressional leaders of both parties are now claiming that it is Iran that has an active nuclear weapons program. As with Iraq, the administration does not look too kindly on those who question its assumptions.… When the IAEA published a detailed report in November 2004 concluding that its extensive inspections had revealed no evidence of Iran pursuing a nuclear weapons program, the Bush administration responded by attempting to oust the IAEA director.

For the time being, the Iranians have been able to avert a crisis through negotiations with representatives of the European Union (EU). Iran agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment and processing programs until a permanent deal is reached, which the Iranians hope will also include political and economic concessions from the Europeans.

… [Controversial US Ambassador to the UN John] Bolton has argued for “robust” military action by the United States, if the UN Security Council fails to impose the sanctions that Washington demands.

The Bush administration’s efforts have not received much support, however, in part because of U.S. double standards. The United States has blocked enforcement of a previous UN Security Council resolution calling on Israel to place its nuclear facilities under IAEA trusteeship. Washington has also quashed resolutions calling on Pakistan and India to eliminate their nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

… [Despite US criticism] the United States is still obligated under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to allow signatory states in good standing to have access to peaceful nuclear technology. Ironically, this provision promoting the use of nuclear energy was originally included in the NPT in large part because of Washington’s desire to promote the nuclear power industry.

Stephen Zunes, The U.S. and Iran: Democracy, Terrorism, and Nuclear Weapons, Foreign Policy In Focus, July 26, 2005

Under pressure from the US, in September 2005, the UN nuclear body responsible for monitoring compliance with the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found Iran to be non-compliant in its NPT obligations PDF formatted document and most member states voted to threaten Iran with referral to the UN Security Council in November.

It did not happen, as Iran and the EU led efforts for further negotiation.

Spin, “Diplomacy”, and Use of Fear

As award-winning Indian journalist, Siddharth Varadarajan, has written in the Indian daily, The Hindu (where he is deputy editor), there was a lot of spin and diplomatic manipulation behind the scenes to get the vote against Iran. “In his report to the IAEA Board of Governors on September 2, 2005, Director General Mohamed ElBaradei noted that ‘all the declared nuclear material in Iran has been accounted for, and therefore such material is not diverted to prohibited activities.’ Dr. ElBaradei said, however, that the IAEA was not yet in a position to conclude that there were no ‘undeclared’ nuclear activities taking place in Iran—a requirement that stems not from the safeguards agreement but only from the Additional Protocol that Iran said it would voluntarily adhere to in 2003.”

It was despite that, and with US pressure, Varadarajan notes, that the IAEA Board of Governors voted to find Iran in non-compliance and that non-compliance is defined as diversion of safeguarded material for prohibited purposes, something Dr. ElBaradei had explicitly ruled out.

“If the IAEA’s inability to make such a declaration were to become grounds for reporting a country to the Security Council and threatening it with sanctions,” Varadarajan also adds, “no less than 106 countries—as emphasized by the European Union last year—would have to be put in the dock because they have either not signed or not yet ratified or implemented the Additional Protocol.”

As Varadarajan warns in another article, claims as ridiculous as some that surfaced during the Iraq war build-up, are appearing again about Iran as part of a propaganda effort. Examples he cites include the Iranian laptop discovered with incriminating evidence of a nuclear warhead, and even the US spinning Iran’s transparent disclosure of some information to the IAEA as a discovery by diplomats close to the IAEA of what appeared to be the design for the core of a nuclear warhead, even though the IAEA did not find this. Instead, this was “leaked” as “news!”

US lies and exaggerates about extent of nuclear development

An episode in September 2006, seemed to replay events two years earlier. Although already quoted further above, a part of Stephen Zunes’ report is repeated here: “When the IAEA published a detailed report in November 2004 concluding that its extensive inspections had revealed no evidence of Iran pursuing a nuclear weapons program, the Bush administration responded by attempting to oust the IAEA director.”

In September 2006, the IAEA repeated this finding. The US responded with exaggerations and lies to counter the impact of the IAEA’s assessment:

A US House Intelligence Committee report claimed that Iran’s nuclear development program was far more advanced than what the IAEA and its own US intelligence had shown. (How it would know better was not clear.) The Washington Post reported that the IAEA sent the panel a letter decrying its recent report on Iran as “outrageous and dishonest” and that it contained at least five major errors.

Phyllis Bennis, from the Institute for Policy Studies, summarizes a key example of lies:

The Bush administration actions aimed at building support for war against Iran remain. A senate report on Iran, drafted by a top assistant to UN-bashing John Bolton, claimed among other things that Iran was enriching uranium at the level of 90%—the level needed for nuclear weapons. It was such an egregious lie that even the usually cautious UN nuclear watchdog agency, the IAEA, responded with a harsh rebuke, indicating that they are watching Iran’s enrichment, and that it remained in the 3.5% range needed for completely legal nuclear power—not close to 90%.

Phyllis Bennis, Threats of War in Iran, U.S.-Driven Violence Surges in the Region, ZNet, September 30, 2006

The US House Intelligence Committee report also tried to taint the IAEA head, ElBaradei by saying he removed a senior inspector that had raised concerns about Iran’s program and that there was an unstated policy of preventing inspectors at the IAEA from telling the truth about Iran.

The irony perhaps is that it was the US House Intelligence Committee that was preventing the telling of truth to the American and world public. Not only had that inspector not been removed, but the IAEA responded that the unstated policy was an “outrageous and dishonest.” Policy analyst Carah Ong has more details, and the Washington Post reposted the IAEA letter PDF formatted document.

And perhaps as another warning of a looming propaganda campaign, Bennis notes, “Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon has recently opened a new Iran Directorate whose job description appears very similar to the 2002 role of the now-closed Office of Special Plans, finding or creating intelligence material that could be used to justify war against Iraq.”

(See also Democracy Now! news headlines for September 14, and an interview with historian and Middle East exerprt, Juan Cole, for more on the House Intelligence Committee report controversy.)

A classified draft CIA assessment also found no firm evidence of a secret drive by Iran to develop nuclear weapons, the Agence France Press reported in November 2006, covering an article from the famous investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh.

Unlike the CIA, however, Israel’s intelligence service, Mossad, believes otherwise, according to the UK’s mainstream paper, The Sunday Times, in an article at the beginning of January 2007 that Israel has plans to use tactical nuclear weapons to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities if called upon to do so and says that the plans “have been prompted in part by … Mossad’s assessment that Iran is on the verge of producing enough enriched uranium to make nuclear weapons within two years.”

It is not clear at this time why there would be such discrepancy between two presumably close intelligent services, the CIA and Mossad. A similar plan by Israel (not using tactical nuclear weapons, however) was created one year earlier, the same authors at the Sunday Times had reported. One possibility is that the Times is participating (knowingly or unknowingly) in scare-mongering or disinformation, perhaps to see Iran’s reaction. Alternatively, the reporting could be accurate, for the reports do note that the strikes would happen only if called for.

Also, one would expect that Israel would be planning such exercises and many other scenarios. The same authors, again, also reported in September 2006, for example, that Israel has also been planning for possible war against Iran and Syria, given their increasing influence in the region, exemplified by Iran and Lebanon’s conflict, and the situation in Iraq, where both Iran and Syria are blamed for helping enemies of the US and Israel.

Some of the many concerns of such a nuclear attack or a war include the increasing anger, resentment and instability in the region, and of Iran trying to close the Strait of Hormuz, the route for 20% of the world’s oil.

It could be the Times was participating in disinformation (knowingly or not) as was wondered a few paragraphs earlier. Towards the end of 2009, the same Times published a document which purportedly described an Iranian plan to do experiments on what the newspaper described as a “neutron initiator” for an atomic weapon. However, it seems US intelligence sources find this Iran nuclear document to be a fabrication.

As the previous link explains, “All Murdoch-owned news media report on Iran with an aggressively pro-Israeli slant”, of which the Times of London is a part, and that the particular author of this story has also been tipped off by unknown “intelligence” sources of other famous fabrications, such as the fabricated document purporting to show an Iraqi effort to buy uranium in Niger, which was used by George Bush as part of his propaganda efforts in the buildup to the Iraq invasion of 2003.

The Times document allegation made sustained headlines. As of writing and by comparison, there has not been as sustained coverage of intelligence sources saying the Time’s document is a fabrication. ABC in America did have an interview with Ahmadinejad who denied the claims, but those are easy to dismiss because of Ahmadinejad’s reputation.

US and IAEA have so far been unable to prove Iran is developing nuclear weapons

Varadarajan noted further above that propaganda and spin is being used to create the perception of nuclear weapons development when the IAEA has been unable to confirm this. In an opinion piece in The Hindu newspaper, (February 27, 2007) he summarizes that “For the past year and a half, every report of the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran has reached two broad conclusions:”

  1. That there has been no diversion of declared nuclear material for prohibited purposes.
  2. The IAEA is not yet in a position to certify that Iran has no undeclared nuclear facilities

In other words, he says, “the world can be assured that in all the Iranian facilities currently under international safeguards … no activities or operations prohibited by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) are taking place.”

At the same time, as Varadarajan concedes, the fear is that “Iran might have built—or might be building—secret nuclear facilities at other locations the IAEA knows nothing about.” However, as Varadarajan also notes, while the US, Britain and Israel believe this is so, “they have provided no evidence to date that it is indeed so.”

Mainstream media interviews with officials from these countries tend not to question such claims when they are made, thus inadvertently allowing potential propaganda to get through. Varadarajan takes issue with a number of claims when supporters of that view raise questions such as what of the years of secrecy, or the non-cooperation with the IAEA (i.e. do they have something to hide?), why the unexplained ties to Iran’s military and missile programs, etc.

Varadarajan takes on these issues noting that,

It is often forgotten that Iran’s enrichment facilities at Natanz—currently in the eye of the storm—were not developed in violation of IAEA rules.… Of course, the IAEA did find Iran guilty of failure to declare other nuclear imports and experiments over an 18-year period but such failures were neither unique to Iran nor did they have any weapons-related implications. As IAEA Director-General Mohammed el-Baradei noted in a report to the IAEA Board in 2005, all of those failures have since been resolved.

… Iran turned to the clandestine network only after all its open and well-publicized attempts to collaborate with the IAEA, Argentina, and China on the development of enrichment technology were scuttled by the U.S. Why did the U.S. block those legitimate efforts in the 1980s and early 1990s? What evidence did it have that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons?

… allegations about “unexplained ties to Iran’s military and its missile program” refers to the so-called evidence gleaned by the CIA from a purloined Iranian laptop. The computer supposedly contained information about Iranian research work on nuclear warheads and a secret uranium conversion program… After months of quiet scepticism, IAEA officials have finally begun airing their misgivings about the genuineness of the laptop and its contents. On Saturday, both the Guardian and The Los Angeles Times quoted unnamed IAEA officials as expressing surprise at the fact that the entire contents of the laptop were in English rather than Farsi.

Siddharth Varadarajan, Spinning its way to conflict again, The Hindu, February 27, 2007

There is one area where critics of Iran’s nuclear program have a point: their lack of cooperation with the IAEA. However, as Varadarajan argues,

The main difficulty here is that Iran is being asked to prove a negative—that it has no undeclared activities. Matters are stuck on the extent of Iranian research into the P-2 centrifuge, where, because of the current political climate, the IAEA is unwilling to believe Iran. But even assuming the Iranians are lying about the extent of their work and have actually developed a vast underground facility full of P-2s capable of thousands of separative work units of enrichment, the best remedy is unlimited physical access by the IAEA. The irony here is that the Agency had that right until February 2006, when the IAEA Board unwisely appeased the U.S. and sent Iran’s file to the Security Council.

Siddharth Varadarajan, Spinning its way to conflict again, The Hindu, February 27, 2007

Preconditions to dialog and the threat of sanctions and war, Varadarajan insists, will not encourage meaningful dialog, diplomacy and the implementation of safeguards, which he feels are the only real way forward.

Into 2009, and more claims of Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions seem to have been exaggerated. As noted earlier, the Times of London’s revelations of a document showing components of an atomic weapon being developed has been shown untrue: US intelligence sources find this Iran nuclear document to be a fabrication.

However, the IAEA certainly again expressed frustration and “serious concern that Iran continues to defy the requirements and obligations” (link PDF formatted document) as laid out in various IAEA and UN Security Council Resolutions, when it was revealed in September 2009 that Iran was developing a uranium enrichment site in secret.

This prompted much of western mainstream media and political leaders to cry foul and fear, including threatening language from the US (“Our patience and that of the international community is limited, and time is running out”, warned White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, for example).

Although the IAEA’s resolution clearly indicated frustration, the director general of that nuclear watchdog also argued that the language of force is not helpful on the Iran issue:

  1. Siddharth Varadarajan:

    What do you think prompted the Iranian authorities to make the declaration on September 21 about a new enrichment facility?

  2. ElBaradei:

    I don’t know. We are yet to go and inspect and verify that new facility. The western countries say this was meant to be a secret facility, that it was declared by Tehran because it was compromised and the Iranians knew they would be discovered. The Iranians insist this is not the case, that they had to delay informing the agency because they wanted to build the facility underground to protect their technology in case of an attack on their nuclear facility. And they have been hearing about the threat of attacks over the past four or five years.…

  3. Siddharth Varadarajan:

    Surely this reduces the gravity of the issue. Clearly Iran has not diverted nuclear material for prohibited purposes.

  4. ElBaradei:

    … The only time we found Iran in breach of its obligations not to use undeclared nuclear material was when they had experimented in 2003 and 2004 at Kalaye. Those were experiments. And I have been making it very clear that with regard to these alleged studies, we have not seen any use of nuclear material, we have not received any information that Iran has manufactured any part of a nuclear weapon or component. That’s why I say, to present the Iran threat as imminent is hype.…

  5. Siddharth Varadarajan:

    In a sense, this one outstanding issue is far less serious than the issues which prompted Iran’s referral to the Security Council!

  6. ElBaradei:

    It is a serious concern but I am not going to panic, to say it is an imminent threat that we are going to wake up and see Iran with nuclear weapons. Our job is to make sure we do not overstate or understate a case. There are enough people around to use or abuse what we say.…

  7. Siddharth Varadarajan:

    Even if Tehran failed to report to you on time, don’t you think it was reasonable for them to be secretive given the open threats Israel and the U.S. have made of a military attack on their nuclear facilities?

  8. ElBaradei:

    That’s why I said using the language of force is not helpful. It leads to confrontation, to the other country taking counteraction. It is better to forget the language of coercion and focus on trying to engage in dialogue.

Mohamed ElBaradei interviewed by Siddharth Varadarajan, ‘Language of force is not helpful on Iran issue’, The Hindu, October 3, 2009

(ElBaradei position as Director General for the IAEA ended on November 30, 2009, after some 12 years heading the nuclear watchdog. The US was the only country to oppose him for his third term in 2005 because of the fallout with the Bush Administration and the IAEA on Iraq and Iran matters, though that year he and the IAEA won the Nobel Peace prize. Eventually, the US dropped its opposition hoping he will be tougher on Iran. ElBaradei decided not to seek a fourth term, though it is unclear why. He is now replaced by Mr. Yukiya Amano, Japanese Ambassador to the IAEA. Amano is the first Asian to head the watchdog and comes from the only nation ever attacked by nuclear weapons. Ahmadinejad’s reaction to the changeover is not helpful: “Friendly relations with the agency are over” he apparently told state television.)

Regurgitating old stories as new information to justify sanctions?

In November 2011, the IAEA produced a new report which essentially said what was known before: that Iran may have explored nuclear weapons options but if it did it had stopped by 2003, and since then it has not really tried anything further.

Western governments and their mainstream media went into overdrive saying this was new proof about Iran being determined to provide nuclear weapons. The almost unanimous condemnation in the Western mainstream was quite surprising because the report was nowhere near definitive in the way governments and the media made it out to be. All the lessons of skepticism from the Iraq debacle has seemingly been forgotten already.

Award winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh summarizes most of the issues on Democracy Now:

Hersh also made the point that many in the IAEA and others are also skeptical of the report:

There are other people that don’t get reported who are much more skeptical of this report, and you just don’t see it in the coverage. So what we’re getting is a very small slice in the newspaper mainstream press here of analysis of this report. There’s a completely different analysis, which is, very little new.

And the way it works … is, over the years, a report will show up in a London newspaper, that will turn out to be spurious, turn out to be propaganda, whether started by us or a European intelligence agency—it’s not clear. This all happened, if you remember the Ahmed Chalabi stuff, during the buildup to the war in [Iraq], all about … the great arsenals that existed inside [Iraq]. The same sort of propaganda is being used now … that shows up over the years, over the last decade, in various newspapers. The IAEA would look at it, rule it [to be] a fabrication, or certainly not to be supportable by anything they know. All of these old reports … there were maybe 30 or 40 old items, with only three things past 2008, all of which … many people inside the IAEA believe to be spurious, not very reliable fabrications.

Seymour Hersh: Propaganda Used Ahead of Iraq War Is Now Being Reused over Iran’s Nuke Program, Democracy Now!, November 21, 2011

Why might Iran have once pursued nuclear weapons and then stopped?

Seymour Hersh, in the earlier video, speculates that if Iran did pursue nuclear weapons before 2003, it was likely due to the fear of Iraq at the time; that they knew trying to create a deterrence against the US or Israel was pointless (they couldn’t match their stockpile) but that instead Iraq at the time was the concern; they had been in a brutal war for years.

Having then seen the US break Iraq, Iran may have been able to stop because Iraq was no longer a threat. Alternatively, seeing the US overpowering Iraq in just 3 weeks (something Iran couldn’t do in 8 years) Iran may have contemplated nuclear deterrence (not actually having the bomb but the ability to create one within weeks or just a few months). Investigative journalist, Gareth Porter, explores this option saying it is more like Japan’s nuclear approach; no weapons but close to one if ever needed:

IAEA Iran Report Spins Intelligence, Real News, November 13, 2011

Porter also notes other things like how most of the sources for the IAEA report are unnamed and many believe it is most likely Israel and/or the US in most cases, hinting at a misinformation campaign (which sounds surprisingly similar to the disinformation used in the build up to the 2003 Iraq invasion).

Seymour Hersh also talks about the sources of information:

But how definitive, or transformative, were the findings? The I.A.E.A. said it had continued in recent years “to receive, collect and evaluate information relevant to possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program” and, as a result, it has been able “to refine its analysis.” The net effect has been to create “more concern.” But Robert Kelley, a retired I.A.E.A. director and nuclear engineer who previously spent more than thirty years with the [US] Department of Energy’s nuclear-weapons program, told me that he could find very little new information in the I.A.E.A. report. He noted that hundreds of pages of material appears to come from a single source: a laptop computer, allegedly supplied to the I.A.E.A. by a Western intelligence agency, whose provenance could not be established. Those materials, and others, “were old news,” Kelley said, and known to many journalists. “I wonder why this same stuff is now considered ‘new information’ by the same reporters.”

Seymour Hersh, Iran and the I.A.E.A., The New Yorker, November 18, 2011

In a news article for Inter Press Service, Porter also details that the claims about a scientist from Ukraine helping Iran is also likely not true.

Also not mentioned in the Western mainstream media has been important WikiLeaks revelations that,

According to a US Embassy cable from a US diplomat in Vienna, where the IAEA is based, [IAEA chief, Yukiya] Amano described himself as “solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.”

… [The US] lobbied successfully on Amano’s behalf. Following his election as IAEA chief, a US cable reported on a meeting with him:

This meeting, Amano’s first bilateral review since his election, illustrates the very high degree of convergence between his priorities and our own agenda at the IAEA. The coming transition period provides a further window for us to shape Amano’s thinking before his agenda collides with the IAEA Secretariat bureaucracy.

This “very high degree of convergence” would presumably be useful in hyping the alleged “nuclear threat” of Iran.

‘They Found Nothing. Nothing.’ , MediaLens, November 24, 2011

Media Lens goes on to add that this had virtually no coverage in the British press. (It also describes the challenge of informing a BBC journalist about this and other such issues where one surprising response was simply, “points noted” even though they seem not to have been.)

The Western outcry following this report led to the US Senate passing sanctions on Iran targeting its central bank in response (some even wanted air strikes). Britain’s embassy in Iran was then attacked by angry Iranian citizens with Iran presumably letting them attack it (it is a country’s duty to protect embassies). Israel and US don’t have embassies in Iran and Britain has been quite vocal for sanctions so was probably a proxy target representing all three that Iranians could actually vent their anger at. In return, Britain expelled Iranian diplomats.

Although we may despise the Iranian regime, we might have understood their anger if there was more context in mainstream media reporting, including not only the important leak about the IAEA chief’s views, but also other recent events, such as targeted assassinations in Iran of key nuclear scientists, various blasts in Iranian military bases and the sabotage of nuclear facilities (the famous stuxnet worm, for example), all thought to have had some nation state support behind them, probably Israel and/or the US.)

With none of this being mentioned in Western mainstream media, combined with the misrepresentation of the IAEA report (and exaggeration for political purposes), the lack of this context further strengthens the propaganda message: Iran is an uncontrollable and immediate threat. (Iran’s actions certainly do not help and while they may be appeasing domestic sentiment, they have certainly worsened their own image outside, perhaps falling into a classic propaganda trap.)

As some of the earlier links have also implied, the near unanimity between Western mainstream journalists and politicians on such misinformation is concerning (though maybe not surprising as not only has it happened during the Iraq war build up, but many times over since and before).

In essence then, sanctions are now being applied to Iran for what it might have done up to 2003 but claiming it is definitely happening, now.

US initially provided Iran nuclear know-how

Some may also wonder how Iran managed to get the ability to develop nuclear facilities in the first place. It would be sensible to perhaps assume that after the fall of the Soviet Union nuclear technology may have been more easily available and that how Iran got it.

However, ironically perhaps, it was the US that gave Iran the nuclear know-how in the 1960s and 1970s when the Shah dictator was installed by the CIA, and was seen as an ally for the US in the region (until the Shah was overthrown by an Islamic Revolution, when the USA supported Saddam Hussein against Iran).

Stephen Zunes, in the same above-mentioned article also notes the US’s role in helping Iran in the past:

Lost in Bush’s current obsession with Iran’s nuclear intentions is the fact that the United States—from the Eisenhower administration through the Carter years—played a major role in the development of Iran’s nuclear program. In 1957, Washington and Tehran signed their first civil nuclear cooperation agreement. Over the next two decades, the United States provided Iran not only with technical assistance but with its first experimental nuclear reactor, complete with enriched uranium and plutonium with fissile isotopes. Despite the refusal of the shah to rule out the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons, the Ford administration approved the sale to Iran of up to eight nuclear reactors (with fuel) and later cleared the sale of lasers believed to be capable of enriching uranium. Surpassing any danger from the mullahs now in power, the shah’s megalomania led arms control advocates to fear a diversion of the technology for military purposes.

The “Washington Post” reported that an initially hesitant President Ford was assured by his advisers that Iran was only interested in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy despite the country’s enormous reserves of oil and natural gas. Ironically, Ford’s secretary of defense was Donald Rumsfeld, his chief of staff was Dick Cheney, and his head of nonproliferation efforts at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency was Paul Wolfowitz, all of whom—as officials in the current administration—have insisted that Iran’s nuclear program must be assumed to have military applications.

Stephen Zunes, The U.S. and Iran: Democracy, Terrorism, and Nuclear Weapons, Foreign Policy In Focus, July 26, 2005

Rumsfeld, Cheney and others have questioned Iran’s need for a nuclear program, as Zune notes above. They argue that Iran has enough oil and therefore doesn’t need nuclear energy. Therefore, they say, Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear program must be for military purposes.

Scott Ritter, former UN Weapons Inspector, and outspoken critic of US foreign policy with regards to the Iraq invasion, is also critical of the policy against Iran. In an interview with Amy Goodman from Democracy Now!, noting the same as Zune does above, Scott Ritter adds that Rumsfeld and Cheney’s criticism of Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear program does not hold, because they agreed during the Shah’s reign that Iran’s energy reliance on oil was not sound, economically, and that civilian use of nuclear energy as an alternative was acceptable. This opinion has changed only because the Islamists have come into power, not because of the belief that Iran does not need energy diversification.

US, India, and Iran

Adding India into this relationship shows further complications each country has in its foreign policy objectives, and self-interest.

India, one of the emerging countries, whom many think will be among the most powerful in a few decades, is already extremely thirsty for energy. It has long had ties with Iran in some form or another. India has one of the world’s largest Shia Muslim populations (Iran having the largest).

India also has potential natural gas deals with Iran worth billions of dollars. The US also sees India as an ally in their war on terror, and this was especially so when the previous government, the right wing Hindu party, the BJP, were in power. The US has long disapproved the Iran-India energy deal.

US leading Congressmen have warned India that it must choose between “the Iran of the Ayotollahs,” with its oil and gas, and the “democratic West,” with its advanced nuclear power technology. For now, India seems to have gone for the latter.

It may be that India has calculated that jeopardizing the multi-billion dollar natural gas deal with Iran will be worth it if the US helps with nuclear power stations instead. That would be understandable in the context of India’s rising nuclear status and its warming relations with the US on this matter.

Indeed, a number of globally interesting developments have taken place regarding Indian nuclear power. For example:

  • US President George Bush described India as “a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology” thus admitting it to the “nuclear club.”
  • India has just recently decided to pursue non-proliferation rather than a global nuclear disarmament policy which it has long held. (The difference may seem subtle, but is enormously significant: non-proliferation means preventing others getting nuclear technology while those who already have it officially can get to keep it. In other words, it is a means to maintain an imbalance in power, consistent with the idea of being in a “nuclear club” and also the same position that the US has taken.)
  • This comes in the context of Indian attempts for permanent member status at the UN Security Council, which the US seems to be backing.
  • The US is considering supporting India’s nuclear development.

For some further analysis on that angle, see for example the following

In September 2005, India chose to vote alongside the US and European Union in referring Iran to the United Nations Security Council (though in November when the US and EU looked to back down, India declared it would oppose further referral, which cynics see as the Indian’s government’s move to save face from domestic criticism about doing what the West tells them, rather then following their own foreign policy). India again voted against Iran in 2006.

Former senior US Bush Administration official admits India’s vote against Iran was coerced

Although it was hardly reported in the western mainstream media, Siddharth Varadarajan also revealed that India’s votes against Iran were coerced by the US.

The US embassy had approached the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis and requested it to organize a lecture in February 2007 by Stephen Rademaker, the former US Assistant Secretary for International Security and Non-Proliferation. This institute is India’s premier strategic affairs think tank, funded mostly by the Indian Ministry of Defense. Siddharth Varadarajan, the deputy editor of The Hindu, and also a member of that institute, attended and noted first hand the confession by Rademaker that India’s vote had been coerced.

Varadarajan was asked in an interview why he thought Rademaker was so boastful about this coercion, to which the editor responded,

Well, he was really stating the obvious … at a time when he believed the Indian debate had moved on. But there was another reason—he was trying to tell the Indian audience that the U.S. would make further demands on India. For example, he openly said the US wanted India to join its unilateral sanctions against Iran in the likely event that Russia and China did not back tough UN sanctions. India should abandon its proposed gas pipeline from Iran, he said. India should do all these things if it wanted to be part of the “First World.” There was no doubt that he was holding out a threat, from his vantage point as a former senior official of the Bush administration AND (and this is the irony) as a paid lobbyist of the Indian government. His firm, Barbour, Griffith and Rogers, has been retained by the Government of India.

Siddharth Varadarajan, US Coercion of India against Iran at IAEA, Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran, March 6, 2007

When asked about the Indian government’s response to this, Varadarajan noted how the Indian government got various US officials to deny this and that they respect India’s independence. Furthermore, with the US trying to distance themselves from Rademaker, they accused The Hindu of inaccuracies, to which they responded that the comments were accurate. And asked why the nuclear deal with the US is so important for India, Varadarajan’s response noted some important geopolitical issues:

This is one of those strategic blunders which undercuts the Government of India’s claims to Great Power status for India. A country of India’s size should have had the diplomatic elan to open a way for nuclear commerce with the US while at the same time standing up for a rational and dialog-based approach to the Iran nuclear issue. The two should not be mutually exclusive. India has a right to nuclear energy. And it has a right to have mutually beneficial relations with Iran, a country with which it shares deep cultural, civilizational and strategic interests. In energy terms, nuclear energy—even if the promised cooperation materializes—can only be an answer to India’s requirements in the long-term. For the short and medium term, India’s growth prospects depend more crucially on access to hydrocarbons from a mixed basket of sources, including Iran. Why India should go along and facilitate Washington’s drive to confrontation against that country is an abiding mystery.

Siddharth Varadarajan, US Coercion of India against Iran at IAEA, Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran, March 6, 2007

But one of the additional key points made by Varadarajan was that India didn’t actually believe Iran was non-compliant, even though it voted that way:

  1. Abbas Edalat:

    How do you think this confession can impact on the legitimacy of the two decisions of Governors’ Board of the IAEA, first to condemn Iran for non-compliance and then to report Iran’s file to the UN Security Council?

  2. Siddharth Varadarajan:

    The biggest challenge to the legitimacy of the Indian vote in September 2005 was the official “Explanation of Vote” provided by the Indian ambassador to the IAEA. Remember, India voted “yes” to a resolution which found Iran in non-compliance with its safeguards obligations and which said Iran’s nuclear programme therefore gave rise to questions which were a threat to international peace and security. But the Indian ambassador began his explanation by noting: “The Indian delegation has studied the draft resolution tabled by the EU-3 yesterday. There are elements in the draft which we have difficulty with… [F]inding Iran non-compliant in the context of Article XII-C of the Agency’s Statute is not justified. It would also not be accurate to characterize the current situation as a threat to international peace and security.”

    Please read that statement again slowly! So why did India vote for the resolution referring the Iran file to the UN Security Council (UNSC) when it disagreed with the two main triggers? Because apparently “more time” has allegedly been given for the file to be studied at the IAEA Board before sending it on to the UNSC! The explanation made no sense. The vote made no sense, when related to the clear belief of India that Iran was not non-compliant. And yet we voted against Iran, knowing full well the US wanted to take the matter to the UNSC and thereby remove the IAEA from the driver’s seat.

Siddharth Varadarajan, US Coercion of India against Iran at IAEA, Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran, March 6, 2007

Is the US undermining the IAEA?

Varadarajan, above, has been quite critical of how the US has managed to coerce India’s vote at the IAEA against Iran, for its own interests. At the same time, however, he notes that other countries, even richer ones are unable to resist Washington’s pressure:

  1. Abbas Edalat:

    Do you think other member states of the Governors’ Board of the IAEA were also put under pressure by the US and its European allies to vote against Iran? If so what evidence is there for such coercion?

  2. Siddharth Varadarajan:

    Undoubtedly. I recently had the occasion to meet a senior delegation from a European member country of the P5+1. Privately, these officials, who deal with Iran, were skeptical about the current US approach but said their government was unable to resist Washington’s pressure. If this is the case with a major European power, you can imagine the fate of “lesser” IAEA Board members.

  3. Abbas Edalat:

    Given the US Ambassador’s public threats against the Government of India in January 2006, one would have expected Dr ElBaradei, the Director General of the IAEA to declare as illegitimate any vote against Iran in the IAEA’s Governors’ Board on February 4th 2006. Is there not an analogy here with a court of law in which a sentence against the accused is obtained by coercion of witnesses or jury members?

  4. Siddharth Varadarajan:

    I believe the entire votes in September 2005 and February 2006 were ultra vires the IAEA Statute. There was simply no justification is sending Iran’s case to the UNSC. The bigger problem is that the issue has become so politicized that the IAEA Secretariat itself is unable to function under objective criteria. I mean, the IAEA inspectors are expected to certify that Iran has no undeclared nuclear activity. Give the current climate of politically manipulated hysteria, no IAEA inspector, with the best of intentions, will find it easy to issue such a certificate even if Iran were to give 200 per cent cooperation. This is the crux of the matter. Like in Iraq, Iran and the IAEA have been tasked with proving a negative.

Siddharth Varadarajan, US Coercion of India against Iran at IAEA, Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran, March 6, 2007

And what of the consequences of such abuse of the IAEA; the future of the IAEA and the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) itself?

I believe the US strategy is to so frustrate Iran that the Iranian leadership is trapped into denouncing the IAEA and NPT and walking out of both. Needless to say, the US approach is making more likely, rather than less, the prospects of further nuclear breakout. Proliferation risks must be dealt with through a combination of technical, legal and political fixes. All countries, whether in the NPT or outside it, have the right to pursue a fuel cycle. NPT states must guarantee the cycle is peaceful and IAEA inspections verify the same. The US wants to abrogate that right. Iran is a test case. But there will be others too in the years to come.

Siddharth Varadarajan, US Coercion of India against Iran at IAEA, Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran, March 6, 2007

The other point about the US attempting to frustrate Iran out of the IAEA an NPT is that it raises the specter of the US pursuing a self-fulfilling prophecy, where conditions are created to give the US an upper hand in a propaganda battle that makes aggressive actions more palatable.

For some, it may be shocking to read that the US, of all countries, would engage in such practices. For others, this is a sign of strong diplomacy in a world with countries that don’t have the same values as the US. Yet, it is important to note that in the international arena, most of the democracies are less than democratic, and those who are more powerful, such as the US, and other Western European nations, are often able to use their diplomatic muscle (or at least try). A strong domestic democracy does not always guarantee democratic behavior internationally, unfortunately, and history is littered with such examples, some of which are discussed in other parts of this web site.

US lets Europe negotiate with Iran

The US has been happy to allow Europe a hand at negotiations with Iran. Results appear mixed, however, with both sides always indicating that some room for compromise is possible. More recently, into October 2006, media outlets were reporting that as talks between the two were faltering on getting Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment, the possibility of UN sanctions were drawing closer.

Europe, and other UN Security Council members have tried to offer political and economic incentives in return for Iran’s promise of a long term moratorium on enrichment.

The problem has been that technically, Iran has a right to use nuclear technology for civilian purposes and so their enrichment program (which, as stated above, is nowhere near the levels needed for weapons development), is legal and so they argue that they should not have to stop it first in order to have talks.

Iran takes British Soldiers Hostage

On March 23, 2007, 15 British sailors and marines were detained by Iranian forces. Iran claimed that they had trespassed into Iranian waters, while Britain adamantly maintained that they were in Iraqi territory.

Neither side seems to have provided definitive proof, but Iran’s attempts seem to be more questionable. That being said, the British media, for example, has not really pressured the government to provide more information as to why it is so certain that the troops were in Iraqi waters, and not Iranian. Iran has claimed to have GPS coordinates from the captured crew, but some believe that the same equipment can be easily obtained from elsewhere.

Iran has also paraded the captured soldiers on television and televised apologies from some of them. If these were prisoners of war, parading them would be a crime against humanity. No-one is under any doubt that the apologies are fake, and have been coerced. A letter supposedly from a captured person also seems highly likely to have been written by Iran.

As such, Iran is not helping itself if it expects international support on its nuclear issue with the US.

Hardliners in Iran have been able to use this incident to gather more support however. Some believe that Iran has done this in retaliation to the US/British policy of detaining Iranian soldiers found in Iraq, and possibly trying to use this as a bargaining chip to trade the soldiers.

The risk of this situation escalating has been worrying, but even before this incident, there have been concerns about a war brewing against Iran.

US war with Iran?

Iran appears in news headlines more frequently. For example,

  • The above concerns are often headline stories;
  • The British have accused Iran of supplying some of the weaponry used by Iraqi insurgents;
  • ElBaradei (head of the IAEA) won the Nobel peace prize and so threw more coverage onto Iran;
  • The Bush Administration continues suggestions towards regime change.

And so on. Whether all this means that the western populations are being “softened” for a more adversarial role against Iran remains to be seen. However, there are fears that we are moving closer to such a terrible possibility. For example, Parry, mentioned earlier, also notes that “The Time magazine cover story, released on Sept. 17, and a new report by retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner—entitled The End of the ‘Summer Diplomacy’—make clear that the military option against Iran is moving rapidly toward implementation.”

Scott Ritter, mentioned earlier, argues in that same interview that the US agenda is to have regime change in Iran, and it is not interested in talks. Even Iran’s proposed peace and talks with Israel (detailed further below) are rejected, so that regime change policy can be pushed.

The US has also recently entertained the thought of a naval blockade, and has deployed warships to the region. Various media reports have also indicated other military maneuvers in the region that various analysts feel is the ominous onset of possible war, or, if the world is lucky, is just military posturing.

Writer and analyst of Middle East affairs, Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya, writes an extensive article noting the military buildup around the Eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf by NATO, the US and Israel.

Investigative journalist, Seymous Hersh, writes in the New Yorker,

The Bush Administration, while publicly advocating diplomacy in order to stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon, has increased clandestine activities inside Iran and intensified planning for a possible major air attack. Current and former American military and intelligence officials said that Air Force planning groups are drawing up lists of targets, and teams of American combat troops have been ordered into Iran, under cover, to collect targeting data and to establish contact with anti-government ethnic-minority groups.

Seymour Hersh, The Iran Plans, The New Yorker, April 8, 2006

In addition, the US appears to be supporting guerilla raids against Iran, though this seems to be on a small scale at this time.

Phyllis Bennis, in an interview with Democracy Now! notes:

[There have been] new stories that have come out in the last couple of days in Time magazine and elsewhere, indicating that there have in fact been orders preparing to deploy U.S. Navy warships towards Iran with the goal being not necessarily a direct military strike, but rather a naval blockade of Iranian oil ports, which, of course, constitute an act of war. In that situation, … Iran knows, its government and its people know, that that’s an act of war. Most Americans don’t know that a blockade is considered an act of war. And if Iran responded militarily, which unfortunately would be their right under Article 51 of the UN Charter calling for self-defense rights, the Bush administration would very likely call that an unprovoked attack on peaceful U.S. ships and would respond militarily, claiming to be responding in self-defense.

Phillis Bennis, UN General Assembly Hears Bush, Ahmadinejad Trade Criticism, interview with Democracy Now!, September 20, 2006

Commenting on the Democrats’ gains in the November 2006 US mid-term elections—giving them a majority in both the House and the Senate—Seymour Hersh (mentioned earlier) wrote of a National Security meeting at which US Vice President Dick Cheney asserted that the White House would circumvent any attempted legislative restrictions to pursue military options against Iran “and thus stop Congress from getting in its way.” (This was at the same time a CIA report found no evidence of a secret nuclear weapons program, as mentioned earlier.)

Just before Hersh’s report, Israel’s outgoing US ambassador Danny Ayalon said in an interview that Bush would not hesitate to use force against Iran to halt its nuclear program if other options failed.

In an interview with Democracy Now! radio/tv show, Hersh noted similarities with the ignoring of intelligence on Iraq that did not support the desired view, saying that “Cheney and the people in his office—the Vice President’s office—sat on the report; were not interested in what the CIA had to say. Any intelligence that suggested there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was dismissed out of hand, as was this CIA Assessment. The White House, in other words, believes … Iran has a bomb.”

Hersh also notes a warning from the CIA: if the US, or Israel given a green light by the US, chose to attack Iran, the CIA warns that the consequences might be worse than we think; the attack could make the Sunni and Shia world come together in a way not done for a thousand years (both factions of Islam, are at odds, and militants from each side hate the other immensely).

With George Bush replaced by Barack Obama in the US, the prospect for war seems more remote now.

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Iran’s real policies and actions complicate Bush’s position

Although the Bush Administration has ignored it, and most mainstream media outlets typically do not explore issues beyond reporting what officials say, Iran’s actual position on nuclear weapons, on Israel, and other issues of the region, offers some complications to the official line. For example,

  • Ahmadinejad does not hold much power; the Supreme Leader does
  • The Supreme Leader issued a fatwa against Nuclear Weapons, saying it was not Islamic
  • Iran actually offered peace talks with Israel
  • Iran even condemned North Korea’s nuclear missile test

Furthermore, the US problems in Iraq have strengthened Iran’s influence, and the nuclear weapon debate occurs within that context.

Ahmadinejad does not actually have much power. Supreme Leader does

When the hard-line Ahmadinejad came into power, his rhetoric—ridiculous and outrageous at times (such as questioning/denying the Holocaust could have taken place during WWII, and wanting to wipe Israel off the map)—proved a boon for Bush policies and propaganda efforts.

The day Ahmadinejad proclaimed that Israel will one day be wiped off the map, shortly after he was sworn in as President of Iran, journalist Lindsey Hilsum, for the British mainstream outlet, Channel 4 News, noted that Ahmadinejad holds no power; it is the mullahs that call the shots, and he may have said all this just to show to them that he is a hardliner, and that it should not be taken seriously, for others have said it in the past.

That has not stopped the Bush Administration and war-supporting mass media outlets. The media, together with the Bush Administration repeatedly point to Ahmadinejad’s outrageous statements as proof that Iran is an out of control state, but always fail to mention that he holds no power or influence on such decisions.

In the Democracy Now! interview with Scott Ritter mentioned earlier, Ritter noted what Hilsum said, but also noted that Iran’s Supreme Leader had also issued a condemnation of nuclear weapons:

  1. Amy Goodman:

    Scott Ritter, one of the things you talk about in your book is that no attention has been paid to the Supreme Leader’s pronouncement in the form of a fatwa, that Iran rejects outright the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

  2. Scott Ritter:

    Well, when we say “Supreme Leader,” first of all, most Americans are going to scratch their head and say, “Who?” because, you see, we have a poster boy for demonization out there. His name is Ahmadinejad. He’s the idiot that comes out and says really stupid vile things, such as, “It is the goal of Iran to wipe Israel off the face of the world,” and he makes ridiculous statements about the United States etc. And, of course, man, he—it’s a field day for the American media, for the Western media, because you get all the little sound bites out there, Ahmadinejad, Ahmadinejad, president of Iran. But what people don’t understand is, while he can vocalize, his finger is not on any button of power. If you read the Iranian constitution, you’ll see that the president of Iran is almost a figurehead.

    The true power in Iran rests with the Supreme Leader. The Supreme Leader is the Ayatollah Khamenei. He is supported by an organization called the Guardian Council. Then there’s another group called the Expediency Council. These are the people that control the military, the police, the nuclear program, all the instruments of power.

Scott Ritter, Target Iran: The Truth About the White House’s Plans for Regime Change, interviewed on Democracy Now!, October 16, 2006

There is however, a group that watches over the Supreme Leader. An 86-member of Assembly of Experts is charged with electing and monitoring the Supreme Leader.

Iranian journalist, Omid Memarian, notes that the up-coming December elections for the Assembly of Experts is significant because it could “shift the balance of power between the pragmatic faction of conservatives led by former president Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani and the radical faction represented by Ayatollah Yazdi.… Rafsanjani supports joining the international community and opening up dialogue with the west, while Yazdi is a symbol of hostility toward western ideals and values.”

Ahmadinejad is a strong supporter of Yazdi, so if Yazdi gains more power, some of Ahmadinejad’s dangerous rhetoric—and sometimes delusional, for he claims to have a connection with, and even spoken to, God—could become more reflective of policy.

Iran Supreme Leader issued Fatwa against nuclear weapons

On August 9, 2005, at the meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameni, issued a fatwa, “holy order” which forbade the stockpiling, production, and use of nuclear weapons.

This was hardly mentioned by most mainstream media outlets, rarely making headlines, while criticism of their nuclear programs did. Some, such as the BBC and CNN just about mentioned it but as subtexts to other articles, such as a question and answer series on the nuclear standoff, and of Iran breaking seals at a nuclear plant.

(A blog entry posted major quotes from the fatwa, as reported by the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), but the link to the IRNA article is now expired, unfortunately.)

What is understandable, especially from the Bush Administration and its supporters, is that this fatwa is likely to be treated skeptically. It will is easy to dismiss this as a lie or a smokescreen that will take them down the path of nuclear weapons at a later stage. (Although it is also not clear how likely it would be for an Islamic cleric to issue a fatwa under false pretenses.) It would be hard to know for sure, because under international law, Iran has the right to pursue nuclear enrichment for peaceful purposes, such as nuclear energy. Brazil recently announced it would be enriching uranium, for example. However, because it is not seen as hostile as Iran is by the US and UK, it is not perceived as a dangerous move.

Iran has actually offered peace to Israel. US refused

As noted above, Iran’s Ahmadinejad certainly hasn’t helped himself with his unacceptable call that Israel must be “wiped off the map.” Such claims have “damaged Iran’s standing internationally at a time when the country badly needs support,” says the “BBC”, also adding that Iran has “blamed the foreign media for blowing the crisis out of proportion and accused the West of seizing on this issue to pressure Tehran over its nuclear program.”

However, as mentioned further above, Ahmadinejad does not hold much real power or call the shots. Instead, the Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah, does. And, as Ritter adds in the above-mentioned interview, it is the “Expediency Council” that controls the instruments of power.

What may be of surprise to many readers is that not only is Ahmadinejad’s view a distraction, but the real leadership of Iran actually offered peace talks with Israel back in 2003. Furthermore, the US refused it.

The Foreign Policy organization, Just Foreign Policy details this further:

In 2003, in a secret memo to the U.S. government, Iran offered to make peace with Israel, oppose attacks by Palestinian groups on Israel within its 1967 borders, and pressure Hizbollah to become a peaceful political party. The Bush Administration refused to respond and continues to assert publicly that Iran wants to destroy Israel and sponsor terrorist groups. The offer, which likely still stands, directly contradicts those statements. Below is some press with more details. The episode calls into question the Administration’s truthfulness and motives with regard to Iran…

Iran, Just Foreign Policy, Accessed October 1, 2006

(Just Foreign Policy’s article cited above also provides links to other articles that explore this in more depth.)

Historian and national security policy analyst, Gareth Porter, reported this originally for Inter Press Service at the end of May, 2005. He further noted that,

The two-page document contradicts the official line of the George W. Bush administration that Iran is committed to the destruction of Israel and the sponsorship of terrorism in the region…. the document is a summary of an even more detailed Iranian negotiating proposal.

The Iranian negotiating proposal indicated clearly that Iran was prepared to give up its role as a supporter of armed groups in the region in return for … an end to U.S. hostility and recognition of Iran as a legitimate power in the region … [and] “abolishment of all sanctions.”

An Iranian threat to destroy Israel has been a major propaganda theme of the Bush administration for months…. But in 2003, Bush refused to allow any response to the Iranian offer to negotiate an agreement that would have accepted the existence of Israel.

Gareth Porter, Iran Proposal to U.S. Offered Peace with Israel, Inter Press Service, May 29, 2005

Porter also notes that Iran is still interested in trying to get a deal with the US, “despite the U.S. refusal to respond to the 2003 proposal.” Although some conservative extremists (who backed Ahmadinejad in their previous election) may be against it, many other conservative Iranian officials support the idea.

The conservatives were unhappy not with the idea of a deal with the United States but with the fact that it was a supporter of the reform movement of Pres. Mohammad Khatami, who would get the credit for the breakthrough.

Gareth Porter, Iran Proposal to U.S. Offered Peace with Israel, Inter Press Service, May 29, 2005

Internal politics in both the US and Iran is therefore a possible hindrance to peaceful relations. Porter notes, for example, that the “ultimate authority on Iran’s foreign policy, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was ‘directly involved’ in the Iranian proposal, according to the senior Iranian national security officials” but that Kahamenei has also “aligned himself with the conservatives in opposing the pro-democratic movement” that Khatami was leaning towards.

Some may observe that given Iran offered to try and get Hezbollah to become a political unit rather than a military one as part of a deal with the US, then why has it not done so anyway? Unfortunately, in the world of realpolitik, each country looks out for its own interests. Why would Iran do this if it can’t get anything in return? Clearly, Iran wants to be recognized by the US, and is prepared to go a long way to do so. However, this also highlights that both the US and Iran might be hypocrites. They both claim moral high ground, yet, they both choose to turn away from peace if it suits their agendas.

Why didn’t the Bush administration embrace this [peace offer]? Because that leads to a process of normalization, where the United States recognizes the legitimacy of the theocracy and is willing to peacefully coexist with the theocracy. That’s not the Bush administration’s position. They want the theocracy gone. They will do nothing that legitimizes that, nothing that sustains peace. They rejected peace.

Scott Ritter, Target Iran: The Truth About the White House’s Plans for Regime Change, interviewed on Democracy Now!, October 16, 2006

Iran condemns North Korea’s nuclear weapons test

When North Korea announced a nuclear weapons test at the beginning of October 2006, Iran publicly condemned it. Iran policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, Carah Ong, noted in her blog that the response of Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini on state-run television said:

Iran’s position is clear and Iran on principle believes in a world free of nuclear weapons. Iran is hopeful that negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear activities can go ahead in the interest of both North Korea and the international community.

Mohammad Ali Hosseini, October 2006, Iran Responds to North Korea’s Nuclear Weapon Test, quoted by Carah Ong, October 10, 2006 [the original source she cites is no longer available on-line]

If Iran was intent on developing nuclear weapons and if their fatwa against it was a lie, one would have expected then to at least stay quiet on the matter. (On the other hand, Iran could be trying to call the world’s bluff!)

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Geopolitics; US and Iran vying for interest in the region?

Despite Iran’s apparent steps towards more peaceful options, one cannot ignore that Iran, especially the conservative elements, may have desires for wider influence in the region, just as the United States and its conservative elements have.

US policy in the Middle East is faltering, with Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns currently appearing to go out of control. Iran is one nation in that region that seems to be in a position to take advantage, which may help explain why US is highlighting Iran’s nuclear ambitions so much.

US Problems in Iraq: Strengthening Iran’s Influence?

As US attempts in Iraq falter and throughout the Middle East people look to the US with increasing anger and hatred, Iran adds to the complication. Noted expert on Middle East affairs, and professor of the London School of Economics, Fred Halliday, summarizes this situation quite well:

To a degree that US politicians, journalists and generals seem unable to see, Washington is, in effect, unwittingly preparing the ground for an Iranian takeover of Iraq. Indeed, the very focus on a Sunni insurgent-US confrontation—a real enough war—tends to overlay something that is much more important and long-term: the rivalry across “west Asia” (the entire region from Afghanistan to Lebanon) between Iran and the United States.

Here, too-obvious analogies with Vietnam and other US interventions break down. The key thing in Iraq is that the very measures the US is taking to make it possible to “redeploy” (a euphemism for inglorious departure) serve to reinforce Tehran’s power: elections, which confirm the pro-Iranian Shi’a parties in power, and “institution-building” whereby Iran’s influence in the armed forces, policy, intelligence and administration is strengthened.

Fred Halliday, Iran vs the United States—again, openDemocracy, February 14, 2006

Highlighting Iran’s nuclear ambitions to temper Iran’s wider interests

It is because of this increasing influence, and the fear of extending this to the wider region—afforded by the possibility of nuclear weapons—that US fears Iran.

The reason Iran wants a nuclear capability, or at least to be in the position of “nuclear ambiguity” that Israel and (before 1994) South Africa had, is not to launch the missiles against its foes the day after it acquires them, but to strengthen its political and diplomatic hand across west Asia. Iran wants, in a phrase, to be the “indispensable regional power”—in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, the Caucasus and much of central Asia, as well as in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

More specifically, there is a direct link between western alarm about Iran’s nuclear programs and the situation in Iraq: with Iran gaining ground in Iraq, the west (especially the United States) has resorted to exerting pressure over Iran’s nuclear programs. Equally, the complete collapse of any meaningful Arab-Israeli peace process, evident long before the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections, gives Iran greater leverage in this crisis. So the more Iran advances politically in the Arab world to the west, and, not to be forgotten, the more US and Nato policy runs into deeper trouble in Afghanistan, as it most certainly is, the more pressure on Iran over nuclear weapons is essential for political and strategic reasons.

Fred Halliday, Iran vs the United States—again, openDemocracy, February 14, 2006

US attempting to keep China and Russia out of Middle East?

While Iran may have some regional ambitions, and the US might be attempting to contain them, there could be an even wider geopolitical game being played here.

As Robert Dreyfuss has noted in Mother Jones magazine, both Russia and China depend heavily on the Middle East for oil (China more so). China is already seen by some in US policy circles as the real threat to US global dominance in years to come, and is the nation to possibly contain or constrain.

In that context, dominance over the Middle East region may be a way to prevent or manage China’s rise somewhat.

The United States is and must remain the world’s preeminent power, if need be by using its superior military might. One of the two powers with the ability to emerge as a rival—China—depends vitally on the Persian Gulf and Central Asia for its future supply of oil; the other—Russia—is heavily engaged in Iran, Central Asia, and the Caucasus region. Therefore, if the United States can secure a dominant position in the Gulf, it will have an enormous advantage over its potential challengers. Call it zero-sum geopolitics: Their loss is our gain.

… The administration and many of its supporters are apparently ready to take the gamble that after an armed confrontation with Iran, a moderate, pro-American regime might emerge from the wreckage.

… Not surprisingly, Russia and China have a different perspective. Moscow and Beijing, neither of which wants Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, nevertheless do not see Tehran as a threat. To them, the country’s vast reserves of oil and natural gas make it a natural ally. Both Russian and Chinese oil companies had enormous development and supply contracts with Baghdad under Saddam Hussein, deals that are worthless in an Iraq controlled by the United States. They might be forgiven for thinking that Iran, too, would be off-limits to them if Bush succeeds.

For China’s economic future, Iran and the region are essential.

… Since 2001, Russia and China have watched America’s heavy-handed push into the Middle East and Central Asia with suspicion and alarm. Together, they and four Central Asian countries—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan—have created the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional security body that has emerged as a counterweight to U.S. influence in the region.

… Meanwhile, U.S. relations with both China and Russia are edging toward outright hostility. With Beijing, the administration has maintained cordial ties, in part because Big Business depends so heavily on China. But many Bush officials have an innate distrust, even loathing, of China, especially in the office of Vice President Cheney, who in 2001 drew several of his top aides from the staff of a strongly anti-China congressional committee pursuing allegations that Beijing had stolen state secrets during the Clinton administration.

Robert Dreyfuss, Next We Take Tehran, Mother Jones Magazine, July/August 2006 issue

Parallels to Iraq have not gone unnoticed, either. Russia and China were amongst those that lost out heavily when Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled in neighboring Iraq, so they may be seeing increasingly direct US action in the region as an attempt to gain further influence and dominance over a region that is so vital for them.

… the parallels with the year before the invasion of Iraq are startling.

  • In addition to exaggerating the nuclear threat, the administration has been accusing Iran of harboring Al Qaeda fugitives and supporting bin Laden’s movement, though there is little or no evidence to support these claims.
  • As in Iraq, Washington is sinking millions of dollars into propaganda efforts and alliances with dubious exile groups; according to a recent State Department planning document, the United States is busily setting up Iran intelligence and mobilization centers in Dubai, Istanbul, Frankfurt, London, and Azerbaijan to work with “Iranian expatriate communities.”
  • Elizabeth Cheney, the daughter of the vice president and a top State Department official, is overseeing a program to spend $85 million on support for dissidents in Iran and to pay for anti-Iran propaganda. She has helped create a brand-new Office of Iranian Affairs at the State Department, and she reportedly supervises an office called the Iran-Syria Operations Group.
  • As with Iraq, U.S. officials—realizing that U.N. support for an attack on Iran is nil—are talking openly about bypassing the world body and forging yet another “coalition of the willing” to confront Iran.
  • And, of course, as with Iraq, there is the escalating rhetoric, the talk of “all options” being on the table, the news of Special Forces already operating in the country to foment civil conflict.

Robert Dreyfuss, Next We Take Tehran, Mother Jones Magazine, July/August 2006 issue (bullet list formatting added)

This is of course theorizing, but if right, then it falls into a repeated pattern of history whereby one center of power will do what it can to prevent other centers of power rising. This will be accompanied by rhetoric of morals (democracy, freedom, fighting the devil, fighting evil, etc etc) from both sides to appeal to their own people, to justify more involvement. This aspect of history is detailed further by J.W. Smith and the Institute for Economic Democracy. Meanwhile, any genuine moves in areas such as democracy have suffered.

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Moves towards reforms, democracy?

Recent years were seeing signs of Iran moving towards slightly more tolerant and liberal values. Any changes were likely to be gradual to allow smooth, acceptable transition, else internal backlash from the more hard line elements would be more pronounced. However, the US’s hostile stance to Iran has encouraged the very hard line elements that the US says it is against to react.

Regime Change in Iran

Evidence of US plans for regime change in Iran emerged after Al Qaeda terrorists blew up a residential compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in May 2003. The US accused Iran of harboring these terrorists, which Iran denied.

The Washington Post noted that despite Iran helping the US in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, by turning over some Al Qaeda members (and being branded as a member of an “axis of evil”), and continual meetings for “search-and-rescue missions and the tracking down of al Qaeda operatives”, “U.S. officials had repeatedly warned Iranian officials that if any al Qaeda operatives in Iran are implicated in attacks against Americans, it would have serious consequences for relations between the two countries.”

According to Reuters at the time, Iran did accept that some Al Qaeda members could have slipped the somewhat porous border between Afghanistan and Iran, and vowed to arrest them if they could.

The above Washington Post and Reuters articles also noted that Bush administration officials appeared “ready to embrace an aggressive policy of trying to destabilize the Iranian government” as a result of these bombings.

This incident may therefore appear as an excuse or catalyst for an earlier plan for regime change in Iran, part of an even wider US geopolitical strategy to maintain global dominance amid new challenges.

US Support of opposition groups actually undermines democracy further

US policy for Iran has involved supporting opposition groups in Iran. Some of these are pro-democracy groups, while others are pro-monarchists, supporting the former Shah’s son. However, as early as May 2003, the same Washington Post article also noted that,

State Department officials are concerned that the level of popular discontent [in Iran] is much lower than Pentagon officials believe, leading to the possibility that U.S. efforts could ultimately discredit reformers in Iran.

… In July, Bush signaled a harder line when he issued a strongly worded presidential statement in which he praised large pro-democracy street demonstrations in Iran. Administration officials said at the time that they had abandoned any hope of working with President Mohammad Khatami and his reformist allies in the Iranian government, and would turn their attention toward democracy supporters among the Iranian people.

Glenn Kessler, U.S. Eyes Pressing Uprising In Iran, Washington Post, May 25, 2003

Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service notes neo-conservative elements in the US pushing an Iran confrontation agenda, while Marc Perelman, writing in the Jewish daily, The Forward, in 2003, observes how a coalition of hawkish elements from the US, Israel, and within Iran, have come together to support regime change in Iran with similarities to the build up to the Iraq invasion.

Support for Reza Cyrus Pahlavi, the exiled son of the former Shah, is supported by hawks in the US administration and some Jewish groups who see the former Shah’s reign as a “golden era for Jews,” Perelman adds.

Furthermore, an Iranian-Jewish described as an active hawk says that “support for Pahlavi among Iranian Americans may have less to do with deep pro-monarchist feelings than with his status as the most recognizable opposition figure among immigrants.”

Pahlavi has, according to Perelman, “expressed support for democracy while calling for a referendum restoring the monarchy.”

It is not clear therefore, if “democracy” is being used as a euphemism for continued authoritarian rule, but this time, favored by the US, as was the case with Pahlavi’s father.

The Pentagon and US State department have already started funding propaganda broadcasts into Iran, through outlets such as Radio Farda and Voice of America’s Persian TV. However, policy analyst, Carah Ong, also notes that Pentagon officials have lamented that US broadcasts into Iran aren’t tough enough on the Iranian regime and that their ideas are not working as planned because their broadcast outlets are not the main source of news for most Iranians.

Khatami has actually been pro-democracy but any reform attempts in such a country are naturally going to be very slow and difficult to achieve. An imposition of relatively quick massive changes will of course be met by resistance by those in power, and for a nation trying to be more democratic, it may unfortunately have to be a slow process so that it can get buy-in from those who fear of losing out. Of course the risk is that such attempts can be undermined as well, the longer it takes. It is not as simple as supporting democratic elements or very quickly ousting the existing regime because that may leave power vacuums that various groups may attempt to fill, as the Iraq experience has shown.

By funding opposition groups and calling for regime-change (while calling it “democracy-building”), the US makes such a task even harder, and risks actually undermining democracy because the ruling Islamic clerics will clearly see the opposition as lacking legitimacy, as policy analyst, Robert Naiman notes:

The notion of trying to undermine the Iranian government by funding opposition groups is both unethical and short-sighted. Groups and individuals who are known to receive such funding will be discredited politically in Iran. Indeed, prominent Iranian dissidents have rejected U.S. assistance, and have argued that the U.S. policy of confrontation hurts the democracy movement in Iran. Such activities by the U.S. appear to validate claims by Iranian government officials that their domestic critics are financed and inspired by foreigners.

In the context of modern Iranian history this is a powerful charge. In the 1950s a democratically elected government in Iran was overthrown by a military coup organized by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

The democratic government was replaced by a repressive regime that the U.S. helped keep in power for the next 25 years.

Robert Naiman, Iran House Votes to Undermine Talks with Iran—Will the Senate Follow?, Just Foreign Policy/ZNet, September 30, 2006

Unfortunately, this certainly seems to have been the case, as hardliners in Iran have responded to US aggressive policy by getting rid of the reformist president, Khatami, in favor of the hardliner, Ahmadinejad.

As Naiman, also notes, US policies are restricting the ability for negotiations between Iran and US. “Officials in Iran will ask, why bother trying to negotiate with someone who has an official policy of trying to overthrow you?”

Pro Democracy Reformist, Khatami, loses out to Hard-liner, Ahmadinejad

The previous leader of Iran, the reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, showed precursory signs to the long march towards democracy. For his elections, he campaigned on democracy, the rule of law, and inclusion of all Iranians in the political decision-making process. When he first became president, he won elections by a landslide, showing the popularity within Iran for potential reforms.

This obviously rubbed many hard-line conservatives in Iran’s political and religious establishment the wrong way, and he was unable to implement many of his reform policies. Towards the end of his term in 2005, growing disillusionment contributed to his losing elections against the more conservative Ahmadinejad, backed by many of the more extreme ruling clergy.

Unfortunately, as noted earlier, US policies did not help either. The US pressure on Iran (from the nuclear stance, threats of war, war on terror stance, and more) have, perhaps unwittingly (though surely, to some extent, predictably?), helped emboldened hard-line elements further, and thus the nation has moved further away from democracy.

Death of Dissident Cleric Leads to Clashes Between State and Opposition Supporters

On 19th December, 2009, an influential dissident cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hoseyn Ali Montazeri, died. Thousands attended his funeral 2 days later and there were reports of clashes with security forces. Further memorial services were reportedly banned by the state a few days later as confrontations continued and spread. Some have been killed by security forces and hundreds have been arrested, including senior aides to opposition leader Hossein Mousavi.

Disputed presidential elections earlier in June also led to protests, clashes and arrests.

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Future prospects?

Internally, Iran appears to be moving further and further towards a hardline stance. US policy and interests have an enormous impact on any nation, and with Iran it has appeared to achieve the opposite of their stated goals. Rather than a weakened Iranian regime that can make way for democracy, chances for potential democratic reform seem wasted or lost; the extremists are in a stronger position, and have a lot of support.

By refusing dialog, as mentioned above, peaceful resolution to the current situation is hard to imagine.

The leading scholar, Fred Halliday, quoted above is worth citing here on what prospects for a peaceful future in the region are, noting an immense and potentially deadly irony:

Much is made of the supposed instability or vulnerability of the Iranian regime. Iranian exiles, from monarchists to Islamo-Stalinists, are trading their wares in Washington. The reality is that this regime is as strong as it ever has been, not least with oil prices above $60 a barrel. For all the chicanery of the Ahmadinejad election, masses of people, including many veterans of the Iranian left, voted for him. He strikes a note of Iranian nationalism and defiance that has a strong popular resonance, even as he works to suppress the gains by liberals, human-rights workers and reformers in Iran over the past decade.

One of his great allies in this project is George W Bush’s confrontational rhetoric and wishful thinking about regime change. More drama seems sure to follow.

Fred Halliday, Iran vs the United States—again, openDemocracy, February 14, 2006

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Where next?

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Sunday, October 22, 2006
  • Last Updated: Tuesday, December 06, 2011

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Document Revision History

DateReason
December 5, 2011Added notes about a recent IAEA report being blown out of proportion
December 29, 2009Added some notes about recent documents claiming nuclear weapon intention to look like fabrication, and short notes on recent political violence in Iran
March 31, 2007A note that the US and IAEA have so far been unable to prove Iran is developing nuclear weapons. In addition, a former senior US official admits coercing India to vote against Iran at the IAEA. Also added section looking at the possibility of Iran being part of a wider geopolitical strategy to keep Russia and China out. Note also added about British marines and sailors being captured and held hostage by Iran
January 7, 2007Another note on Israel considering a plan to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities, this time using tactical nuclear weapons
November 21, 2006Small note that CIA did not find evidence of a nuclear weapons program
October 26, 2006Small note on Iran’s Supreme Leader himself being elected by an assembly, which may be seeing a power struggle between pragmatic conservatives and radicals.

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