Sunday, 17 March 2013

Iranian-Western Relations Part 2

This is part 2 of a 4 part series on Iranian-Western relations. In part 1 we documented some of the background to the modern day crisis, and in part 2 we look at the events up until the modern day, with particular focus on Iran’s nuclear programme, and whether Iran is attempting to move towards nuclear weapons.

After the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh and the installation of the Shah in his place, Iran was ruled as a dictatorship and a western client state for the next 26 years. As noted before, suppressing legitimate demands for democracy tends to empower extremist elements, and the situation in Iran was no different. In 1979 Shiite radicals rose up and overthrew the Shah, taking over the nuclear programme that had been started under the Shah and infamously invading the US embassy, leading to the hostage crisis dramatised in the 2012 film ‘Argo’. The tragedy of the Iranian revolution is that Iran had come close to a semblance of national independence and democracy in 1953, but radical measures were taken by the West to cripple this possibility. Independence was eventually achieved in 1979; at the price of living under one of the harshest theocratic regimes in the Middle East.

The ayatollahs have ruled Iran from 1979 to the modern day: the current Supreme Leader of Iran is Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, and the President is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The current focus on Iran concerns its alleged nuclear weapons programme, and anyone who follows the news will no doubt have come across the debate over whether or not the US, Israel (and possibly Britain) should launch a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to prevent them getting a bomb. The immediate question to be asked is: is Iran moving towards nuclear weapons?

This question is oft ignored in the mainstream discussion; it is taken for granted that Iran is moving towards nuclear weapons, or nuclear weapons capability (the capacity to quickly build nuclear weapons if need be), and that its peaceful nuclear programme is a fa├žade for this darker motive. However given what we know about the lead-up to the Iraq war, the distortions, half-truths and lies (to name one of many, the claim that Saddam had bought uranium from Niger turned out to be false- , it would take great amnesia to uncritically accept Mr Romney and Mr Obama’s assertions that Iran is moving towards weapons.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s body for monitoring nuclear sites and ensuring enriched uranium and plutonium isn't transferred to military uses, publishes regular reports on Iran’s nuclear programme. In 2011 and 2012 the Western media have jumped on the agency’s reports, claiming they document ‘damning evidence’ against Iran (see for example this Telegraph article- However a look under the headlines leads us to be a little more sceptical. Robert Kelley, Director of the IAEA’s Iraq Action Team in the run up to the Iraq War and with 30 years of experience in nuclear studies, wrote an article published by the respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute at the beginning of last year ( writing that whilst it is accepted that Iran was attempting to acquire nuclear weapons up until 2003, by the 2007 'US [intelligence] agencies concluded ‘with high confidence’ that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programme in late 2003 under international pressure’. He described the ‘new’ evidence in the 2011 report as ‘sketchy’, and claimed that ‘all but three of the items that were offered as proof of a possible nuclear weapons programme are either undated or refer to events before 2004’. Furthermore the evidence the report relies upon for claims that Iran is trying to create a ‘device to produce a burst of neutrons that could initiate a fission chain reaction’ comes from a 2-page document passed to the IAEA in 2009, which was dismissed by the then-head Mohamed ElBaradei as a forgery.

The new IAEA stance towards Iran coincides with the arrival of a head of the agency, Yukiya Amano. Amano was supported by the US in the election process and has been accused by several former IAEA officials of a pro-Western bias in his judgments ( Wikileaks have released cables from US diplomats who claim that Amano is ‘solidly in the US court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program’ (document available here- Hans Blix, who was head of the IAEA in the run up to the Iraq War and warned at the time that Iraq probably didn’t have nuclear weapons, has claimed recently that ‘there is no evidence right now that suggests that Iran is producing nuclear weapons’ ( This all gives us reason to be sceptical of the IAEA’s new stance on Iran. Indeed, the IAEA continues to monitor most Iranian nuclear facilities, Iran seems to be keeping its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium below the level needed for a bomb (, and the US’ National Intelligence Director said recently that if Iran were to attempt to move towards a bomb then the US and/or IAEA would pick up on it ( Israel’s intelligence services recently put back the date that they think Iran could achieve a bomb by to 2015/16 (; interestingly, Israel has been claiming Iran are a few years away from a bomb nearly every year since 1992 (

All of this is not to say that Iran certainly is not attempting to move towards nuclear weapons capability; they may well be. Indeed, assuming the Iranian regime is what international relations scholars call a ‘rational actor’ in the world system, it would in many ways be rational for Iran to attain a bomb. A hostile power, the US, has 42+ military bases surrounding Iran (, has recently invaded two neighbouring countries (Iraq and Afghanistan), and Iran have their facilities attacked with cyber bugs and scientists killed in the streets ( As noted in the major establishment journal Foreign Affairs, Qaddafi was overthrown by the US a while after he agreed to abandon his nuclear programme, and North Korea is now more or less safe from invasion after achieving nuclear weapons status ( But there doesn’t appear to be sufficient evidence to prove Iran are moving towards weapons yet, contrary to the dominant narrative in mainstream discourse.

The next post (which will be up in around 10 days) will examine the options for engaging Iran, and assuming it is moving towards a nuclear weapon, how to avoid that eventuality.

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