On Friday Just World Books published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare by Gareth Porter. The following exclusive excerpt is the introduction to the book. You can buy the book here.
In November 2013, the United States and five other states concluded a preliminary agreement with Iran on its nuclear program that was to be followed by a longer-term comprehensive deal. The agreement offered a way out of a crisis that had already lasted more than a decade and had involved both threats of war against Iran by the US and Israeli governments and efforts to cripple the Iranian economy by interfering with its international trade.
But the secret at the heart of the crisis is that the central assertions underlying the American, Israeli, and European pressure on Iran were not based on historical reality. This book documents the way in which US and Israeli officials “manufactured” the crisis quite deliberately, in order to maximize pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear program. They did this by creating a narrative portraying Iranian behavior as evidence that the Islamic Republic had long been hiding a nuclear weapons program. That narrative was then conveyed to the public through uncritical news media coverage of the official line.
This book shows that virtually nothing about the nuclear scare over Iran that was reported in the Western news media was what it seemed. It aims to unravel the false narrative that sustained the decade of crisis and to recover the real history of the Iranian nuclear program and the interactions between that program and the governments of the United States and Israel.
Manufactured Crisis shows that US-Israeli strategy was aimed at using the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to build a case that Iran’s nuclear program had been merely a cover for a nuclear weapons program. That case would serve as the basis for United Nations Security Council actions that would punish Iran, or even for unilateral US military action against Iran. As a result the IAEA, which had previously been a relatively nonpolitical actor performing technical analysis of nuclear programs, was transformed over the 2003–8 period into an adjunct of the anti-Iran strategy.
The book tells the story of a “manufactured crisis” that unfolded in the years from 2002 through 2013 in three identifiable stages, corresponding to the major shifts in the US-Israeli strategy. It does not view every move by the United States and Israel as part of a master plan that was thought through from the start. On the contrary, it shows how each stage of the strategy developed in response to new political opportunities and problems that arose in regard to the broader aim of weakening and coercing Iran on the nuclear issue.
The first stage was triggered by the announcement of Iran’s Natanz enrichment facility in an August 2002 press conference by the Iranian armed opposition group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK). That dramatic event, which the book shows was the result of a strategic decision by Israel, opened the way for the United States and Israel to put Iran on trial for allegedly deceiving the IAEA for many years and secretly seeking to become a nuclear weapons state. The main thrust of the strategy for the next few years was to have the IAEA intensively investigate a series of issues that the IAEA’s Safeguards Department had identified, with the help of US and Israeli intelligence, as indications of a secret Iranian nuclear weapons program.
These IAEA investigations generated one round of news stories after another that portrayed each activity under investigation as suggesting that Iran’s nuclear program was a cover for nuclear weapons. To the chagrin of the United States and Israel, however, these investigations ended in early 2008 without having found any evidence to support that charge.
But Israel and the United States had a more potent weapon for consolidating the nuclear scare over Iran. In 2008, they quickly shifted the focus of the IAEA inquiry to a collection of documents, purportedly stolen from a secret Iranian nuclear weapons program, which had been given to the United States by an unknown party. Thus began the second stage of the crisis, from 2008 to late 2011, ostensibly aimed at holding Iran “accountable” for what the IAEA called the “alleged studies” documents. But the actual Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu dramatically heightened the threat of war against Iran’s nuclear sites. That threat was accompanied by apparent signs of growing tensions between Washington and Tel Aviv over the issue. But as Manufactured Crisis documents, both Netanyahu and Obama were engaging in an intricate political charade.
Netanyahu never intended to use military force against Iran, and the Obama administration was well aware of that but was hoping to exploit the threat to gain diplomatic leverage on Iran. In late 2012, Netanyahu’s aggressive posture toward Iran fizzled out, after his government revealed that the threat of war had been in part a device to pressure Obama to give Iran an ultimatum over its nuclear program, and Obama made it clear that he had no intention of doing so. But it did not bring an end to the two decades of dissimulation by both governments about Iran’s nuclear program.
Manufactured Crisis shows how each of these new stages of the crisis added yet another layer of blatant misinformation and disinformation about the Iranian nuclear program on top of previous such layers. The falsification process proceeded on multiple levels, from deceptive US statements about what it knew about Iran’s supposed nuclear intentions to misleading innuendoes planted in IAEA reports to documents and intelligence reports fabricated by the Israelis. Blatantly false stories were leaked to the news media, reflecting the media’s disinterest in investigating or even factchecking official claims about Iran’s nuclear program.
By 2012, this long history of false information was dramatically symbolized by the story, embraced by the IAEA on the basis of information from Israel, of a bomb test chamber designed by a former Soviet nuclear weapons specialist and installed at the Iranian military facility at Parchin. That story was given general credence in the Western news media, but like the rest of the narrative created over the years, it fell apart upon careful investigation.
The usual form in writing history involves blending official sources and other sources in a single narrative flow. But in the case of the Iran nuclear crisis and the nuclear scare that has gone with it, the heart of the story is in fact the deception propagated by official sources. Thus, the narrative of this book is organized primarily around the contrast between what the United States, Israel, and the IAEA were conveying to the public and the reality that can be reconstructed from a deeper inquiry into the facts.
Chapter 1 of Manufactured Crisis begins with a reconstruction of the real origins of the issue of Iran’s nuclear program in a US-enforced embargo on nuclear cooperation with Iran’s nascent nuclear program that began in 1984. That naked use of US power to try to strangle what was an extremely modest Iranian nuclear program forced Iran to choose between giving up its right to nuclear technology and obtaining its own aim at that stage was to maneuver Iran into a position where it could be accused of noncompliance with the resolutions of the US-dominated IAEA Board of Governors.
In late 2011, the third stage of the strategy began, aimed explicitly at imposing much more aggressive sanctions and increasing diplomatic pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear program. The first move in the new stage was the IAEA’s release of a report in November 2011, based largely on Israeli intelligence information, that accused Iran not only of having done nuclear weapons-related testing in 2003 but also of continuing that work as recently as 2007. That accusation was the lead-in to US and European decisions to target Iran’s oil export and banking sectors. The United States negotiated with European and Asian states that had been buying Iranian enrichment technology. That pivotal historical episode has unfortunately been excluded from the public discourse on Iran and replaced by an official narrative suggesting that Iran was already secretly pursuing nuclear weapons development during the 1980s.
Chapter 2 reexamines the discovery of the Iranian enrichment facility at Natanz in 2002 and the subsequent IAEA finding that Iran had been carrying out a “clandestine enrichment program” for nearly two decades. This chapter does what the IAEA failed to do: it explains that there were other reasons why Iran did not report to the IAEA a series of experiments and tests with nuclear material or its decision to begin construction of Natanz. It also shows that contrary to the media coverage of the IAEA report, Iran’s alleged “18-year enrichment program” actually consisted of obtaining the basic enrichment technology and testing it for only a few months in 2002–3.
Chapter 3 digs deeper into the development of Iranian policy toward nuclear and chemical weapons. It describes two episodes in which Islamic fatwas by the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic were crucial in determining Iranian policies toward such weapons. In the first episode, opposition to weapons of mass destruction by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, based on Shi’a Islamic jurisprudence, forced the Iranian government to forego the use of chemical weapons during the entire Iran-Iraq War, despite continuing Iraqi chemical attacks. In the second episode, Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, invoked Islamic principles in 2003 in order to reinforce a ban on any work relating to nuclear weapons.
The chapter further explores the political-strategic considerations shaping Iranian nuclear policy that have been systematically ignored in official and media discourse in the West. Like other states with uranium enrichment capabilities, Iran expected such capabilities to add a “latent deterrent” to its overt conventional deterrence of foreign aggression. The chapter documents the fact that US officials and some intelligence analysts were well aware of that motive and recognized that it did not mean that Iran intended to obtain nuclear weapons. But one administration after another deliberately confused the two issues in public pronouncements. Similarly, those administrations ignored the Iranian interest in accumulating enriched uranium as an asset to be given up in future negotiations with the United States. Instead, US officials cited the enriched uranium as evidence of Iran’s interest in nuclear weapons.
The United States began in the early 1990s to portray Iran’s civilian nuclear program as a cover for its alleged ambitions to obtain nuclear weapons. Chapter 4 shows how that accusation was a function of the desperate need of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Pentagon in crude oil to get them to cut back dramatically on their purchases and to curtail their dealings with Iran’s central bank. Against that background, particular for a substitute for the threat from the Soviet Union and its allies that had evaporated by 1990–91. The supposed threat of nuclear weapons proliferation from Iran provided the most advantageous answer to that bureaucratic-political problem for senior CIA and Pentagon officials. This chapter also shows how the administration of President Bill Clinton added a second major motive for the newly heightened hostility and suspicion toward Iran and its nuclear program: the political decision to align US policy toward Iran with that of Israel.
The other half of the story of the origins of the manufactured crisis, recounted in chapter 5, is how Israeli Labor and Likud governments from 1992 to 1999 used the alleged threat from Iran’s nuclear and missile programs to achieve a set of political-strategic aims that had little or nothing to do with Iran. The chapter shows how Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Benjamin Netanyahu professed alarm about an Iranian threat that Israel’s top intelligence officials did not accept and that served multiple political-diplomatic ends for their respective governments. The account of those episodes also highlights the price Israel paid for its aggressive posture toward Iran, which was that Iran came to regard Israel as a military threat for the first time.
Chapter 6 shows how the administration of President George W. Bush first turned Iran’s nuclear program into a “crisis” in 2003. It explains how the main interest of the administration, focused on the occupation of Iraq as the fulcrum of policy toward the rest of the region, was to keep open a path to regime change in Iran. That entailed explicitly refusing to countenance an agreement between the European three (the United Kingdom, France, and Germany) with Iran in 2004–5 that would have committed Iran to a minimal nuclear program that would not have constituted a proliferation threat.
Chapter 7 recounts the story of the IAEA’s investigation of a series of Iranian nuclear activities from 2003 through 2007 in anticipation that it would find evidence that Iran had carried out a secret nuclear weapons program. Virtually every new quarterly report from the IAEA on its investigation in 2004 and 2005 generated a new round of media stories of suspected Iranian covert enrichment or weapons work. As this chapter shows, however, none of those suspicions turned out to be correct, and the IAEA had to acknowledge in the end that it had found no evidence of Iranian weapons-related activity in any of the cases it investigated.
Beginning in 2008, the focus of the strategy of the United States and Israel shifted to a collection of documents supposedly coming from a covert Iranian nuclear weapons program. Chapter 8 reveals the real story behind those documents—who brought them out of Iran, where they came from, and why they could not be genuine Iranian documents. The chapter also reveals new evidence from WikiLeaks cables that in 2008, the IAEA Safeguards Department was working closely with the United States and its allies to create a new political strategy for convincing the rest of the world falsely that Iran was unwilling to cooperate with the IAEA investigation.
The US government’s own intelligence assessments of the Iranian nuclear program should have put a brake on the continued development of the manufactured crisis over the program. But chapter 9 shows how a systemic failure of US intelligence on the Iranian nuclear issue parallels the well-known 2002 intelligence debacle on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq. This chapter explains how intelligence assessments on WMD in Iran were distorted by the same set of incentives to find evidence of a WMD program that had produced the discredited national intelligence estimate on Iraq. And even the November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which concluded Iran had stopped work on nuclear weapons in 2003, was still affected by the institutional dynamics that had distorted the Iraq estimate.
Chapter 10 dissects the climactic episode in the run-up to the enactment of harsh sanctions against Iran’s crude oil export and banking sectors: the publication by the IAEA of a dossier of “intelligence” it had collected since 2007 making new claims about secret Iranian nuclear weapons work. But this account reveals that most of the information in that dossier came from Israel and explains in detail how and why the most sensational allegations in the dossier—the tale of an ex-Soviet nuclear weapons specialist helping Iran build a bomb-test cylinder—failed to withstand expert scrutiny.
That IAEA report was the signal for a new stage of the manufactured crisis, marked by what was sold to the public around the world as a heightened threat of Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. Chapter 11 tells the full story behind Prime Minister Netanyahu’s supposed readiness to use military force against Iran, showing it was merely a ploy to influence international policy toward Iran. The chapter shows the degree to which Obama’s policy was focused on attempting to coerce Iran diplomatically rather than seeking to reach a solution that would respect Iran’s nuclear rights. The narrative and analysis close before the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president in June 2013. A brief Epilogue describes the diplomatic opening created by that election and the preliminary agreement on the nuclear issue that followed.
Manufactured Crisis offers the first systematic alternative to the official and media account of the background to and unfolding of the Iran nuclear crisis. It documents the fact that the real origins of the Iran nuclear issue in international politics lay not in an Iranian urge to obtain nuclear weapons but in two aspects of US national security policy during and after the Cold War: first, an effort by the United States as the dominant power in the Middle East to deny Iran its right—as guaranteed in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—to have any nuclear program at all in the 1980s, and second, the adjustment by US national security institutions to the end of the Cold War by portraying Iran as posing a WMD threat. Manufactured Crisis also reveals just how long a shadow the US-Israeli alliance, rooted in American domestic politics, has cast on US policy toward Iran.
The web of falsehoods that accompanied the manufacture of the Iran nuclear crisis came at a heavy price. It made it impossible to conduct an objective political discussion of the issue in the United States. The inability or unwillingness of most members of the US political elite to confront the truth about the origins and development of the crisis postponed for many years the adoption of a rational policy toward Iran. It thus contributed to the distortion of global and regional politics by aligning the United States with Iran’s foes and encouraging the deepening of the sectarian strife that came to threaten much of the Middle East. Even as the Rouhani opening provided an opportunity for US-Iran rapprochement, the false nuclear narrative represented a serious political obstacle to such a fundamental shift in US policy.