If Iran Had a Nuke Research Program, It May Have Been Rogue

Rouhani

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Even informed Americans are loath to accept the unlikelihood of a nuclear-weapons program on the part of Iran. Why? They may just wish to maintain their credibility in the face of prevailing opinion. Also, they fear being played for fools since Iran isn’t as forthcoming as the West would like. (That what’s asked of it is beyond the parameters of its safeguards agreement with the IAEA is an issue for another day.)

Nevertheless, among them are those concerned that the United States and/or Israel will attack Iran or, in the interim, sanction it to the point of human rights abuses. (Okay, that horse has long left the barn.) Turns out, now they can have their cake and eat it, too.

That’s right: you can now charge Iran with nuclear-weapons research without charging Iran with nuclear-weapons research. Huh?

In a New York Times op-ed on July 27, titled Rouhani and the Iranian Bomb, Francois Niçoullaud, former French ambassador to Iran, wrote (emphasis added):

As Hassan Rouhani prepares to become the next president of the Iranian Islamic Republic, it is worth recalling the leading role he played as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator in late 2003, when the clandestine program run by the Revolutionary Guards to produce a nuclear weapon was halted.

This op-ed received far less attention than it deserved. If you haven’t read and digested it yet, take a moment to let what’s emphasized sink in. One of a series of conversations that, Niçoullaud wrote, “remain vivid in my mind … took place a little after Rouhani became Iran’s top nuclear negotiator in October 2003 and had reached an agreement about the suspension of Iranian sensitive enrichment activities with the German, British and French foreign ministers during their joint visit to Tehran.”

A high-ranking official confided to me that after this meeting Rouhani issued a general circular asking all Iranian departments and agencies, civilian and military, to report in detail about their past and ongoing nuclear activities. The official explained to me that the main difficulty Rouhani and his team were encountering was learning exactly what was happening in a system as secretive as Iran’s.

A few weeks after, I heard from another official, a close friend of Rouhani: “The Rouhani team is having a hard time … People resist their instructions.” … He went on to complain how difficult it was to convince researchers to abruptly terminate projects they had been conducting for years.

In other words, according to Niçoullaud, it was not the Iranian government per se that was supporting nuclear-weapons research, but the Revolutionary Guard. By doing so, it was, in effect, turning itself into a “rogue” element. Fleshing out the op-ed, Gareth Porter contacted Niçoullaud for the Inter Press News service.

Nicoullaud told IPS he believes the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which controls Iran’s ballistic missile programme, was also carrying out a clandestine nuclear weapons programme. The IRGC’s own ministry had been merged, however, with the old Ministry of Defence to form a new ministry in 1989, which implies that any such clandestine programme would have necessarily involved a wider military conspiracy.

In fact, reports Porter (emphasis added)

… Nicoullaud said he did not believe the Iranian government had ever approved a nuclear weapons programme. … “I guess that most people, [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei included, were surprised by the extent of the activities,” Nicoullaud told IPS.

Nicoullaud’s recollections are consistent with published evidence that nuclear weapons-related research projects had begun without any government authorisation.

Porter explains that earlier, despite “an Iranian policy that ruled out nuclear weapons, many Iranian officials believed that a nuclear weapons ‘capability’ would confer benefits on Iran without actually having nuclear weapons.”

But the meaning of such a capability was the subject of ongoing debate. … That debate had evidently not been officially resolved by a government decision before Rouhani’s appointment. And in the absence of a clear statement of policy, figures associated with research centres with military and defence ministry ties began in the latter of the 1990s to create their own nuclear weapons-related research projects without the knowledge of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). [Emphasis added.]

We contacted Yousaf Butt of the American Federation of Scientists for his reaction. He reminded us that (emphasis again added) the “most important point” is that “what is being loosely called a nuclear weapons program pre-2003 was likely a weaponization-research project — something that may not have been contrary to the letter of the [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] and may have been consistent with CSA [Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements].” Besides, “Iran just did not even have material for bomb-making pre-2003 and still does not.”

Or, as Dr. Butt writes in a comment at Arms Control Law, “I think we ought to be careful about loose semantics: ‘weaponization’ is not the same as ‘researching weaponization.’”

Wouldn’t it save us all a lot of grief if Supreme Leader Khameini authorized a spokesperson to make clear the distinction of who exactly was doing the weaponization research in Iran? Presumably, he and his people are reluctant because they don’t want to look like the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. In the end of course, they’re still responsible for any misconduct within the parameters of their nuclear-energy program.

The West should further research exactly who in Iran is responsible for weaponization research (assuming it doesn’t already know)? Acknowledging that it was “rogue” might – in an ideal world – pave the way to roll back sanctions.

Niçoullaud writes that “the actions I believe [Rouhani] took in 2003 raise hopes that as president of the Islamic Republic he will be able to find and implement a negotiated solution for the continuing nuclear crisis.”

The ball’s now in the court of the West on whom it’s incumbent to take some shots at the negotiation hoop.