No, Really, Iran Isn’t Developing Nuclear Weapons

It’s just as easy for a nuclear disarmament advocate as a hawk to believe that a state such as Iran that is not only establishing a nuclear energy program, but experimented with nuclear weapons until 2003, is still developing them. Nevertheless, however much Tehran may experience lust in its heart for nuclear weapons, the evidence to judge it guilty of, as it were, an illicit affair is sorely lacking. Three of the most credible sources of commentary on the subject will explain why.

To the U.S. government and much of the media, the recent report on Iran’s nuclear program by the International Atomic Energy Agency is damning. But, at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Greg Thielmann and Benjamin Loehrke (Thielmann is one of this author’s most trusted nuclear-weapons analysts) write:

Washington talks a lot, but does not read very much. … When, earlier this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a report on Iran’s nuclear program, several media agencies and politicians walked away with two messages: that the Vienna-based agency now refutes past estimates of the US intelligence community, and that Iran is now making a break for the bomb. Both representations are false. Yet these assertions have been repeated often enough to give them traction with the public and Congress.

This Washington Post op-ed exemplifies that line of thinking.

The Obama administration pledged that Iran would suffer painful consequences for plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington and for refusing to freeze its nuclear program. Key European allies and Congress — not to mention Israel — are ready for decisive action. But on Monday the administration unveiled another series of half-steps. Sanctions were toughened on Iran’s oil industry, but there was no move to block its exports [and] the administration declined to directly sanction the central bank.

The result is that President Obama is not even leading from behind on Iran; he is simply behind.

But, as Thielmann and Loehrke, remind us (emphasis added):

Most analysts familiar with the report agree that there “is nothing in the report that was not previously known by the governments of the major powers” — a nuclear Iran is “neither imminent nor inevitable.” While it is clear that Iran’s continuing research on nuclear weapons is a serious concern for international security, there “has been no smoking gun when it comes to Iran’s nuclear weapons intentions.”

Theilmann also told Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker that

There is troubling evidence suggesting that studies are still going on, but there is nothing that indicates that Iran is really building a bomb. … Those who want to drum up support for a bombing attack on Iran sort of aggressively misrepresented the report.

Hersh also wrote that

… Robert Kelley, a retired I.A.E.A. director … 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 … laptop computer, allegedly supplied to the I.A.E.A. by a Western intelligence agency, whose provenance could not be established. [The notorious “laptop of death” -- Ed.] Those materials, and others, “were old news,” Kelley said, and known to many journalists.

In the same vein as Thielemann and Loehrke, Hersh quotes Kelley as saying, “I wonder why this same stuff is now considered ‘new information’ by the same reporters.” Hersh concludes:

The new report, therefore, leaves us where we’ve been since 2002, when George Bush declared Iran to be a member of the Axis of Evil—with lots of belligerent talk but no definitive evidence of a nuclear-weapons program.

Completing this troika of truthfulness, if you will, is Gareth Porter at IPS News. He uses a claim in the report that Iran built an explosives chamber for nuclear testing to kill two myths — that and another in the report — with one stone. About the second, that a foreign scientist, who turned out to be Russian Vyacheslav Danilenko, had assisted in the construction of said containment chamber, Porter writes:

[That] claim appears to be an effort to confuse Danilenko’s well- established work on an explosives chamber for nanodiamond synthesis with a chamber for weapons testing, such as the IAEA now claims was built at Parchin. … The report said the alleged explosives chamber was designed to contain “up to 70 kg of high explosives” which is claims would be “suitable” for testing what it calls a “multipoint initiation system” for a nuclear weapon.

But a 2008 slide show on systems for nanodiamond synthesis posted on the internet by the U.S.-based nanotechnology company NanoBlox shows that the last patented containment chamber built by Danilenko and patented in 1992, with a total volume of 100 cubic metres, was designed for the use of just 10 kg of explosives.

So much for the containment chamber as nuclear testing chamber as well as Danilenko as a nuclear scientist née nanodiamond scientist.

It might be helpful to revisit exactly why the United States stands ready to condemn Iran at every turn, aside from their mutual history (most notably the seizure of the American embassy by Iranian revolutionaries in 1979, U.S. implication in the coup of prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, and its subsequent support for the Shah). Suspicion of Iran’s nuclear enterprises derives from the experimentation that ended in 2003 as well as uranium enrichment on a large scale that Iran began in 2002 without informing the IAEA. It’s hard to see the point in continuing to hold Tehran’s feet to fire about those issues — unless of course they’re being used as an excuse to keep from negotiating in good faith with Tehran.