What’s at Stake for Non-Western Powers in the Iranian Nuclear Issue

In our newest Op Ed, published in The BRICS Post, an online news and commentary site focused on the “BRICS” (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), see here, and, in a different version, on al Jazeera, see here, and on Huffington Post, see here, we argue that the controversy over Iran’s nuclear activities “has at least as much to do with the future of international order as it does with nonproliferation.”  We go on to argue that “conflict over Iran’s nuclear program is driven by two different approaches to interpreting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)”; furthermore, we hold that “which interpretation ultimately prevails on the Iranian nuclear issue will go a long way to determine whether a rules-based view of international order gains ascendancy over a policy-oriented approach gains ascendancy over a policy-oriented approach in which the goals of international policy are defined mainly by America and its partners.”  And, as we note in Huffington Post, too often America and its partners define these goals “in defiance of international legal obligations that Western powers once voluntarily embraced.”      

We are pleased to note that, in his Arms Control Law blog, Dan Joyner has commended our analysis of NPT issues and interpretation—which we consider high praise, coming from a scholar from whom we have learned so much and whose work we happily cite. 

We encourage you to go online at The BRICS Post, al Jazeera, and Huffington Post to leave comments. We also append our piece below: 

The Iranian Nuclear Issue:  What’s at Stake for the BRICS  

The controversy over Iran’s nuclear activities has at least as much to do with the future of international order as it does with nonproliferation.  For this reason, all of the BRICS have much at stake in how the Iranian nuclear issue is handled. 

Conflict over Iran’s nuclear program is driven by two different approaches to interpreting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); these approaches, in turn, are rooted in different conceptions of international order.  Which interpretation of the NPT ultimately prevails on the Iranian nuclear issue will go a long way to determine whether a rules-based view of international order gains ascendancy over a policy-oriented approach in which the goals of international policy are defined mainly by America and its partners.  And that will go a long way to determine whether rising non-Western states emerge as true power centers in a multipolar world, or whether they continue, in important ways, to be subordinated to hegemonic preferences of the West—and especially the United States. 

The NPT is appropriately understood as a set of three bargains among signatories:  non-weapons states commit not to obtain nuclear weapons; countries recognized as weapons states (America, Russia, Britain, France, and China) commit to nuclear disarmament; and all parties agree that signatories have an “inalienable right” to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.  One approach to interpreting the NPT gives these bargains equal standing; the other holds that the goal of nonproliferation trumps the other two.    

There have long been strains between weapons states and non-weapons states over nuclear powers’ poor compliance with their commitment to disarm.  Today, though, disputes about NPT interpretation are particularly acute over perceived tensions between blocking nuclear proliferation and enabling peaceful use of nuclear technology.  This is especially so for fuel cycle technology, the ultimate “dual use” capability—for the same material that fuels power, medical, and research reactors can, at higher levels of fissile isotope concentration, be used in nuclear bombs.  The dispute is engaged most immediately over whether Iran, as a non-weapons party to the NPT, has a right to enrich uranium under international safeguards. 

For those holding that the NPT’s three bargains have equal standing, Tehran’s right to enrich is clear—from the NPT itself, its negotiating history, and decades of state practice, with at least a dozen states having developed safeguarded fuel cycle infrastructures potentially able to support a weapons program.  On this basis, the diplomatic solution is also clear:  Western recognition of Iran’s nuclear rights in return for greater transparency through more intrusive verification and monitoring. 

Those recognizing Iran’s nuclear rights take what international lawyers call a “positivist” view of global order, whereby the rules of international relations are created through the consent of independent sovereign states and are to be interpreted narrowly.  Such a rules-based approach is strongly favored by non-Western states, including BRICS—for it is the only way international rules might constrain established powers as well as rising powers and the less powerful.    

Those who believe nonproliferation trumps the NPT’s other goals claim that there is no treaty-based “right” to enrich, and that weapons states and others with nuclear industries should decide which non-weapons states can possess fuel cycle technologies.  From these premises, the George W. Bush administration sought a worldwide ban on transferring fuel cycle technologies to countries not already possessing them.  Since this effort failed, Washington has pushed the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group to make such transfers conditional on recipients’ acceptance of the Additional Protocol to the NPT—an instrument devised at U.S. instigation in the 1990s to enable more intrusive and proactive inspections in non-weapons states. 

America has pressed the UN Security Council to adopt resolutions telling Tehran to suspend enrichment, even though it is part of Iran’s “inalienable right” to peaceful use of nuclear technology; such resolutions violate UN Charter provisions that the Council act “in accordance with the purposes and principles of the United Nations” and “with the present charter.”  The Obama administration has also defined its preferred diplomatic outcome and, with Britain and France, imposed it on the P5+1:  Iran must promptly stop enriching at the near-20 percent level to fuel its sole (and safeguarded) research reactor; it must then comply with Security Council calls to cease all enrichment.  U.S. officials say Iran might be “allowed” a circumscribed enrichment program, after suspending for a decade or more, but London and Paris insist that “zero enrichment” is the only acceptable long-term outcome.                 

Those asserting that Iran has no right to enrich—America, Britain, France, and Israel—take a policy- or results-oriented view of international order.  In this view, what matters in responding to international challenges are the goals motivating states to create particular rules in the first place—not the rules themselves, but the goals underlying them.  This approach also ascribes a special role in interpreting rules to the most powerful states—those with the resources and willingness to act in order to enforce the rules.  Unsurprisingly, this approach is favored by established Western powers—above all, by the United States.          

All of the BRICS have, in various ways, pushed back against a de facto unilateral rewriting of the NPT by America and its European partners.  Since abandoning nuclear weapons programs during democratization and joining the NPT, Brazil and South Africa have staunchly defended non-weapons states’ right to peaceful use of nuclear technology, including enrichment.  With Argentina, they resisted U.S. efforts to make transfers of fuel cycle technology contingent on accepting the Additional Protocol (which Brazil has refused to sign), ultimately forcing Washington to compromise.  With Turkey, Brazil brokered the Tehran Declaration in May 2010, whereby Iran accepted U.S. terms that it swap most of its then stockpile of enriched uranium for new fuel for its research reactor.  But the Declaration openly recognized Iran’s right to enrich; for this reason, the Obama administration rejected it. 

The recently concluded 5th BRICS Summit in Durban saw a joint declaration that referred to the official BRICS position on Iran:  “We believe there is no alternative to a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue.  We recognize Iran’s right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy consistent with its international obligations, and support resolution of the issues involved through political and diplomatic means and dialogue.”

At the same time, the BRICS have all, to varying degrees, accommodated Washington on the Iranian issue.  Russian and Chinese officials acknowledge there will be no diplomatic solution absent Western recognition of Tehran’s nuclear rights.  Yet China and Russia endorsed all six Security Council resolutions requiring Iran to suspend enrichment.  Beijing and Moscow did so partly to keep America in the Council with the issue, where they can exert ongoing influence—and restraint—over Washington; at their insistence, the resolutions state explicitly that none of them can be construed as authorizing the use of force against Iran.  Still, they acquiesced to resolutions that make a diplomatic settlement harder and that contradict a truly rules-based model of international order.

Russia, China, and the other BRICS have also accommodated Washington’s increasing reliance on the threatened imposition of “secondary” sanctions against third-country entities doing business with the Islamic Republic.  Such measures violate U.S. commitments under the World Trade Organization, which allows members to cut trade with states they deem national security threats but not to sanction other members over lawful business with third countries.  If challenged on this in the WTO’s Dispute Resolution Mechanism, America would surely lose; for this reason, U.S. administrations have been reluctant actually to impose secondary sanctions on non-U.S. entities transacting with Iran.  Nevertheless, companies, banks, and even governments in all of the BRICS have cut back on their Iranian transactions—feeding American elites’ sense that, notwithstanding their illegality, secondary sanctions help leverage non-Western states’ compliance with Washington’s policy preferences and vision of (U.S.-dominated) world order. 

If the BRICS want to move decisively from a still relatively unipolar world to a genuinely multipolar world, they will, at some point, have to call Washington’s bluff on Iran-related secondary sanctions.  They will also have to accelerate the development of alternatives to US-dominated mechanisms for conducting and settling international transactions—a project to which the proposed new BRICS bank could contribute significantly.  Finally, they will need to be more willing to oppose, openly, America’s efforts to unilaterally rewrite international law and hijack international institutions for its own hegemonic purposes.  By doing so, they will underscore that the United States ultimately isolates itself by acting as a flailing—and failing—imperial power.                  

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Flynt Leverett on Anti-Iran Sanctions and America’s “Dirty War” Against the Islamic Republic


Iranian journalist Kourosh Ziabari interviewed Flynt about anti-Iran sanctions last week; the interview is now published in Iran Review, see here.  We have come to see U.S. sanctions policy toward Iran as embodying American foreign policy at its “imperial worst.”  The interview contains some of our strongest criticisms so far of that policy—and of the hypocrisy at the heart of purported U.S. concern over human rights conditions in the Islamic Republic.  We encourage everyone to read it at the Iran Review append the interview below.     

Flynt Leverett:  U.S. is Engaged in a Dirty War Against Iran

Kourosh Ziabari

 If you regularly follow the headlines on the American and European radio stations, TV channels or newspapers, you come to believe that Iran’s nuclear program is the world’s most important, unsolvable and complicated problem.  It’s been more than a decade that they have been incessantly talking of an Iranian threat that has endangered the world peace and security.  At the same time, they turn a blind eye to Israel’s nuclear arsenal and the fact that Israel is the sole possessor of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.  The claim that Iran is trying to produce atomic weapons has laid the groundwork for the U.S. and its allies to impose harsh economic sanctions on Iran and damage Iran’s economy and trouble the daily lives of the ordinary Iranian people. 

To study the different aspects of the sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States and the European Union, Iran Review has conducted a series of interviews with world-renowned political scientists, lawyers, journalists and authors and asked them some questions on the humanitarian and legal impacts of the sanctions, their compatibility with the international law and the human right standards, etc.  Our today’s interviewee is Prof. Flynt Leverett, a prominent Iran expert.  Leverett is a professor of international affairs and law at Pennsylvania State University and the co-author of Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Prof. Leverett has written on Iran’s nuclear program extensively and is regularly interviewed by the international media.  What follows is the text of the interview.

Q:  The United States claims that by imposing sanctions on Iran, it intends to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but the sanctions have recently targeted the ordinary citizens and the consumer goods and medicine.  Why have the sanctions swiftly diverted from the issue of disarmament and are directed toward the daily life of the ordinary Iranian citizens? 

A:  This is the inevitable logic of sanctions.  American and other Western officials declare that the targets of their sanctions policies are governments, not people.  In reality, though, the point of sanctions is to make ordinary people in targeted countries miserable. 

In the Western logic of sanctions, if enough ordinary people are made sufficiently miserable, then they will rise up and either force their governments to change policies that Washington views negatively or else force these governments from power.  There is no other strategic rationale for sanctions.

Q:  While the process of passing on Iran’s nuclear dossier to the Security Council was illegal, do the resolutions issued on this basis have a legal warranty?

A:  A number of prominent international legal scholars have advanced a powerful argument, with which I agree, that the Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to stop enriching uranium are legally invalid.  Article 25 of the UN Charter establishes a strong presumption that UN member states should comply with Security Council resolutions.  But the same article also limits member states’ obligation in this regard to Security Council decisions “in accordance with the present charter.”  Likewise, Article 24 of the Charter holds that, in discharging its duties, “the Security Council shall act in accordance with the purposes and principles of the United Nations.”  (Those purposes and principles are presented in Articles 1 and 2 of the Charter.)

The Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment demand, in effect, that the Islamic Republic surrender what the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty recognizes as signatories’ “inalienable right” to the peaceful use of nuclear technologies—including uranium enrichment.  By adopting these resolutions, the Council was acting neither “in accordance with the [UN] Charter” nor “in accordance with the purposes and principles of the United Nations.”  And that renders these resolutions invalid.

Q:  Don’t you think that focusing the sanctions on basic staples and goods, especially medicines, is tantamount to a continued and systematic violation of the human rights?

A:  The U.S. government claims that the sanctions are not focused on items like food and medicine—that there is an explicit exemption for food and medicine in the sanctions policy.  But, as the question implies, this is, to say the least, hypocritical.  Formally, there is an exemption in the sanctions for food and medicine.  But, in practice, as long as banking sanctions deter Western and many other international banks from processing transactions with Iranian counterparties—even for “permitted” items like medicines—the effect is to bar the export of medicines to Iran, with predictably tragic consequences.

This is both inhumane and illegal, on multiple levels.  Besides the horrible impact of U.S.-instigated sanctions on ordinary Iranians, U.S. sanctions policy is a gross violation of international economic law.  Most of the sanctions that are having such terrible effects on ordinary Iranians are not unilateral U.S. sanctions—which the Islamic Republic has been dealing with for decades—or multilateral sanctions authorized by the UN Security Council.  Most of the sanctions that are creating real difficulties and hardships for Iranians are so-called “secondary” sanctions, whereby Washington threatens third-country entities doing perfectly lawful business with the Islamic Republic with punishment in the United States.  In recent years, Congress has been regularly expanding and intensifying Iran-related secondary sanctions through laws that President Obama immediately signs and obediently implements.

Secondary sanctions clearly violate American commitments under the World Trade Organization (WTO), which allows members to cut trade with states they deem national security threats but not to sanction other members over lawful business conducted with third countries.  If challenged on the issue in the WTO’s Dispute Resolution Mechanism, Washington would surely lose.  That’s why U.S. administrations have been reluctant to impose secondary sanctions on non-U.S. entities transacting with Iran, and have done so pretty rarely.  What Washington relies on is that, in many cases, the legal and reputational risks posed by the threat of U.S. secondary sanctions reduce the willingness of companies and banks in many countries to transact with Iran, with negative consequences for Iran’s economy and for many ordinary Iranians.  It is the approach of a bully who does not believe he is constrained by the same laws that apply to others.

Q:  It’s said that the sanctions that target the ordinary civilians are a kind of collective punishment, and collective punishment is a crime according to the Nuremberg Tribunals.  The Western states claim that they care for the human rights, but they are behaving in such a hypocritical manner and punish the Iranian citizens for a crime they have not committed.  What’s your viewpoint on that?

A:  As a matter of policy, the United States is not and never has been interested in human rights in any sort of universal or objective way.  The United States is only interested in the selective, instrumental exploitation of human rights concerns to undermine governments it does not like.  As Washington has co-opted, and corrupted, the human rights agenda in this way, it has also undermined its credibility to address human rights in Iran or anywhere else.  Moreover, as the question implies, America’s professed concern for human rights in Iran is especially hypocritical so long as the United States continues what I would call its “dirty war” against the Islamic Republic—including economic warfare targeting civilians (through sanctions), cyber-attacks, and support for groups doing things inside Iran that, in other places, Washington condemns as “terrorism.”

Q:  It seems that the sanctions are not simply aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program but the main objective of the sanctions is seemingly to create social unrest in Iran which can finally lead to a regime change.  So, what’s the message which the sanctions impart?  Diplomacy or conspiracy?

A:  Since the Iranian revolution, no American administration—not even that of Barack Hussein Obama—has been prepared to accept the Islamic Republic as a legitimate and enduring political entity, representing legitimate national interests.  Every administration has seen the Islamic Republic as fragile and vulnerable to internal subversion, and has sought in various ways to encourage such subversion.  Of course, it has not worked, but this outlook continues to dominate mainstream foreign policy discussions in the United States about Iran. 

U.S. sanctions policy toward Iran needs to be seen in this context. The proposition that sanctions are somehow intended to promote a diplomatic “solution” is, to put it bluntly, dishonest. Consider the way that the sanctions have been drawn up.  Even just a few years ago, most of them were imposed by executive orders, which are more or less at the discretion of the White House.  Now, though, most of the sanctions have been written into law, which greatly reduces the President’s ability to pull back on them as part of a negotiating process, or to lift them even if Iran acceded to all U.S. demands on the nuclear issue.

Regarding this point, look at the language in current U.S. law on sanctions.  Even if the Islamic Republic allowed the U.S. government to come in, dismantle every centrifuge in Iran, and take them back to the United States—like Qadhafi did in Libya—there would still be no legal basis for the President to lift sanctions.  The law says that, in order for sanctions to be lifted, the President would also have to certify to Congress that Iran had stopped all dealings with resistance movements like Hizbullah and Hamas, which the United States persists in calling terrorist organizations, and that the Islamic Republic had effectively turned itself into a secular liberal “Republic of Iran” to meet U.S. standards on “human rights.” 

That’s not a serious approach to diplomacy.  The argument that sanctions are somehow meant to encourage a diplomatic outcome is detached from reality.

Q:  Along with the expansion of sanctions, the resistance of the Iranian nation has increased, as well.  Why haven’t the sanctions had the effects the West desires, whether in the political or social level? 

A:  There is no case in history in which sanctions have prompted a target population to rise up, overthrow their government, and replace it with a government prepared to adopt policies sought by the sanctioning power.  That has literally never happened.  Even in Iraq, where for twelve years the United States led the way in imposing sanctions so severe they killed more than a million Iraqis (half of them children), the population did not rise up to overthrow Saddam Hussain.  That took a massive U.S. invasion—and even then, the United States did not get a “pro-American” government in Baghdad. 

Beyond this history, the Islamic Republic, as I have come to understand it, is the product of a revolution that had, as one of its highest priorities, the restoration of Iran’s effective sovereignty and independence after a century and a half of domination by Western powers. 

Q:  The experts say that something around 15-20% of the current price of the oil is a result of the EU’s oil embargo against Iran.  How much has the oil embargo influenced the EU’s economy in the current critical juncture?

A:  In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when some European elites had serious ambitions for the European Union to emerge as an independent force in international affairs, capable of balancing the United States, European nations pursued an at least somewhat independent policy toward Iran.  However, with the collapse of the EU’s constitutional project in the mid 2000s, European elites calculated that the next-best way for Europe to have influence in the Middle East is by helping the United States pursue its hegemonic ambitions in the region

To understand what I am talking about, just look at the extraordinary shift in the Middle East policies of France and Germany.  Both of those countries were absolutely right in anticipating what a strategic and moral disaster America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq would be, and in refusing to go along with the United States in this ill-conceived campaign.  But within just a few years of having been right on Iraq—and having been proved right by events on the ground there—the French and German governments aligned themselves almost completely with Washington’s Middle East policies. 

As a result of this shift, Europe has, over the last few years, almost completely subordinated its Iran policy to that of the United States—even though, as the question implies, this imposes additional costs on European economies at a time when those economies are already under significant strain.  A few EU countries, like Sweden, continue trying, on the margins, to keep some element of rationality in European discussions on Iran, but they are fighting a losing battle.

Q:  Currently a number of countries implement the sanctions for different reasons, but several others don’t, so the sanctions have practically turned into an economic opportunity for those countries which haven’t put into effect the sanctions because those countries that adopt the sanctions have deprived themselves of a robust and profitable trade with Iran.  Are the sanctions capable of curtailing or stopping Iran’s foreign trade?

A: I agree with the premise of the question.  Those countries which comply with illegal U.S. secondary sanctions and limit their trade with the Islamic Republic are ultimately hurting themselves more than they may hurt Iran.  Sanctions may distort Iran’s foreign trade to some degree, but they cannot stop it.

Q: Complementing the sanctions with valid threats of military strike and intelligence operations are among the most important advices given by Israel to Europe and the United States.  How much successful have these countries been in sabotaging Iran’s security?

A: They have not been successful at all.  I hope that my country will not engage in overt military aggression against the Islamic Republic.  If, however, the United States is so foolish as to launch another war in the Middle East, to disarm yet another Middle Eastern state of weapons of mass destruction it does not have, I believe that the blowback to U.S. interests in the region will be disastrous for America’s strategic position.  The United States will be the big loser in such a war.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Holding Carnegie to Account for War-Mongering Dressed Up as “Analysis” of Iran’s Nuclear Program

Many (including us) have sought to push back against the rampant misinformation and analytic nonsense that passes for mainstream reporting and analysis on the Iranian nuclear issue.  But the misinformation (disinformation?) and nonsense continues—as exemplified by the recent “study” by Karim Sadjadpour and Ali Vaez, Iran’s Nuclear Odyssey:  Costs and Risks, published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP).  Late last week, our colleague at Iran Affairs, Cyrus Safdari, published a wonderfully sharp critique of Iran’s Nuclear Odyssey.  While we encourage everyone to read it at Iran Affairs, we think it deserves the widest possible circulation, and therefore are pleased to re-post it below:   

By Cyrus Safdari, from www.iranaffairs.com

While I applaud the conclusion that the US has to take a more realistic stance with respect to Iran’s enrichment program, the material on the nuclear program itself is, frankly, egregiously inaccurate and amounts to a series of bile-spitting non-sequiturs and outright falsehoods that should not have been published with the imprimatur of the CEIP.  I won’t bore anyone with a page-by-page criticism, though there is in fact something worthy of criticism on every page, but all-in-all their arguments are the same gripes that have been tossed around in exile circles for a while now and are often contradicted within the same report.  The contradictions are not highlighted but are instead artfully evaded, and we are also presented with footnotes to sources that either do not support the assertions they’re cited for, or even contradict them. 

I’ll just limit myself to 5 issues and will save the funniest bit for the last:

1- The authors repeatedly emphasize that the size of Iran’s uranium deposits and the capacity of the facilities at Natanz are insufficient to support a totally independent domestic nuclear fuel program—leaving out that the Iranians have repeatedly stated that they did not plan to rely exclusively on domestic fuel to power their nuclear program, but had developed the program as bargaining chip and a hedge against price increases and foreign cut-offs.  In fact, Mr Salehi specifically made this point in an interview published in the Financial Times in 2004: 

“Natanz, with all its vastness, can supply only one reactor for a year.  We are to construct seven reactors, we are starting the bid for the twin reactor in Bushehr in a year’s time, so for that one we need to buy our uranium from outside…We say that for other plants we are going to buy our fuel from outside, but we are not going to become hostage to their wishes.  Once they know we can develop our own enrichment, then they will enter into bargaining with us—like any other country.” (SOURCE: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/52c8d7b8-027c-11d9-a968-00000e2511c8.html#axzz2QjGRroFt)

2- The most egregious section is entitled Concealment (1984-2002) on page 8, in which the authors go to great lengths to characterize Iran’s nuclear program as being secret and having military aims.  They claim matter-of-factly that the motivation for the decision to restart the nuclear program was for it to serve as a “deterrence option” in the face of Saddam, and then they go to great lengths making a connection between AQ Khan and the program as proof of the military nature of the program.  Strangely, the evidence they provide for this matter-of-fact statement about a military motivation is footnote 38, an opinion piece written by Rasool Nafisi in the Iranian.com in 2006, which in no way supports their assertions of fact.  (In his article, Mr Nafisi in turn refers to correspondence between Commander Rezai and Ayatollah Khomeini in 1988, in which Rezai stated that Iran could not hope to win the war with Iraq unless there was a massive—and totally unrealistic—increase in Iran’s armaments including nuclear weapons.  Khomeini did not take this seriously, and as Mr Nafisi himself writes in the article, some have latched onto this correspondence and spin it as the long-sought evidence of Iran’s nuclear weapons aims.) 

Sajadpour and Vaez also claim that “Iran’s uranium enrichment program was thus born in secret” and assert that the facility in Natanz was “clandestine”, and that China had provided nuclear material to Iran in secret, etc. etc.  Reality begs to differ with all of this.  First of all, Iran was not legally required to formally declare the facility at Natanz when the ISIS/MEK “exposure” of the site occurred, and the same applies to the heavy water project.  And while the timeline as presented by the authors shows a large gap in Iran’s enrichment program between 1979 when “work was suspended” and 1986 when the AQ Khan “Doctor No” character is introduced, there was in fact a lot more going on—events which, when not deliberately ignored, paint an entirely different image than the impression the authors’ try to convey. 

For example, In April 1979 Fereydun Sahabi, then Deputy Minister of Energy and Supervisor of the Atomic Energy Organization, specifically stated in an interview that while the nuclear program would be cut back, the Iranian “Atomic Energy Organization’s activities regarding prospecting and extraction of uranium would continue.”  In fact, far from reinvigorating a “secret” nuclear program in the late 1980 as a deterrent to Saddam, Iranian national radio reported the discovery of Uranium in Dec 1981, March 1982, and again in Jan 1985. 

The 1982 national radio broadcast specifically quoted the director of Isfahan nuclear technology center, Mr Saidi, as stating quite explicitly that Iran was going to import the necessary technology to develop the enrichment program, too.  

Furthermore, Mark Hibbs, one of the consultants in this report, wrote in Nuclear Fuel magazine in 2003 that the Iranians and the IAEA had intended to launch a joint program to develop enrichment facilities in Iran but that the US stopped the IAEA from doing so in 1983.  The motivations for the Iranians going to AQ Khan was thus not due to secret military aims as this report seeks to imply, but because the US had systematically obstructed Iran’s efforts to obtain the civilian nuclear technology that it was entitled to have under the NPT.  (While the authors mention the US interference in multiple Iranian nuclear contracts with foreign nations, they pretend not to notice that this contradicts their own thesis of a “secret” nuclear program in Iran.) 

Further information missing from this report is the fact that IAEA officials had visited Iran’s uranium mines at the invitation of the Iranians in 1992.  And while the authors mention that US pressure ended Iran-Sino nuclear cooperation, they fail to mention that Iran told the IAEA in 1996 that they would complete the uranium conversion facility by themselves, and that the Iranians formally declared the facility to the IAEA in 2000—almost three years prior to the dramatic MEK/ISIS “exposure” of Iran’s supposedly “secret” nuclear program. 

I won’t continue debunking the finer points in this section, but all of this information is a matter of public record (the Iranian radio broadcasts were translated by the BBC World Service and can be obtained on Lexis.)  Therefore, I consider the authors’ presentation of such a one-sided and contra-factual narrative of events as evidence of bad faith and an agenda which taints the rest of the report, too. 

3- The authors go on quite a bit about the supposed lack of attention paid to alternative energy sources in Iran, for example by repeatedly emphasizing the potential for natural gas.  They fail to mention that Iran has massively increased its consumption of natural gas in recent years, and in fact today more than 75% of Iran’s electricity comes from natural gas.  Furthermore they leave out hydroelectric power, which currently accounts for about 3% of Iran’s electricity production, and that Iran has invested heavily in constructing some of the largest hydroelectric dams in the world.  Thus, to characterize Iran as mono-maniacally pursuing nuclear power is simply inaccurate and false.  In fact, if anything the sanctions have harmed Iran’s development of alternative energy sources—in addition to investing in wind power, Iran is a manufacturer exporter of wind energy turbines, for example, but has had a hard time obtaining the material used for the rotors due the sanctions.  Indeed much of the “costs” that the authors attribute to Iran’s nuclear program are actually costs of the sanctions and not the nuclear program itself, but while they insist that Iran should abandon its nuclear program, lifting sanctions is apparently beyond the pale.  Here, I am not interested in debating the economics of nuclear power, as I am sure you can ask 10 economists and get 13 answers.  Ultimately, as an investigation by a Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the British Parliament concluded, “arguments as to whether Iran has a genuine requirement for domestically-produced nuclear electricity are not all, or even predominantly, on one side” and neither the US or any other country has a right to tell Iran how to run its own economy, especially at the point of a gun barrel. 

4- In criticizing Bushehr, the authors repeatedly use “Chernobyl “as a scare word, never mind that the reactor at Chernobyl was fundamentally of an entirely different design than the sort of light-water reactor used at Bushehr which has an excellent safety record and is used worldwide.  They also repeatedly refer to the UAE and Germany as a model for Iran, but leave out quite a few facts. Let us put aside the fact that Germany and the UAE are very fundamentally different countries and cannot be compared to Iran, whether in terms of economic development, strategic considerations or energy demand.  The media often report that Germany has phased out nuclear power and has instead substituted renewable sources (specifically, solar power) but in fact Germany has already started to experience energy shortfalls, which have been compensated for by non-renewable sources such as natural gas imports, a significant increase in coal power (making up for 80% of the shortfall, according to Wikipedia) and nuclear-generated electricity from the Czech Republic.  And, while the US “123 Agreement” with UAE does indeed require the UAE to “renounce” (as the authors put it) enrichment or reprocessing of nuclear material (thus earning the agreement the “Gold Standard” label in non-proliferation circles) in fact the agreement is only limited to US-origin nuclear material, and furthermore the agreement specifically allows the UAE to renegotiate the deal in the future.  Countries more comparable to Iran have not agreed to give up enrichment as part of a bilateral 123 Agreement with the US, and recently S Korea stopped negotiations over their renewal of their 123 Agreement with the US over this issue.  In short, the UAE deal is not only not a model for Iran, it isn’t even a model for other countries.  As one arms control wonk pointed out recently, far from serving as a Gold Model, the UAE agreement is little more than “a sui generis case unlikely to be replicated that creates a misleading impression about U.S. leverage over certain partners.” (SOURCE: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/08/01/it_s_not_as_easy_as_1_2_3

5- And finally, we come to a bit of comedy.  According to the authors, the fact that the US and Israel released the Stuxnet virus on Iran and assassinated nuclear scientists there is proof that Iran can’t be relied upon to run a nuclear program which safeguards nuclear material from non-state actors who are presumably out to steal Iran’s enriched uranium.  Here, the authors site an AP article as proof of an impending disaster at Bushehr due to Stuxnet (footnote 195.)  However, if you actually read the AP report cited, you’d see that that it has been misrepresented.  According to the AP article cited, the report in question was issued by “a nation closely monitoring Iran’s nuclear program”—Russians, Israelis, Chinese?—and the report itself actually stated that “such conclusions were premature and based on the ‘casual assessment’ of Russian and Iranian scientists at Bushehr.”  The AP article then goes on to quote a cyber-security experts and Russian nuclear experts stating that Stuxnet could not in fact have damaged Bushehr.

But aside from that, the argument itself is weirdly illogical on several counts.  First of all, the US and Israel, which everyone assumes were behind Stuxnet and the assassinations, are not “non-state actors.”  Furthermore, nuclear scientists in any country tend to die when bombs are attached to their cars, and Stuxnet went on to wreak havoc well beyond Iran’s borders (in fact by some accounts Iran wasn’t even the primary victim of the virus).  But what I am really curious to know is what the authors think these mythical non-state actors can do with stolen Iranian enriched uranium because, aside from tossing it at someone’s head, the stuff isn’t actually particularly dangerous.  It has low-level radioactivity, but certainly cannot be used for a bomb. In gaseous form, it is highly corrosive—but so is Fluorine, an industrial gas which can be purchased commercially far more easily.  Of course once irradiated, fuel rods made from enriched uranium are highly radioactive, but in the case of any attempted theft of the stuff the first victim would be the fool who tried to steal it. 

As I said, I am not going to bore anyone with debunking what is a series of half-baked claims that are hardly new or interesting, especially since it doesn’t seem that too many people have actually read the entire report.  The more interesting question for me is what role the Carnegie Endowment had in vetting this report before it was published under their name.  After the Iraq war, the Washington Post and New York Times submitted a weak mea culpa for misleading their readers about “WMDs in Iraq” (even though particularly in the case of the New York Times, the lessons learned were quickly forgotten as Michael Gordon once again pushed out scaremongering articles consisting of a long series of anonymous government official quotes, etc.) but there has been no real accounting for the role of the think tanks in pushing that nonsense.  I am not aware of any academic study of the role of think tanks in that fiasco, and don’t expect to see it now but if such an academic study is undertaken, this report by Mr Vaez and Sadjadpour should serve as Exhibit A of one-sided and inaccurate, agenda-driven reports published under the guise of scholarship.  Where is the peer review?  Where is the balance?  Where is the accountability?

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


The Strategic and Moral Bankruptcy of U.S. Sanctions Policy Toward Iran—Flynt Leverett and Trita Parsi on HuffPost Live

The Obama administration and other sanctions advocates claim that U.S.-instigated sanctions against the Islamic Republic are meant to achieve a range of objectives (changing Iran’s “nuclear calculus,” getting Iran “back to the negotiating table” and making it “negotiate in good faith,” strengthening the “credibility and leverage” of “pro-engagement camps” inside Iran, preventing military action by the United States and Israel, “political signaling” at home and abroad, and maintaining “unity” within the P5+1).

Appearing on HuffPost Live earlier this month, click here or on the above video. Flynt pointed out that, in fact, U.S.-instigated sanctions against Iran are achieving virtually none of the objectives sanctions proponents claim they are intended to achieve:  “Other than, possibly, sanctions as a stand in for military action by the United States or Israel, other than that I don’t think the sanctions are working to achieve any of the objectives.”
More pointedly, Flynt took on the analytic conclusions and policy recommendations regarding U.S. sanctions policy advanced by National Iranian American Council (NIAC) president Trita Parsi—who also appeared on the HuffPost Live segment with Flynt—and a recent NIAC study on sanctions.  We have long criticized NIAC’s position on sanctions—favoring “targeted sanctions” against the Iranian government while claiming to oppose broad-based sanctions that impact ordinary Iranians—as an intellectually incoherent and politically hypocritical posture that enables the Obama administration’s illegal, morally offensive, and strategically counter-productive sanctions policy.  Now Parsi and NIAC are trying to help the administration figure out how to make this illegal, morally offensive, and strategically counter-productive policy more “effective.”
More specifically, Flynt pushed back against Trita’s argument that, while sanctions have put “a tremendous amount of pressure on [the Iranian] economy,” they have not “changed the calculus of the Tehran regime” on the nuclear issue, because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei has a “strong and dominant narrative” that “depicts the West as being invariably against Iran’s development, that this is actually not about the nuclear program—it’s about the West trying to subdue Iran, making it dependent.”  For sanctions to alter Tehran’s nuclear calculus, Parsi holds, the Obama administration needs to shape “a countervailing narrative to this.”

Responding to this argument, Flynt notes,

“Trita has framed it in terms of the Supreme Leader having a ‘narrative’ about what sanctions say about U.S. intentions toward Iran and that there needs to be some sort of countervailing narrative.  In fact, there’s not a countervailing narrative because, in many ways, the Supreme Leader’s narrative about the nuclear issue and about America’s ultimate intentions toward the Islamic Republic [is] not wrong.

The Supreme Leader has said, just within the last couple of weeks, if the United States wants a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue, it’s very easy:  recognize Iran’s right to safeguarded enrichment, stop trying to get them to suspend, stop trying to get them to go to zero enrichment and we can have a nuclear deal.  But the Obama administration, even though it’s had multiple opportunities to make clear that that’s where it wants to go, refuses to do that.  Its stated position is it still wants to get Iran to a full suspension—stop enriching uranium.  And as long as that’s the case, there is no countervailing narrative that can be had; the Supreme Leader’s narrative is actually validated.”

Flynt goes on to underscore that “the way the sanctions have been drawn up, and the fact that whereas even just a few years ago, most of them were imposed by executive orders (which are more or less at the discretion of the White House), but now most of the sanctions have been written into law,” belies the proposition that sanctions are somehow intended to promote a diplomatic solution:

“If you actually look at the language in the bills—that these are the conditions Iran would have to meet in order for the President to be able to say ‘we’ve satisfied these conditions and I’m therefore lifting sanctions’—the Islamic Republic could allow the U.S. government to come in, dismantle every centrifuge in Iran, cart them back to [the U.S. nuclear laboratory at] Oak Ridge (like Qadhafi in Libya did), and there would still not be a legal basis for lifting the sanctions.  [The Iranians would also] have to stop talking to, dealing with groups like Hizballah and HAMAS, that we want to call terrorist groups, and they basically have to turn themselves into a secular liberal democracy in order to meet our standards on ‘human rights.’  The President can’t lift them, even if the Iranians surrender to him on the nuclear issue.  So the idea that this is somehow meant to encourage a diplomatic outcome…that’s just not real.”

With regard to the impact of sanctions, another HuffPost Live panelist—Sune Engel Rasmussen, a Danish journalist who has reported from Tehran—points out that, “in living standards, Iran is not a developing country, and it’s a lot more affluent than many of the neighboring countries…If you were in Tehran for a week, for example, except when you changed your money you might not get a sense of this insane inflation.  Because you still have big billboards advertising clothes stores, you still have a lot of cars in the streets, people are still shopping, you still have people drinking three or four dollar cappuccinos in north Tehran.  That doesn’t mean the average Iranian is not suffering…But then when you talk about whether that leads to civil unrest, for example, then we also have to remember that many Iranians still remember an eight-year war with Iraq, when they were living on food stamps.  So they’ve seen a lot more suffering than they’re seeing now.”

Picking up on Sune’s observations, Flynt elaborates on the impact of sanctions—including their indirect contribution to Iranian economic reform:

“Anyone who has been in Tehran recently, you can talk to people and definitely get a sense of how sanctions are making daily life harder for more and more people.  But the idea that the economy is collapsing is just not borne out by on-the-ground reality.

It’s also worth pointing out—and I’ve had any number of Iranians, official and otherwise, say this to me—that sanctions, in some ways, actually help Iran, in that they give the government a kind of political cover to take some steps toward what you might call economic reform, that would be politically difficult otherwiseIran has done more to expand non-oil exports, it is less dependent on oil revenues for both its government budget and to cover its imports, than any other major oil-exporting country in the Middle East.  It has done far more in that kind of diversification than Saudi Arabia or any of the states on the other side of the Persian Gulf

[Take] the issue of the devaluation of the currency:  the Iranian riyal has been overvalued for at least a decade, but no Iranian government has been able or willing actually to let the riyal come back to something like its natural value.  Now, because of sanctions, this has happened.  And as a result, Iran’s non-oil exports have become much more competitive, and are growing.  In percentage terms, they can now cover 50-60 percent of their imports with non-oil exports.

Finally, on the question of whether sanctions amount to economic war against Iran, Flynt says, “We’re at war, and it’s not just an economic war.  We’re engaged in cyber-attacks against high-value Iranian targets, we’re sponsoring covert operations by groups inside Iran that, in any other country in the world, we would call terrorist operations.  We are definitely waging war against the Islamic Republic.”

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett  


Glenn Greenwald and the Leveretts Talk Iran—and How Two Former Spear-Carriers for Empire Got “Radicalized”

Glenn Greenwald interviewed us for a “Podcast Discussion with Two of America’s Leading Iran Experts:  The Leveretts,” now published by the Guardian (click on the podcast screen above or here).  We admire Glenn deeply for all he has done and continues to do to bring reality and principle back into America’s ongoing debates about national security and about civil liberties—and to explain, tirelessly, how those two debates are inextricably linked.  If our children inherit a republic still even marginally worthy of the name, it will be, in no small part, because enough people were motivated by Glenn to demand that American elites stop eviscerating our country’s international position through a counter-productive quest for imperial dominance, and stop shredding the Constitution in pursuit of an illusory notion of “security.”

Our discussion with Glenn covered some of the myths about the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy and internal politics that warp America’s Iran debate.  It also explores, as Glenn’s subtitle for the podcast post puts it, how did “two former officials of the US National Security State become the most vocal critics of US policy toward Tehran.”  We’ve been reluctant to talk, or even really think about ourselves as having been “radicalized.”  But Glenn has a definition of radicalization that describes our experience very well:  it is a “re-examination process” that some went through after the 9/11 attacks and the disastrous choices that the United States made in responding to them—a process “of going back to scratch and rebuilding your belief system, with the understanding that so much of what it contained was propagandistic, or mythological, or otherwise false.”

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett