Antagonizing Iran: A Strategic Miscalculation

Al Jazeera has published another outstanding Op Ed—“Antagonising Iran:  A Strategic Miscalculation?”—by our Iranian colleague, Seyed Mohammad Marandi, Dean of the University of Tehran’s Faculty of World Studies.  It underscores the hypocrisy inherent in the West’s approach to the Iranian nuclear issue, and to the Islamic Republic of Iran more generally.  It also points out that unremitting Western hostility toward the Islamic Republic is ultimately counter-productive for Western interests.

To read the piece online, click here; we’ve also appended the text below.  As always, we encourage readers to offer comments both on this site and on Al Jazeera’s Web site.

Antagonizing Iran:  A Strategic Miscalculation?

by Seyed Mohammad Marandi

Even though it was a major exporter of crude oil and held some of the world’s largest natural gas reserves, Iran made a compelling case over half-a-century ago that it needed, almost immediately, to produce an additional 20,000 megawatts of electricity by constructing 23 nuclear power plants.  At the same time, Iran’s government made the case that the country needed to acquire the capacity to enrich uranium in order to fabricate the reactor fuel for such an ambitious programme.

Western governments eagerly endorsed these arguments, praising Iran’s then Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s ambition to rapidly modernise Iran while overlooking the reality that he was presiding over a ruthless dictatorship and diverting much needed capital to purchase massive amounts of weapons from the US and other Western countries.  And so, during the 1960s and 1970s, billions of dollars were invested in establishing an Iranian nuclear programme and training thousands of Iranian nuclear experts in the West—until Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution replaced the monarchy with an Islamic Republic.

After charging enormous sums of money to build the infrastructure for a comprehensive nuclear industry in Iran, Western companies pulled out of the country, leaving large numbers of highly qualified experts and scholars wondering about their fate.  Iran’s new political leaders recognised the importance of an advanced nuclear programme to progress in fields such as medicine, agriculture, industry and energy; attempts were made to find foreign partners to complete the projects, but with little success.  Progress in Iran’s nuclear development only resumed after Iranians learned to rely on themselves and their own scientists to move the programme forward.

The US, which had enthusiastically supported Iran’s nuclear programme under the Western-backed shah, had now become Tehran’s leading antagonist, relentlessly threatening countries to refrain from cooperating with Iran.  Not only were friendly countries coerced into steering clear of Iran’s nuclear programme, they were even warned not to invest in Iran’s oil and gas industry.

The nuclear issue

The nuclear issue later became an excuse for the US, eventually joined by the EU, to impose “crippling sanctions” on Iran, in order to inflict severe pain on ordinary Iranians.  Among other things, these sanctions led to a critical shortage of imported medicines in Iran.  As a result, large numbers of children and cancer patients have died.  This outcome calls to mind then US Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright’s response to a question about the more than half-a-million Iraqi children who had died because of US-instigated sanctions:  “We think the price was worth it.”

By now, the US and its European allies have accrued abundant experience imposing suffering on ordinary Iranians.  Before the revolution, they imposed and maintained a brutal monarchy in Iran.  After the revolution, the US gave refuge to the shah and his henchmen (which led to the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran) and confiscated Iranian assets.

During the 1980s, Washington supported then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s ruthless aggression against Iran.  Not only did it assist the Iraqi dictator in producing chemical weapons and provide him with satellite photos so that his army could use them with greater precision against Iranian civilians as well as combatants, it even blocked the UN Security Council from identifying, condemning, or taking action against the perpetrator of these incredible crimes against humanity.

Following Saddam’s massacre of 5,000 Iraqi Kurds in Halabja in 1988, the US government—though aware of the facts—nonetheless attempted to attribute this atrocity to Iran.  Thousands of Iranians continue to suffer and die today because of such barbarism—yet, despite all this, the Islamic Republic has always refused to use or even to produce chemical or biological weapons.

Over the years, the West’s acts of sustained violence against the Iranian people have steadily grown—downing a civilian airliner, destroying naval ships and oil installations, support for groups conducting terrorist strikes inside Iran, and carrying out cyber-attacks.

Despite these grievances, successive administrations in Iran have repeatedly indicated that, if the US moves to recognise and respect the Islamic Republic as a sovereign and independent country, rapprochement would still be possible.  Iranian officials have frequently stated that respecting Iran’s rights, including its right to peaceful nuclear energy within the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is a prerequisite for normalised relations and would significantly decrease regional tensions.

Many Iranians are convinced that their country’s offers for reconciliation have been rejected by Washington and its Western partners because of Iran’s opposition to apartheid in Palestine and the enormous influence of the Zionist lobby in the US.  In turn, the Islamic Republic’s determination to be a truly independent country motivates Western powers to seek to delegitimise it.

During former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration, Western governments and media outlets relentlessly attempted to depict the former president as a major threat to regional and global peace (paradoxically, when it suited the Western narrative, he was also portrayed as powerless). Following the 2009 Iranian presidential election, Western “experts” and policymakers cited unrest in Tehran (encouraged by Western-affiliated media outlets) to justify their refusal to come to terms with Ahmadinejad’s victory and attempted to depict him and the Islamic Republic as illegitimate.

With the election of President Hassan Rouhani, the anti-Iranian lobby and Western propaganda machine faced a different situation.  The new president was elected under the same electoral process used during the previous election and with a very high turnout.  Hence, it became clear that Iranians continue to trust the polling procedures and ignored claims of illegitimacy and fraud.

Demonising the new president has also become more difficult because of the sharp contrast between Rouhani’s approach and rhetoric and that of Ahmadinejad’s.  The new president has been careful not to make statements that could be wilfully mistranslated by Western media—a regular feature of their coverage of the former president.

‘Heroic flexibility’

Rouhani also took a more conciliatory approach towards the West, in order to provide an opportunity for the US government to reconsider what Iranians believe to be is its historically emotional and irrational attitude towards the Islamic Republic.

To this end, the new Iranian administration initiated an approach that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called “heroic flexibility,” to examine whether the Western members of the so called P5+1 (US, Russia, China, UK, France plus Germany) are serious about a mutually acceptable negotiated settlement.  The initial result of this approach was the Joint Plan of Action concluded with regard to the nuclear issue in November 2013.

Despite the existence of an already intrusive IAEA inspection regime that has never revealed anything more than a peaceful civilian nuclear programme, the Iranian government agreed to even further transparency going far beyond its international obligations. These and other goodwill gestures came at a price, as some Iranians began to raise questions about the degree of flexibility being shown.

Nevertheless, US President Barack Obama and other senior US officials continue to threaten Iran with military strikes and to refrain from explicitly acknowledging Iran’s full nuclear rights.  This has increased suspicions among Iranians that the US still clings to a destructive, zero-sum worldview and that it believes it can somehow force Rouhani to sign away Iran’s sovereign rights.  This is a potentially dangerous misunderstanding of the Iranian president’s position and could lead to disastrous Western miscalculations.

Regardless of their moral implications, Western policies in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, and Syria in recent years have already had devastating consequences for the US’ global strategic position.  In this regard, the cases of Iran and Ukraine are particularly interesting examples of how the continuation of such policies by the US and its partners can inflict even more damage on their standing and influence around the world.

To force Iranian capitulation, Western countries have, among other things, excluded Iran, with the world’s second-largest proven reserves of natural gas, from the EU market, thus consolidating a Russian near-monopoly.  And now that they wish to impose a Kiev-based coup regime on southern and eastern Ukraine, they have almost no cards to play.  Ironically, crippling sanctions have started to cripple the tormentor.

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“Energy Independence” and the Perpetuation of America’s Hegemonic Delusions

Last month, Flynt gave a presentation on “Energy Independence” as part of the U.S. Army War College’s “Great Decisions” lecture series.  The Army War College has posted a video of Flynt’s presentation on its You Tube channel (yes, the U.S. Army War College has a You Tube channel); we share it here and above.

In recent years, talk about “energy independence” in the United States has taken on a more assertive, even triumphalist tone as American elites embrace the proposition that the so-called “shale revolution” will revive America as energy superpower and enable it to vanquish pesky, uncooperative hydrocarbon powers like Iran, Russia, and Venezuela.  Flynt offers a radically contrarian take on the shale revolution’s strategic impact, and warns that Washington should not let unrealistic views of the global energy balance prompt it to double down on its longstanding—and failing—drive for the illusion of global hegemony.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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Iran, Orientalism, and Western Illusions about Syria—A View from Tehran

Al Jazeera has published a brilliant op-ed—”Iran, Orientalism and Western Illusions about Syria”—by our Iranian colleague, Seyed Mohammad Marandi, Dean of the University of Tehran’s Faculty of World Studies.  It is powerfully insightful on the ways in which orientalist stereotypes about the Muslim world warp Western views of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the conflict in Syria, and the demands of Arab populations for more participatory politics.  To read the piece online, click here; we’ve also appended the text below.  As always, we encourage readers to offer comments both on this site and on the Al Jazeera Web site.

We also highlight here Seymour Hersh’s latest piece for the London Review of Books, “The Red Line and the Rat Line,” see here.  Sy’s article makes a compelling case that the Obama administration knows its claims about the use of sarin gas by the Syrian government are false—and that rebel forces, supported by Turkish intelligence, are responsible for chemical weapons attacks inside Syria.

Given the accumulation of evidence on these points, we recall Hillary Mann Leverett’s prescient warnings about the veracity of the Obama administration’s “intelligence” purportedly showing that Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons in Ghouta last August; see here.

Iran, Orientalism and Western Illusions about Syria

Seyed Mohammad Marandi

One of the many strange paradoxes promoted for decades in the Western narrative on the Islamic Republic of Iran—consistently repeated by so-called “Iran experts,” government officials, and the Western propaganda machine in general—is that Iran is growing increasingly unstable and unpopular (if not imploding), yet simultaneously it is on the rise and its “menacing” influence can be felt throughout the region and beyond.

Of course, the internal contradictions of this discourse are linked to Orientalist stereotypes and attitudes prevalent in the West among mainstream secular liberals, pseudo-progressives, and neo-conservatives alike, who cannot grasp the possibility of a stable and legitimate political order that is not based on Western “values.”

For such people—even those critical of Western support for despots, extremism, apartheid in Palestine, mass surveillance and cyber warfare, hegemony, liberal capitalism, plutocracy, secret prisons and torture as well as the perpetual pursuit of “liberation” through coups, wars, drones, terror, assassinations, and carnage—these “values” and “ideas” are still somehow universal.  Thus, they view Western states as effectively exceptional or at least more civilised than others.  Even for the so-called “progressives,” despite these characteristics that have existed at least since the rise of colonialism, in the words of Joseph Conrad, “what redeems it is the idea only.”

Hence, pundits, academics, native informants, and other “experts” in Western think-tanks and corporate media, hold discussions and write books and articles, analysing the “pathologies” of countries like Iran for the benefit of a Western audience and often with an eye towards policymakers and funders.

At times they may critique Western governments, but mostly because they are not seen to be true to their values.  When it comes to the Islamic Republic of Iran, though, there are no values.  Hence, these people feel free to enhance Western “knowledge” and control with a free conscience, like their Orientalist forerunners.

Targeting Iran?

Nevertheless, despite immoral and inhumane US and EU sanctions, along with the constant vilification of Iran by these countries or the “international community” as they narcissistically call themselves, Iran arguably continues to be the most stable country in western Asia and North Africa.  Its model of participatory Islamic governance as well as its fiercely independent foreign policy has blunted Western, and particularly US, attempts to subjugate it as well as to portray it as some sort of regional if not global threat.  However, it would be useful to look at the case of Syria, where the Islamic Republic is regularly portrayed by its antagonists as a threat to stability and security.

From almost the start of the unrest in Syria, it became clear to Iranians that the main objective of Western attempts to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government was to target Iran, not to bring freedom to the Syrian people.  After all, the US and EU alongside the Saudi royal family supported the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships until their imminent collapse; in Gaza, the Palestinian people continue to be punished for voting for the “wrong” party.

During the Egyptian regime’s final days, the US vice president stressed Hosni Mubarak is not a dictator, but rather an ally who should not step down.  Weeks earlier, as the Tunisian regime was collapsing in the face of revolution, the French foreign minister promised to help Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s security forces maintain order.  As to Bahrain, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refused to criticise the Saudi-led occupation and even attempted to legitimise it, while US President Barack Obama spoke about the Bahraini regime’s “legitimate interest in the rule of law,” and subtly implied that the protesters were a minority group.

Unlike these regimes, Assad had and continues to have significant popular support.  While the Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Bahrain’s al-Khalifa dictatorships were unable to muster any support in the streets, during the first months of the conflict in Syria enormous crowds took to the streets in simultaneous pro-Assad demonstrations in major cities, on multiple occasions.  In addition, according to a poll carried out by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, 88 percent of those surveyed in Syria in 2013, believed that the current Turkish government has been unfriendly towards their homeland.

While Iran was openly critical of the violence of Syrian security forces against peaceful protesters with legitimate grievances (though incomparable to the August 14, 2013, Cairo massacre), it also knew that, as in Kiev, a third force was fanning the flames by firing upon both security forces as well as protesters.  This was confirmed by the report of the 300-strong Arab League observer mission led by Sudan’s former ambassador to Qatar.

Iran became more sceptical and alarmed when the bombings and suicide attacks began late in 2011.  It was obvious that extremists were carrying out the attacks, yet the militant and foreign-backed opposition along with their regional and Western backers accused the Syrian government of attacking its own military intelligence buildings, just as they later provided highly dubious evidence to prove that the government carried out chemical attacks.

Minorities threatened

The Iranians believed that a number of oil-rich monarchies in the Persian Gulf, with Western coordination and logistical support were—in violation of international law—heavily funding sectarian extremists and al-Qaeda affiliates.  For over two years the Western mainstream media, experts and policymakers downplayed and even ridiculed such claims—until finally the problem grew so large that it became impossible to hide the monster that the West and its Arab allies in the Persian Gulf had created.

Instead of pursuing the Kofi Annan plan, which Iran had supported, these countries wrecked it as they thought they could steamroll their way into Damascus within weeks or months.  Apparently, for the US and its allies these were simply more “birth pangs of a new Middle East”—or perhaps a dagger through the heart of the Islamic Republic, where innocent Syrians must pay the price.  Now, over 100,000 deaths and millions of refugees later, the Western narrative often sounds quite similar to what Iranians have been saying for over three years.

Extremist and sectarian Salafi clerics repeatedly gave fatwas permitting the slaughter of minorities on satellite television channels.  The Saudi-based “mainstream” cleric Saleh al-Luhaidan also said:  “Kill a third of Syrians so the other two-thirds may live.”

As a result, this had become an existential threat to the people of the region.  Nevertheless, it was only after tens of thousands of foreign extremists had already entered Syria through this broad multinational support network that, with Syrian government approval, Hezbollah entered the Sayyida Zaynab neighbourhood in limited numbers to protect the shrine of the Holy Prophet’s granddaughter; their first casualty was reported in late June 2012. Hezbollah’s major involvement only began in April 2013 during the battle for al-Qusayr.  From an Iranian perspective, to blame Hezbollah for entering Syria is absurd.

In any case, it is clear that—as the Iranians were saying from the start—the Syrian government will not collapse and that the only way forward is for this reality to be acknowledged.  Continued support for foreign extremists and al-Qaeda affiliates is no longer simply a regional threat; it has become a global threat much greater than what existed in Afghanistan.  Setting preconditions for one side of the Syrian conflict or the other simply means more death and destruction.  The international community must come together to support an election where the Syrian people choose their own leadership and for everyone to accept the results.

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Can the West Get Out of Its (Self-Made) Cul-de-Sac in Syria?

Earlier this week, The World Financial Review published our latest article, on Syria—“Can the West Get Out of Its (Self-Made) Cul-de-Sac in Syria?”  Click here to read it online (with footnotes); the text is also appended below.  As always, we encourage readers to offer comments both on this site and on The World Financial Review Web site.

Can the West Get Out of Its (Self-Made) Cul-de-Sac?

 In recent years, the limits on America’s ability to shape important outcomes in the Middle East unilaterally—or even with a few European partners—have been dramatically underscored by strategically failed interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.  Last year, President Obama’s inability to act on his declared intention to attack Syria after chemical weapons were used there in August made clear that Washington can no longer credibly threaten the effective use of force in the region.  Still, American and other Western elites persist in thinking they can dictate the Middle East’s future by helping armed insurgents overthrow Syria’s recognized government.  If Western powers don’t drop their insistence that President Bashar al-Assad leave power—even though he retains the support of a majority of Syrians and is winning his fight against opposition forces—and get serious about facilitating a political settlement between Assad and parts of the opposition, they will do further damage to their own already distressed position in the Middle East.   

Since protests broke out in parts of Syria in March 2011, Western policy has focused on destabilizing President Assad and his government.  American, British, and French decision-makers calculated that, by undermining Assad, they could inflict a damaging blow to Iran’s regional position.  They also reckoned that targeting Assad would help coopt the Arab Awakening that had emerged in the months preceding the start of unrest in Syria.  America and its British and French partners wanted to show that, after the loss of pro-Western regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and near misses in Bahrain and Yemen, it wasn’t just authoritarian regimes willing to subordinate their foreign policies to Washington that were at risk from popular discontent.  Western powers wanted to demonstrate that it was also possible to challenge governments—like Assad’s—committed to foreign policy independence.

So, soon after unrest began in Syria, Washington and its European partners declared—as President Obama put it—that Assad “must go.”  To this end, Western powers began goading an externally supported but internally conflicted “opposition” to mount an armed insurgency against Assad’s government.

Roots of Failure

Since the Cold War, pursuit of regime change by externally supported coups and insurgencies has come to seem an almost “normal” aspect of American foreign policy, used by U.S. administrations to eliminate governments seen as overly challenging to American ambitions or to deprive geopolitical rivals of allies.  This approach, though, flies in the face of the most basic principles of international law and politics.  What is the West’s moral high ground for preaching rule of law and observance of international norms when America and its partners regularly support the overthrow of recognized governments?  (Vladimir Putin is not alone in noting Western hypocrisy on this point; for many Middle Easterners, Western encouragement of the overthrow of Ukraine’s elected government evokes U.S.-backed coups in their part of the world, from Iran in 1953 to Egypt last year.)

But, to paraphrase Talleyrand, Western strategy toward the Syrian conflict is worse than a crime; it’s a mistake.  From the start, anyone prepared to look soberly at on-the-ground reality in Syria could see that arming a deeply divided opposition would not bring down Assad.  All that outside support for armed oppositionists—a sizable percentage of whom are not even Syrian—has done is to take what began as indigenously generated protest over particular grievances and, from early on, turn it into a heavily militarized (and illegal) campaign against the recognized government of a United Nations member state.  But the popular base for opposition to that government is too small to sustain a campaign that could actually bring it down—much less replace it with a functionally coherent order that Westerners could plausibly describe as “democracy.”

Since Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafiz, became Syria’s president in 1970, the main alternative to the Assads’ secular Ba’athism has been Sunni Islamism.  For much of Hafiz’s thirty-year tenure, this was embodied in Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, which—unlike the original Brothers in Egypt—conducted a violent, sustained, but ultimately unsuccessful revolt against the elder Assad.  Since Bashar succeeded his father in 2000, the Islamist alternative has been embodied in more radical groups—some openly aligned to al-Qa’ida.

This is problematic for those who want to challenge the Assads.  While a majority of Syrians are Sunni Arabs, those Syrians who don’t want to live in a Sunni Islamist state—including non-Islamist Sunnis along with Christians and non-Sunni Muslims—add up to more than half the population, providing the Assad government a strong base.  Since early 2011, polling data, participation in the February 2012 referendum on a new constitution, participation in the May 2012 parliamentary elections, and other evidence indicate that at least half of Syrian society has continued to back Assad.  There is no polling or other evidence indicating that anywhere close to a majority of Syrians wants Assad replaced by some part of the opposition.  Indeed, NATO estimates that opposition support is declining as it becomes ever more sharply divided among secular liberals (mostly resident in London, Paris, and Washington, with little standing in Syria), Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamists (whose current standing in Syria is also questionable), and more radical, al-Qa’ida-like jihadis (the most effective opposition fighters).

The Rising Costs of Hubris

The West’s Syria strategy has backfired against virtually all the constituencies it was ostensibly intended to help.  It has also backfired against Western interests.

Syria, of course, has paid the highest price of all, with over 130,000 killed (so far) and millions more displaced as a result of fighting between opposition elements and government forces.  Iran—from the West’s perspective, the real target of the anti-Assad campaign—has had to bear the costs of stepped up support for the Syrian government.  But the Western strategy of working with oppositionists to effect Assad’s downfall has not undermined Iran’s regional position.  At the same time, the Syrian conflict is imposing increasingly serious security, economic, and political costs on Syria’s neighbors, especially Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey—costs that, as they mount, could potentially threaten these countries’ long-term stability.  More broadly, the conflict is helping to fuel a dangerous resurgence of sectarian tensions across the Middle East—in turn, giving new life to al-Qa’ida and similar jihadi movements around the region.

America and its British and French partners have not paid in blood or (much) treasure for their proxy intervention in Syria.  They are, however, suffering various forms of self-inflicted damage to their own regional position—like the accelerating proliferation of violent jihadis.

It was utterly predictable that encouraging Saudi Arabia’s assumption of a leading role in funding and supplying Syrian oppositionists would condition the rise of violent, al-Qa’ida-like fighters to prominence in opposition ranks.  America and its European allies have experience working with Saudi Arabia to fund jihadis willing to target a perceived common enemy.  They tried it in Afghanistan and got al-Qa’ida and the Taliban as a result.  They tried it in Libya and got a dead U.S. ambassador and three other murdered official Americans as a result.  Yet Western powers opted to try this approach once again in Syria.  And today, the U.S. Intelligence Community estimates that 26,000 “extremists” are now fighting in Syria—more than 7,000 of them brought in from outside the country.  U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warns that many want not just to bring down the Assad government; they are preparing to attack Western interests—including the American homeland—directly.

Western powers are also paying for their ill-conceived Syria policy through increasing polarization of relations with Russia and China.  Intelligence services for all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council have identified Syrian-based jihadi extremism as a significant and growing security threat.  The American, British, and French governments have only themselves to blame for this. The Russian and Chinese governments blame America, Britain, and France.

Strategically, the Syrian conflict has prompted closer Sino-Russian cooperation against Western efforts to usurp the Middle East’s balance of power by overthrowing independent regional governments.  On March 17, 2011, the Security Council narrowly adopted a resolution authorizing use of force to protect civilian populations in Libya; Russia and China abstained, permitting the measure’s enactment.  In short order, though, Washington and its partners distorted the resolution to turn civilian protection into a campaign of coercive regime change in Libya.  Within weeks, Russian and Chinese officials were openly characterizing their acquiescence to the Libya resolution as a “mistake”—one they would not repeat on Syria.  As early as June 2011, Moscow and Beijing indicated they were prepared to use their UN veto to block external intervention in Syria; they have done so three times already, and are ready to do so again, if necessary.

Western policy toward Syria has hardly persuaded Middle Eastern publics that the West actually supports their interest in political change.  By backing Syrian oppositionists and calling for Assad to go, America and its European partners hoped to show that, somewhere in the Middle East, they could put themselves on the “right” side of history.  But the hard truth—which Western posturing on Syria can’t obscure—is that demands by Arab publics for leaderships accountable to them, not to Washington and its allies, directly threaten the West’s longstanding strategy of securing regional dominance by partnering with local autocrats.  (For the West, the problem with Assad isn’t that he is an autocrat, but that he hasn’t been a cooperative one.)  Washington’s not-so-tacit support for the (Saudi-backed) July 2013 coup against Egypt’s elected government removed any residual doubt that an America intent of preserving its hegemonic prerogatives can endorse moves toward real democracy in the Middle East.

Clinging to a Failing Policy 

The only way out of the Syrian conflict is serious diplomacy to facilitate a political settlement based on power sharing between the Assad government and elements of the opposition.  Russia, China, Iran, and even the Assad government have all acknowledged this.  But, by staking out a maximalist demand for Assad’s removal, Obama and his European partners have severely truncated prospects for a negotiated solution.

This was on full display in the “Geneva II” peace conference in January.  America and its partners insist that the June 2012 “Geneva I” blueprint for a settlement to the conflict requires Assad to relinquish power.  This is, to say the least, disingenuous.  At Geneva I, America, Britain, and France wanted language in the final communiqué barring Assad from any future political role; Russia and China insisted that such language be left out—and it was.  Western powers have nonetheless continued claiming that the Geneva I blueprint bans Assad from being part of a transitional government or from standing for election after a settlement is reached—even though this is clearly not true.  Washington and its British and French partners blocked Iran from taking part in Geneva II—even though Tehran is critical to any serious effort to resolve the conflict—precisely because Iran will not accept their warped reading of Geneva I as to Assad’s future.  As a result, Geneva II has so far produced only limited relief for civilians in the besieged city of Homs, with no progress on the issues at the heart of the conflict.

As Syrian government forces continue making gains on the battlefield, Assad and his supporters may well be preparing a potentially decisive political challenge to the opposition and its Western supporters.  Syria is supposed to hold its next presidential election this year—the first under the constitution adopted in 2012, which permits multi-candidate, multi-party elections.  Assad and his government will work hard to hold this election—and challenge the opposition to run candidates against him.  If Assad is able to hold the election, he will win—thereby underscoring his standing as the legitimate head of the internationally recognized government of Syria, and further marginalizing the opposition.

How many more Syrians will have to die before the United States and its partners get serious about conflict resolution in Syria?

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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The False Intelligence Behind the “Manufactured Crisis” over Iran’s Nuclear Activities

We are pleased to publish the piece below by Gareth Porter, author of the new book, Manufactured Crisis:  The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, which offers an exceptionally thorough deconstruction of the intelligence (and media) “case” that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons.  We are grateful to Gareth for writing the piece, and commend his work to our readers.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett   

The False Intelligence Behind the “Manufactured Crisis” over Iran’s Nuclear Activities

Gareth Porter*

The world’s news media have long accepted without question the charge that Iran had for many years used its civilian nuclear program as a cover for a nuclear weapons program. That narrative has rested on intelligence documents and reports that were accepted as credible by the International Atomic Energy Agency.  The IAEA in turn has been treated in the news media as a non-political authority without any axe to grind.

But, as I document in detail in Manufactured Crisis, the intelligence documents at the heart of this narrative were fabrications created by the state with most obvious interest in promoting such a narrative—Israel.  The origin of the false intelligence was the ambition of the neoconservatives in the Bush administration and their Israeli ally to carry out regime change in Iran, which they believed would require the use of force, though not with large-scale ground troop as in Iraq.  They also believed that the only way to justify such a war would be to build a case that Iran was threatening to obtain nuclear weapons of mass destruction.

Against the backdrop of a political strategy for Iran, on which Undersecretary of State John Bolton was coordinating with Israel in 2003-04, a large cache of documents from a Iranian nuclear weapons research program came into the possession of Germany’s intelligence agency, the BND, late in the summer of 2004.  They included computer modeling of a series of efforts to integrate what appeared to be a nuclear weapon into the Shahab-3 Iranian missile, and experiments with high explosives that could be used to detonate a nuclear weapon.  Someone leaked to David Sanger of the New York Times that those documents had come from the laptop computer of an Iranian scientist involved in the alleged program who later feared that he had been discovered and managed to get the computer out through his wife.  U.S. officials told senior IAEA officials that they feared the “third party” that had brought out the documents was now dead, according to former Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei.

But that was a crudely constructed cover story to hide the real source of the documents.  In fact, the German intelligence agency, BND got those documents from a member of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), the Iranian terrorist organization that had become a client of Israel.  The MEK member was a sometime source for the agency,  but senior BND officials regarded the source as “doubtful,” according to former senior German official Karsten Voigt, who told me the whole story of his November 2004 conversation with his BND contacts on the record a year ago.

The senior BND officials had contacted Voigt, who was then coordinator of North-American relations for the foreign office, immediately after Secretary of State Colin Powell had made comments to reporters about “information” that Iran was “working hard” to combine a ballistic missile with “a weapon.”   The BND officials were alarmed that the Bush administration was intending to make a case for war against Iran based on those doubtful documents.

The sequence of events presented a remarkable series of parallels with the Bush administration’s exploitation of the BND source codenamed “Curveball” to make the case for war against Iraq less than two years earlier.  That Iraqi refugee in Germany—who turned out to be the brother of a senior official of Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Council—had told tales of Iraqi mobile bioweapons labs to the BND, which had passed them on to the CIA.  But BND officers had eventually begun to doubt his stories.  When George Tenet had asked BND chief August Hanning in December 2002 whether the United States could use the information publicly, Hanning had written a personal note to warn him that the United States should not rely on the information without further confirmation.  Colin Powell had nevertheless used the very information about which Hanning had warned as the centerpiece of the case for war in Iraq.  Now Powell was going public with another claim about WMD intelligence from another dubious source to make what sounded like the beginning of a case for war against another adversary of the United States.

Voigt believed the senior BND officials wanted him to issue another warning to the United States not to rely on these documents, and a few days later, he did give such a warning in public, in a coded fashion. In an article in the Wall Street Journal Voigt was reported to have said the information to which Powell had referred had come from “an Iranian dissident group” and that the United States and Europe should not “let their Iran policy be influenced by single-source headlines.”

The BND officials were not the only ones who had questions about those documents.   Some U.S. intelligence analysts wondered why the purported nuclear weapons research project documents only included material about alleged high explosives experiments, a missile reentry vehicle and the design of another uranium conversion facility totally different from the one Iran had adopted after years of research, development and testing.  Why, they wondered was there nothing about weapons design?  And why was the work on the missile reentry vehicle amateurish – or, as David Albright put it to this writer in a September 2008 interview, “so primitive”?  Why was the design for a bench-scale conversion process marred by such fundamental flaws that the IAEA’s Olli Heinonen had to acknowledge in a February 2008 briefing that it had “technical inconsistencies.”

The documents also exhibited anomalies that were direct indicators of fraud.  The most dramatic was the fact that the studies modeling the missile reentry vehicle were based on the initial Shahab-3 missile, which the Iranian missile program is known to have begun to replace with an improved model as early as 2000 – two years before those modeling studies were said to have been started in mid-2002. The redesign of the reentry vehicle, which was a key to improved design, would have been far advanced by then, according to Michael Elleman of International Institute for Strategic Studies, who was the main author of an authoritative study of the Iranian ballistic missile program.  The shape of the new reentry vehicle, first revealed to the world when the new missile was flight tested in August 2004, bore no resemblance to the old one portrayed in the documents.  The authors of the documents had obviously been unaware of that complete redesign of the reentry vehicle, meaning that they could not have part of an Iranian Defense Ministry-sponsored program.

The creators of the collection of documents were clever enough to build them around an authentic document that could be verified as real and thereby lend credibility to a collection that otherwise lacked any evidence of authenticity.  But the document was not from inside the Iranian government but a letter from a high tech company to an Iranian engineering firm.  It would have been relatively easy for Mossad, which carries out constant surveillance of high tech companies, to acquire that document.  The document was then used to provide evidence of connections between different parts of the alleged project that was otherwise absent: anonymous handwriting on it referred to the reentry vehicle study.   Those touches reveal creators who were eager to maximize the political effect of the document and apparently not worried that they would be too obvious.

The daring of the venture as well as the fact that the actual document around which it was built would have been a routine discovery for Mossad leave little room for doubt about the Israeli origins of the collection.

The plan had been to have the IAEA focus entirely on what ElBaradei was calling the “alleged studies” once the “Work Program” negotiated with Iran on the various other issues the Agency had raised since 2004 was completed. But then came the National Intelligence Estimate of November 2007, which concluded that Iran had stopped the work on nuclear weapons that the intelligence community had been certain it had been doing for years in 2003.  That estimate all but eliminated the case for the use of force, so it created a serious problem for Israel.

The Israelis responded quickly, however, coming up with an entirely new series of intelligence documents and reports in 2008 and 2009 showing that Iranian nuclear weapons research and development program was far more advanced than previously believed.  Those documents were transmitted to the IAEA directly by Israel, according to ElBaradei’s memoirs, but the IAEA never disclosed that highly salient fact.

The first document arrived as early as April 2008, and the IAEA’s Safeguards Department immediately mentioned it in the May 2008 IAEA report.  It was a Farsi-language report on experiments with high explosives that was obviously intended to suggest the initiation of a hemispherical charge for an implosion nuclear weapon.

The very next IAEA report in September 2008 announced that the experiment “may have involved the assistance of foreign expertise.”   That was obviously a reference to a scholarly paper on a methodology for measuring intervals between explosions using fiber optic cables co-authored in 1992 by Ukrainian scientist Vyacheslav Danilenko, who had worked in Iran from 1999 to 2005.  The IAEA thus swallowed the implausible Israeli claim that a spy had obtained a top secret Iranian document on nuclear weapon-related experiments that just happened to involve the same methodology about which Danilenko had published.

The far more plausible sequence of events was that Mossad had discovered Danilenko’s work in Iran in a routine investigation of foreign personnel in the country and soon found out that he had worked at the Soviet nuclear weapons complex at Chelyabinsk and had published on a method for measuring explosive internals.  Those discoveries would have inspired the idea of secret Iran document describing high explosives experiments that would include a measurement technique that would implicate Danilenko—who would be portrayed as a Soviet nuclear weapons specialist—in the alleged Iran nuclear weapons program.

Further supporting that explanation for the appearance of the document is the fact that the most sensational intelligence claim in the November 2011 IAEA report involves yet another Danilenko publication.  The IAEA said it had “information” that Iran had built a high explosives containment chamber in 2000 “in which to conduct hydrodynamic experiments”, which it defines as tests to “simulate the first stages of a nuclear explosion”, at its Parchin military facility.  And it cited a publication by the same “foreign expert”—i.e., Danilenko—as allowing it to “confirm the date of construction of the cylinder and some of its design features (such as its dimensions).”

That Danilenko publication, however, was actually on the design of an explosives chamber for the production of nanodiamonds.  The drawing of the chamber accompanying the article, moreover, displays features, such as air and water systems for cooling the tank immediately before and after the explosion, that would have made it unusable for the purpose of testing nuclear weapons designs.  Despite having worked in a Soviet nuclear weapons complex for many years, Danilenko had worked from the beginning of his career on explosive synthesis of nanodiamonds, which involved no knowledge of nuclear weapons or of methods for testing them.  (The first American to discover nanodiamonds synthesis, Dr. Ray Grenier, who had also worked for many years in Los Alamos National Laboratory, the top U.S. nuclear weapons complex, told me that he himself had never worked on anything directly connected with nuclear weapons, and that all of his work on nanodiamonds synthesis had been unclassified.)

The IAEA never produced any confirming evidence for the tale of the bomb test chamber at Parchin provided by Israel.  Former IAEA chief inspector in Iraq Robert Kelley, who had also been project leader for nuclear intelligence at Los Alamos national laboratory and head of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Remote Sensing Laboratory, immediately pointed out that the IAEA description of the alleged explosive containment chamber and its intended purpose made no sense technically.  Kelley observed that the capacity of the alleged chamber to contain 70 kilograms of high explosives reported by the IAEA would have been as “far too small” for the kind of hydrodynamic nuclear tests the report claimed as its purpose. Kelley and three other intelligence experts on photo interpretation also pointed out that the satellite photos of the site at Parchin indicate that it displays none of the characteristics that would be associated with a high explosives testing site.

And Iran’s behavior in regard to the site in Parchin contradicts the notion that it needed to hide evidence of nuclear testing there.  Iran allowed the IAEA to pick any five sites in one of the four quadrants of Parchin to visit and take environmental samples in February 2005 and then did the same thing again in November 2005.   And the IAEA reported in February 2012 that it had obtained the complete run of satellite photos of the site from February 2005 to February 2012 and found that there was no evidence of any significant activity at the site for the entire seven years.

The tainted intelligence underlying the charges of a covert Iranian nuclear weapons program is now one of the major issues in the nuclear negotiations with Iran.   The introduction of the demand that Iran must satisfy the IAEA indicates either that the Obama administration believes completely in the official nuclear narrative and is dangerously overconfident about its bargaining position or that the administration has been assured by IAEA director general Yukiya Amano that he will do what is necessary to reach agreement with Iran on the issue of “possible military dimensions” of the nuclear program.  In either case, the fate of the false intelligence and the fate of the nuclear talks are now deeply intertwined.

* Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian who writes on U.S. national security issues.  His latest book Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, was published in February by Just World Books.  In 2012 he received the Gellhorn Prize for journalism awarded by the UK-based Gellhorn Trust.  Columbia University international relations specialist Robert Jervis called his previous book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, “[t]he most important contribution to our understanding of the war in Vietnam since the Pentagon Papers”.

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