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.


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


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”.


The Use of Force, the Reflexive Resort to Economic Sanctions, and the Trials of America’s Hegemonic Mindset

As negotiations toward a “final” nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran continue, it is important to consider to what extent the world might be witnessing a fundamental change in American foreign policy.  We are inclined to think that the Obama administration would not have gone as far down the diplomatic road with Iran as it has in the absence of President Obama’s self-inflicted debacle over his declared intention to attack Syria after chemical weapons were used there in August 2013.  This episode drove home—to the Obama administration as well as to most of the rest of the world—that the United States can no longer credibly threaten to use military force in the Middle East for hegemonic purposes.

After the American public so resoundingly rebuffed Obama’s call for U.S. military action, his administration was compelled to conclude that starting down the diplomatic road with Iran was politically less costly than pushing for more sanctions and continuing to insist that the “military option” was still “on the table.”  But can the Obama administration really go all the way to a comprehensive realignment of relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran—and, in the process, show that the United States can shift proactively from a counterproductive drive to dominate the Middle East to serious engagement with all important regional powers, and not just slink out of region in defeat?

Making such a shift will require Washington to relinquish the self-damaging delusion that the United States can actually maintain hegemony in the Middle East on an open-ended basisAmerica’s reaction to the ongoing Ukraine crisis suggests that American elites are having a very difficult time giving up this delusion.

Yesterday, the United States and its European partners pushed to have the United Nations Security Council vote on a resolution condemning today’s referendum on the future status of Crimea; for video of the Security Council’s deliberations, see here.  As everyone knew going into the Council’s deliberations, Russia vetoed the resolution (China abstained).  But it was still a great occasion for the United States and its partners to offer more pompous bloviation on the issue.

In terms of pompous bloviation—bloviation that is so deeply rooted in its author’s unreflective addiction to the idea of America as benign hegemon that he can’t even recognize the obvious hypocrisy of what he is saying—it is hard to beat this segment from NBC’s Meet the Press, see here, with Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this month, just after the Ukraine crisis had broken out.  Blind to the self-damning irony of what he is saying, Kerry proclaims (see 1:46 into the video), “You just don’t invade another country on phony pretexts in order to assert your interests.”

Predictably, NBC’s ever-deferential David Gregory steered clear of the obvious come-back question.  Fortunately, Jon Stewart didn’t.  Playing the clip of Kerry intoning, “You just don’t invade another country on phony pretexts in order to assert your interests,” Stewart—see here, 5:25 into the video—immediately adds, “Any more.”  Shifting into his best John Kerry impersonation, Stewart goes on:  “Trust me, that is so 2003.  I mean I voted for it even though I was against it at the time.  What happened was I ran for president…I should go.”  (Of course, even Jon Stewart can’t quite see that, notwithstanding his criticism of the Iraq War, he has himself advocated U.S. intervention—on phony pretexts—in Libya and Syria.)

Similarly hegemonic delusion is reflected in the transatlantic spouting of “ideas” on how to hurt Russia’s economy with sanctions—ideas that, as the Financial Times’ James McKintosh notes, range “from the impractical to the pointless.”  Brookings Institution president Strobe Talbott blithely claimed that Russia’s banking sector “has made quite a lot of progress in plugging into the global system.  That means it is vulnerable, and a good lever for applying pressure.”

Western sanctions may well afflict some transitory discomfort on some parts of Russia’s economy.  But the reality is that a lot of Western financial institutions, especially in Europe, have themselves become dependent on Russian capital; as this capital is pulled out of these institutions in anticipation of sanctions, Western banks will suffer, too.  For the United States, Russia has become over the last decade a significant purchaser and holder of U.S. Treasury securities.  How does it serve American interests for Washington to incentivize the dumping of Russia’s Treasury holdings and to cut Russia off as a future buyer of U.S. government debt?

And, of course, there is the surfeit of triumphalism about how America can leverage its “shale revolution” to weaken Russia’s strategic position by exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe.  For those who seem to think that the United States could be exporting gas to Eastern Europe and parts of the former Soviet Union within months (if not weeks), if only Washington would issue more export licenses, we would note that it takes literally years and costs at least $10 billion to develop an LNG train.  More broadly, the idea that the United States will ever produce enough LNG for export at sufficiently low price points to undercut the enormous built-in advantages that an established major gas producer like Russia enjoys in building and retaining its gas export markets in Eurasia seems, to say the least, highly fanciful.

American foreign policy remains far removed from some of the most basic elements of rational (and reality-based) strategy and diplomacy.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


The Ukraine Crisis and the Future of Iran-Russia Relations

Relations with Russia have always been one of the more complicated aspects of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy.  Following the Iranian Revolution, a fledgling Islamic Republic under severe threat from the United States began cultivating closer relations with Moscow in the late 1980s—even before the Soviet Union’s final collapse—and continued doing so after the Soviet Union had given way to the Russian Federation.  Yet, while the Islamic Republic has a clear interest in positive relations with Russia, Iranian policymakers have always been skeptical that their Russian counterparts really welcome Iran’s emergence as an independent regional power; they have also watched Moscow periodically compromise relations with Tehran to curry favor with Washington.

Last week, as the Ukraine crisis heated up, both Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and President Hassan Rohani’s chief of staff, Mohammad Nahavandian, made statements—see here and here—pointedly noting that Iran would be a reliable energy supplier for Europe.   It strikes us as tactically smart, especially in the context of the Ukraine crisis, for Tehran to highlight its interest in accessing European energy markets—and, in the process, to underscore for Moscow and others that Iran has options for promoting its economic and strategic goals.  After all, if Iran’s relations with the West improve, Russia may have to “work harder”—that is, provide more tangible payoffs to Tehran—to maintain the kind of relationship with the Islamic Republic that Moscow wants.

But there is also a risk that Iran could be perceived as putting itself forward to help the West—against Russia—on a matter that Moscow considers a vital interest.  For an important analysis of Washington’s refusal to respect post-Soviet Russia’s core security interests, see here for an interview with the brilliant Russia scholar Steve Cohen.  (The interview with Cohen starts 4:53 into the linked video, after an interview with former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.)

So how will the Ukraine crisis affect the Kremlin’s calculations about Russia’s Iran policy?  On this point, we want to highlight a provocative analytic piece, see here, published last week by Fyodor Lukyanov.  (Lukyanov—among other things, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and a member of the Russian Council for International Affairs—is, in our experience, an exceptionally interesting analyst of Russian Middle East policy.)  We also encourage all of you to weigh in with your views.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett