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The Iranian Threat That Never Was

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If you take politicians and the mainstream media seriously, you believe that Iran wants a nuclear weapon and has relentlessly engaged in covert efforts to build one. Even if you are aware that Iran signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and is subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections, you may believe that those who run the Islamic Republic have cleverly found ways to construct a nuclear-weapons industry almost undetected. Therefore, you may conclude, Democratic and Republican administrations have been justified in pressuring Iran to come clean and give up its “nuclear program.”

But you would be wrong.

Anyone naturally skeptical about such foreign-policy alarms has by now found solid alternative reporting that debunks the official narrative about the alleged Iranian threat. Much of that reporting has come from Gareth Porter, the journalist and historian associated with Inter Press Service. Porter has done us the favor of collecting the fruits of his dogged investigative journalism into a single comprehensive and accessible volume, Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

A grain of truth can be found at the core of the official story. Iranian officials did indeed engage in secret activities to achieve a nuclear capability. But it was a capability aimed at generating electricity and medical treatments, not hydrogen bombs.

Porter opens his book by explaining why Iran used secretive rather than open methods. Recall that before the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran was ruled by an autocratic monarch, the shah. The shah’s power had been eclipsed in the early 1950s by a democratically elected parliament. Then, in 1953, America’s Eisenhower administration sent the CIA in to foment civil discord in order to drive the elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, from office and restore the shah’s power.

During his reign, the shah, a close ally of the United States and Israel, started building a nuclear-power industry — with America’s blessing. Iran’s Bushehr reactor was 80 percent complete when the shah was overthrown.

When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became Iran’s supreme leader in 1979, he cancelled completion of the reactor and stopped related projects. But “two years later, the government reversed the decision to strip the [Atomic Energy Organization of Iran] of its budget and staff, largely because the severe electricity shortages that marked the first two years of the revolutionary era persuaded policymakers that there might be a role for nuclear power reactors after all,” Porter writes.

The new regime’s goals were “extremely modest compared with those of the shah,” Porter adds, consisting of one power plant and fuel purchased from France. Take note: the Iranian government did not aspire to enrich uranium, which is the big scare issue these days.

Iran brought the IAEA into its planning process, Porter writes, and an agency official, after conducting a survey of facilities, “recommended that the IAEA provide ‘expert services’ in eight different fields.” Porter notes that the IAEA official said nothing about an Iranian request for help in enriching uranium, “reflecting the fact that Iran was still hoping to get enriched uranium from the French company, Eurodif.”

Had things continued along this path, Iran today would have had a transparent civilian nuclear industry, under the NPT safeguard, fueled by enriched uranium purchased from France or elsewhere. No one would be talking about Iranian centrifuges and nuclear weapons. What happened?

The Reagan administration happened.

Continuing the U.S. hostility toward the Islamic Republic begun by the Carter administration, and siding with Iraq when Saddam Hussein’s military attacked Iran, the Reagan administration imposed “a series of interventions … to prevent international assistance of any kind to the Iranian nuclear program.” Not only did President Reagan block American firms from helping the Iranians; he also pressured American allies to participate in the embargo. This was in clear violation of the NPT, which recognizes the “right” of participating states to acquire nuclear technology for civilian purposes.

No wonder Iran turned to covert channels, most particularly A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani who “was selling nuclear secrets surreptitiously.” This would have been the time for Iran to buy weapons-related technology — however, Porter writes, “there is no indication that [Khan’s Iranian contact] exhibited any interest in the technology for making a bomb.”

This is indeed a manufactured crisis.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.