The nuclear talks between the P5 plus 1 (the permanent five UN Security Council members plus Germany) and Iran entered the drafting phase in Vienna on May 13. The objective is to reach a final deal in the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program by July 20, although the talks could be extended by mutual agreement for another six months. But the Obama administration is demanding a deep reduction in Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities, which makes a successful conclusion of the negotiations highly unlikely.
This deal-killing demand is not based on an objective assessment of Iran’s nuclear program. It has been justified by the highly politicized concept of “breakout,” which refers to the time it would take Iran, in theory, to enrich enough uranium to weapons-grade level for a single nuclear weapon. But the administration’s embrace of the breakout concept is based on a false narrative about an alleged past covert Iranian nuclear weapons program, which the Obama administration inherited without the slightest questioning from the George W. Bush administration.
The Obama administration’s decision to demand draconian cuts was adumbrated by Robert Einhorn, who was the State Department’s special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control until June 2013. In a report published this past March, Einhorn wrote, “The number and type of centrifuges will be limited to ensure that breakout times are…a minimum of 6 to 12 months at all times.” And in a later article in The National Interest, Einhorn explained what that would mean in terms of reduction from Iran’s present 19,000 centrifuges: “an enrichment capacity greater than a few thousand first-generation centrifuges would give Iran an unacceptably rapid breakout capability.”
Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed that Einhorn revelation in testimony on April 8 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Responding to committee chairman Robert Menendez’s complaint that the administration would allow Iran to accumulate enough weapons-grade uranium to make a single nuclear weapon within six to twelve months of a decision to do so, Kerry said, “I’m not saying that’s what we’d settle for,” hinting that the administration might demand an even longer breakout period. And he defended six to twelve months as “significantly more” than the two months he said was estimated to be the existing Iranian breakout capability.
The insistence on such a reduction in Iran’s enrichment capability is certain to be rejected. Iran has long asserted that it needs a much greater number of centrifuges than specified in US demands, enough to provide nuclear fuel for future nuclear power reactors as they come online. Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif explained to me in an interview on June 3 that Iran is proposing to reassure the United States and its negotiating partners that it isn’t interested in breakout; it will do so by converting all low-enriched uranium immediately into a form that would not be available for weapons-grade enrichment (around 90 percent purity), and then into fuel assemblies for a nuclear reactor.
The Obama administration has taken the position that Iran has no legitimate need to produce its own reactor fuel and should rely instead on the Russians and the French for its supply. Zarif told me, however, that it is “thirty years too late” to tell the Iranians that they must rely on other states for their nuclear fuel. He pointed to the long history of agreements with other states, both on nuclear fuel supply and other forms of nuclear cooperation, on which the other states have reneged.
France, under US pressure, refused to provide enriched uranium fuel assemblies to Iran in the early 1980s despite earlier legal arrangements to do so. It was precisely because US intervention had eliminated the possibility of reliance on foreign enrichment that Iran decided in the mid-1980s to develop its own enrichment capability. That lesson was underlined once again when Russia, under US pressure, delayed the shipment of nuclear fuel for the Bushehr power plant in 2005–06 in order to pressure Iran to cease enrichment entirely.
The insistence that Iran must not be allowed to have the enrichment facilities that would support a civilian nuclear program is the logical consequence of a false narrative about Iran—namely, that Tehran has been systematically concealing a nuclear weapons program that was active at least as late 2003. This view, now almost universally accepted by the US national security establishment and political elites in the United States and Europe, has been reinforced by nearly a decade of mainstream media coverage. The centerpiece of the narrative is the idea that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has published, in the form of two sets of intelligence documents, hard evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program at least from 2001 to 2003.
The first set of documents, which surfaced in 2004, was said to have come from the laptop computer of an Iranian scientist working on the program. It included a series of drawings of efforts to integrate a nuclear weapon into the re-entry vehicle of Iran’s Shahab-3 missile. Descriptions of those drawings were leaked to selected journalists from 2005 on, generating sensational media stories of a “smoking gun” of nuclear weapons intent.
The US National Intelligence Estimates of 2005 and 2007, which concluded that Iran had carried out a nuclear weapons program, were based in large part on the assumption that those documents were genuine. The IAEA described them as “credible” in 2008—despite the fact that its director general at the time, Mohamed ElBaradei, warned repeatedly that their authenticity had not been established.
But a fundamental error in the re-entry vehicle documents proves they were fabricated: the missile they showed had been abandoned by 2000—two years before the drawings were made—in favor of an improved model whose re-entry vehicle bore no resemblance to that of the old model. And the real story of those documents, revealed to me last year by Karsten Voigt, a former senior official in Germany’s foreign ministry, is that they were turned over to Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, the BND, by a member of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), the cult-like Iranian terrorist group that has been fighting the Tehran regime ever since the early 1980s. Furthermore, a senior BND official told Voigt that German intelligence officials regarded the source as “doubtful” and were concerned about what appeared to them to be the Bush administration’s intention to base its Iran policy on those documents.
The MEK role in transferring the documents indicates that they originated in Israel, because the MEK had been serving as a client of Israel for several years, including the “laundering” of Israeli intelligence reports by presenting them to the IAEA and the press as coming from the MEK itself. Israel also provided a new series of documents and intelligence reports to the IAEA in 2008 and 2009 claiming that Iran had been testing nuclear weapons designs and had continued to work on other components of nuclear weapons well after 2003. Although the IAEA never mentioned Israel publicly, former director general ElBaradei reveals in his memoirs that Israel provided the documents directly. After ElBaradei was succeeded by the more pliable Yukia Amano, the IAEA used those Israeli-supplied documents as the basis for its November 2011 report, which made a series of new accusations about Iranian nuclear weapons research projects going beyond the alleged 2001–03 program.
The unquestioning acceptance of this false narrative has shifted the political discourse surrounding the nuclear negotiations sharply toward the Israeli position. As a result, the Obama administration is more vulnerable to the propaganda war against negotiations that Israel’s clients in Congress are waging.
The biggest impact of the false narrative has been to impose the concept of breakout on the administration’s diplomatic posture. That concept is always presented as merely a technical tool to measure Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon. Its real significance, however, is the assumption implicit in it that the Islamic Republic has been working feverishly to obtain nuclear weapons and must be prevented by US power from doing so.
During the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, ruled out the possession of weapons of mass destruction as illicit under Islam, even as Iraq was inflicting horrific casualties on Iran with chemical weapons attacks. That episode makes the fatwa against nuclear weapons by the present supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, entirely credible.
The actual behavior of Iran in recent years has also belied the breakout narrative. By early 2010, breakout theory advocates were already claiming that Iran could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb in just six months. The Ahmadinejad government leaned toward an extreme nationalist, anti-Western political constituency, and at the time there were neither active negotiations nor punishing sanctions on Iran’s oil industry that would have provided an incentive to slow a race toward breakout capacity. But instead of using the years from 2010 to mid-2012 to begin enriching to weapons grade, Iran moved in the opposite direction. It did not use more than half the centrifuges it already had in place to enrich uranium, and it began converting much of its 20-percent-enriched uranium to oxide form, making it far more difficult and time-consuming to enrich to weapons-grade levels.
In fact, the breakout concept is based on an entirely implausible assumption—that Iran would deliberately invite confrontation with the United States by rushing to enrich enough uranium for a single bomb—one that would not even be available for use for as long as three or four years, according to US intelligence estimates.
The narrative that now threatens to plunge the United States into much more dangerous tensions with Iran is the most successful example of a fundamental and persistent problem of US national security policy. Falsified intelligence was used to get the US public to go along with wars in Vietnam and Iraq. The falsehoods about the Tonkin Gulf incident before the Vietnam buildup and Iraq’s alleged WMD programs before the Iraq War were eventually unmasked, albeit after US troops had been committed.
The success of the false narrative on Iran has been facilitated by the disappearance of the investigative function of Congress and the corporate media. Resistance to the manipulation of opinion on national security issues can only be successful if we strengthen the ability of independent media to alert Americans to strategic falsehoods early in their gestation.
Read Next: Eli Clifton on how the media misrepresents Iran’s nuclear program