The New York Review of Books Gets It Wrong on Iran

Iran Nuclear Scare Timeline Update XL:

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” — Aldous Huxley

post on The New York Review of Books blog today demonstrates a striking lack of understanding of the Iranian nuclear program, a sensationalized reading of the contents of the latest IAEA Safeguards Report, and a near-total regurgitation of official Israeli talking points regarding the imminent danger of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Written by Jeremy Bernstein, whose past commentary on Iran reveals his penchant for alarmism disguised as pragmatic realism, the article – entitled “Iran and the Bomb: An Update” – deliberately ignores all available evidence showing that Iran not only has no active nuclear weapons program but is also uninterested in developing an atomic bomb. This is a shame considering Bernstein knows a great deal about nuclear weapons and proliferation.

Mahmoud AhmadinejadBernstein’s post oozes with hasbara, from his contention that “the Israelis will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons” because “Iran’s nuclear program is [a] matter of existential importance” to his description of the newest IAEA report as “a very disturbing document.” He worries that, despite clandestine efforts to sabotage the program, Iran is now “producing enriched uranium at a faster rate” and has “produced some thirty kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium,” which he disingenuously describes as “the boundary between low and highly enriched uranium and is the stepping stone to the degree of enrichment needed to make a weapon.”

What Bernstein intentionally leaves out of his hysterical hand-wringing is the fact that Iran has been enriching uranium to 19.75% (which is almost invariably rounded up to 20% to sound more ominous, since enrichment to 20% and above constitutes “high-enriched” uranium, rather than “low-enriched”) for the sole purpose of continuing to provide much needed medical diagnostic isotopes for scanning and treating over 800,000 cancer patients. Iran turned to this higher level of enrichment only as a last resort to replenish its supply of medical isotopes which, after more than two decades, has been depleted (the last batch of 23 kg of 19.75% LEU was obtained in 1988 from Argentina). In advance of running out, Iran tried to purchase more on the open market under full IAEA supervision, yet this move was prevented by the United States and the subsequent LEU swap deal was canceled after the U.S. refused to act in good faith. The “stepping stone” of 19.75% LEU that Bernstein warns about is currently saving the lives of Iranian cancer patients.

Bernstein also omits the inconvenient fact that nuclear weapons grade uranium must be enriched to at least 90%, which is a considerably higher than the almost 20% needed for medical use. He also suggests that the Iranian use of laser technology “strongly suggests that the uranium is intended for use in a weapon” and insists that the Iranian plan to build ten new enrichment facilities is evidence of the intention to produce nuclear weapons, determining, “There is no imaginable need for such a proliferation of facilities for a peaceful program.”

With this statement, it would seem that Bernstein’s imagination does not include the possibility of an attempt to destroy Iran’s perfectly legal, constantly monitored enrichment capabilities, in which case the more facilities, the better for Iran’s own deterrence and the survival of its program. The idea of Iran protecting its own research, resources, and investments naturally frustrates those like Bernstein, who are threatened by the Islamic Republic’s sovereignty, self-determination, and self-defense.

Yet Bernstein himself acknowledges that such actions have already been taken by the United States and Israel in the form of the Stuxnet virus, which Bernstein laments was not particularly successful. (He also doesn’t describe the Stuxnet sabotage as a clear violation of the law and quite possibly an act of war). Moreover, Bernstein suggests that an Israeli military attack on Iran is not merely a possibility, it is inevitable. “It is very clear what the Israelis will do. They must have drawn a line in the sand,” he writes. “Perhaps they will wait until the Iranians test or perhaps they won’t.”

Bernstein never once mentions the legality of the Iranian nuclear program or the inalienable right of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signatories to “develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” In this way, he seems to share the paradoxical views of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who addressed Iran directly on Meet the Press in July 2009, saying, “You have a right to pursue the peaceful use of civil, nuclear power,” and then immediately contradicted herself by insisting, “You do not have the right to have the full enrichment and reprocessing cycle under your control.”

The NYRB post is also full of innuendo and insinuation, all of which relies on the foregone conclusion that Iranians are inherently devious and genocidal. At one point Bernstein dismisses the understandable Iranian contention that its Safeguard Agreement is legally binding and can not be exceeded just because the IAEA requests access to facilities not covered therein. With regard to Iran’s objections to IAEA overreach, he writes, “One can draw one’s own conclusions.” Apparently, Bernstein would suggest that anyone refusing to voluntarily subject themselves to a full body cavity search without a proper court order or warrant would imply that the person must be guilty of something. It’s the old illegal eavesdropping argument all over again: if you have nothing to hide, why object to a little wiretapping? Only terrorists care about the law! Abiding by the Constitution? Draw your own conclusions!

Bernstein’s warmongering relies on the deliberate omission of the recent confirmation by Pulitzer Prize laureate Seymour Hersh that there is literally no evidence that Iran has militarized, or has even considered weaponizing, its nuclear energy program – a fact well-known by both the U.S. and Israeli governments and their myriad intelligence agencies after considerable spying, surveillance, and infiltration. Naturally, even though he wrote this post days after the publication of Hersh’s new report, Bernstein makes absolutely no mention of it.

He does, however, betray his own ignorance about Iranian society when we expresses shock “that there seems to be no visible dissent against [the nuclear energy program] in Iran” and that he has “never heard [any Iranian] say anything negative about the country’s nuclear activities—quite the contrary, they seem to be a source of pride.” The reasons why there is no Iranian objection to the nuclear program are many; for one, Iranians make the important distinction between nuclear power and nuclear weaponry. To suggest that the Iranian public considers its legal nuclear energy program identical to a hypothetical atomic bomb program is incorrect. Also, Iranians are aware of the political nature of the efforts to halt its nuclear program, a scientific and technological achievement about which Iranians are indeed proud, as it decreases Iran’s dependence on foreign powers and moves Iran exponentially closer to energy self-sufficiency. Iranians are also well-informed as to their national rights as affirmed by the NPT and recognize American attempts to curtail those rights (as well as Israeli bluster and hypocrisy). Bernstein must know that, in 1953, the CIA – at the behest of the British government – engineered a coup to overthrow Iran’s burgeoning democracy and installed a brutal U.S.-backed dictator due to Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh’s efforts to nationalize Iran’s oil industry. As such, why is he surprised that Iranians refuse to allow similar domination over its energy sector almost six decades later?

Bernstein also trots out tired claims about the clandestine nature of Iran’s nuclear facilities and states that IAEA inspectors were “denied” access to the newest facility outside Qom. In February 2003, after Iran announced officially the existence of the Natanz facility (which it did within the timeframe mandated by Iran’s Safeguard Agreement with the IAEA, specifically, no later than 180 days before the site becomes operational), a spokeswoman for the IAEA confirmed, “This comes as no surprise to us, as we have been aware of this uranium exploration project for several years now. In fact, a senior IAEA official visited this mine in 1992.”

Furthermore, much ado was made about Iran’s Fordow facility near Qom, which was supposedly “revealed” to the world by Barack Obama last September. In reality, though, Iran had already announced this site to the IAEA earlier that week. IAEA spokesman Marc Vidricaire said, “I can confirm that on 21 September, Iran informed the IAEA in a letter that a new pilot fuel enrichment plant is under construction in the country.” Obama’s revelatory press conference was held on September 25th.

Under its safeguards agreement with the IAEA, Iran is not obligated to inform the Agency of any new facilities until six months before the introduction of nuclear material to the site. As such, since the Fordow enrichment plant was not yet operational, and wouldn’t be for another 18 months, Iran had broken no rules. In fact, the site was announced a full year before it needed to be. As Ali-Akbar Salehi, Iran’s nuclear chief, remarked, “This installation is not a secret one, which is why we announced its existence to the IAEA.” Ahmadinejad himself even felt the need to point out that the agreements and guidelines between Iran and the IAEA do not require approval by the United States. “We have no secrecy, we work within the framework of the IAEA,” he said. “This does not mean we must inform Mr Obama’s Administration of every facility that we have.”

It should also be made clear that Iran has made efforts above and beyond what is required by their treaty agreements to ensure that their nuclear program is peaceful and legitimate. These efforts include an offer of multinational enrichment within Iran four years ago (which would have provided numerous countries professional access to Iran’s program, thereby making it literally impossible for Iran to divert any material to military purposes in secret – something the IAEA has annually acknowledged Iran has never done). Also, Iran’s nuclear sites and facilities are all under the 24-hour video surveillance by the IAEA, allow access to IAEA inspectors and inspections, and are subject to material seals application by the Agency. Furthermore, even though it is not even allowed under Iran’s Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, as of February 2010, there had been 35 unannounced, surprise inspections of Iranian facilities since March 2007. There have surely been more since.

In May 2007, the IAEA publicly denied reports about Iran hampering inspections of its nuclear facilities, as required by its Safeguards Agreement. “There is no truth to media reports claiming that the IAEA was not able to get access,” IAEA spokesman Marc Vidricaire told reporters. “We have not been denied access at any time, including in the past few weeks.” He added, “Normally we do not comment on such reports but this time we felt we had to clarify the matter.”

IAEA inspectors have consistently had open access to the gas conversion facility at Esfahan, the enrichment facility at Natanz, and the new lightwater reactor at Bushehr, as well as the secondary enrichment facility under construction at Qom (which, again, Iran declared to the IAEA a full year before required to, when it was, as then-IAEA Secretary General Mohammed ElBaradei described “a hole in a mountain” and “nothing to be worried about”). Iran’s facilities continue to be monitored and supervised by the IAEA in full compliance with its Safeguards Agreement.

Iran has never been found by the IAEA to be in violation of the NPT. A statement made in June 2004 by the IAEA, rather, expressed concern that Iran might not be in full compliance with its safeguards obligations. This is not the same thing as violating the Treaty. Nevertheless, the IAEA resolution also welcomed Iran’s cooperation in granting the IAEA access to all requested facilities and merely called on Iran to resolve some “outstanding issues”, such as plutonium separation experiments. These issues have since been fully resolved.

The most egregious example of Bernstein’s adherence to the pathologically-dishonest Zionist narrative and fear-mongering about Iranian intentions is his reliance on this December 2001 quote by former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani:

If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in its possession, the strategy of colonization would face a stalemate because the application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel but the same thing would just produce damage in the Muslim world.

Fearing the inherent irrationality of the Muslim mind, Bernstein breathlessly analyzes Rafsanjani’s statement this way: “In other words, such a bomb would destroy Israel, but would produce only marginal damage in the Muslim world,” continuing, “If this is the general Iranian belief then a policy of deterrence would seem to be irrelevant: Rafsanjani is talking about a fight to the death that amounts to national suicide.”

With this determination (and his apparent ignorance or disbelief of Iran’s official “no first strike” policy), Bernstein reveals himself to hold a view similar to that of Israeli historian and ethnic cleansing justifier Benny Morris, who has stated, “There is a deep problem in Islam. It’s a world whose values are different. A world in which human life doesn’t have the same value as it does in the West, in which freedom, democracy, openness and creativity are alien…If it obtains chemical or biological or atomic weapons, it will use them. If it is able, it will also commit genocide…In that sense they are barbarians.”

Yet, if Bernstein actually read the entire speech given by Rafsanjani, instead of cutting and pasting this one cherry-picked and decontextualized passage, he’d know full well that his understanding of Rafsanjani’s statement is completely inverted. Last year, addressing career warmonger Jeffrey Goldberg’s use of the very same quote in his much-discussed cover story about a potential Israeli strike against Iran in The AtlanticForeign Policy Journal‘s Jeremy R. Hammond explained (forgive the lengthy quote, but no paraphrased version would do Hammond’s analysis justice):

The words come from a speech in which he [Rafsanjani] criticized Zionist crimes against the Palestinians, and U.S. support for those crimes. He emphasized that the struggle was not against the Jewish people, but the ideology of Zionism: “There are many Jews who don’t believe in Zionism. There are many Jewish scholars in America who have been active against these events.” He also observed that many Zionists are not Jewish. Discussing how Israel came into being, he said that the West supported the Zionist project to further its own colonialist and imperialist goals. “They have supplied vast quantities of weapons of mass destruction and unconventional weapons to Israel”, he said, including nuclear weapons.

He then suggested that the Islamic nations might themselves seek nuclear weapons as a deterrent to Western imperialism and Zionist aggression: “If one day, the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists’ strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality.” Suggesting he was referring to nations other than Iran when referring to “the Islamic world”, he added, “Now, even if that does not happen,they can still inflict greater costs on the imperialists” (emphasis added). He referred to the then recent terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and explained: “We cannot encourage that sort of thing either” (emphasis added).

In other words, he was not encouraging terrorism against the West or nuclear proliferation: “I am only talking about the natural course of developments. The natural course of developments is such that such things may happen.” Additionally, Rafsanjani noted the U.S. role in supporting Israeli violence against Palestinians, and said that the 9/11 attacks “can be a lesson for the Americans, particularly today, when, due to their aggressive moves and their mistakes, they have paved the way and made it possible for some groups to be armed with non-conventional weapons”. He added, “I would like to admonish the Westerners not allow to matters to go this far” [sic], that “They should not allow a situation of confrontation and antagonism”.

Thus, Rafsanjani was explicitly arguing against a situation wherein “the Islamic world” also possessed a nuclear weapon; he was merely making the point that if the West persists in its complicity in the oppression of the Palestinian people that this could very well come to be. It would be unfortunate if it came to that, in Rafsanjani’s view. But this does not stop Goldberg from quoting Rafsanjani out of context in order to imply, falsely, that he was making an explicit threat of nuclear attack against Israel.

Nothing stopped Bernstein, who has used this quote to similar effect before, either.

Bernstein’s peddling of propaganda shouldn’t be surprising however, considering his obvious bigotry against Iran and its people and consistent repetition of long-debunked myths. In August 2010, Bernstein wrote that “with the Iranians things are never quite as they appear.” In late 2009, he claimed that “Iran differs from its neighbors in that its president and indeed many of its leaders have a stated policy of destroying Israel.” Yup, the worn-out “wipe Israel off the map” nonsense. It is ridiculous to have to keep repeating that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has never once threatened to attack, let alone destroy, Israel.

Perhaps Bernstein got his information from George W. Bush who, while speaking on the Farsi-language U.S. government propaganda radio station, Radio Farda (which illegally broadcasts in Iran) in March 2008, declared, “They’ve [the Iranian government] declared they want to have a nuclear weapon to destroy people — some in the Middle East. And that’s unacceptable to the United States, and it’s unacceptable to the world.”

This statement was so devoid of truth, in fact, that even former State Department Iran specialist Suzanne Maloney was moved to speak out. Maloney, who was at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center (not a progressive organization by any stretch) at the time, noted, “The Iranian government is on the record across the board as saying it does not want a nuclear weapon,” adding that while, in her opinion, “there’s plenty of room for skepticism about these assertions…it’s troubling for the administration to indicate that Iran is explicitly embracing the program as a means of destroying another country.”

It is indisputable that Iranian officials have consistently denounced the acquisition, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons.

For example, on March 23, 1997, then-Iranian President Rafsanjani, during an interview with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, was asked whether Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons. In response, Rafsanjani declared, “absolutely not. We hate that weapon.” When Wallace then, in amazingly childish and offensive fashion, challenged the President to “swear by Allah,” Rafsanjani replied, “There’s no need to take an oath. We are a frank people. We make missiles and we tell everybody that our missile industry is strong. But we’re not after nuclear bombs and we won’t go after biological and chemical weapons.”

In early January 1998, the new Iranian President Seyyed Mohammad Khatami stated, “We are not a nuclear power and do not intend to be, we have not plans to build nuclear weapons and are only seeking to have peaceful nuclear energy.”

In August 2006, Iranian President Ahmadinejad said, “Nuclear weapons have no place in Iran’s defense doctrine and Iran is not a threat to any country…We are not a threat to anybody; even our solution to the Zionist regime is a referendum.” (If Bernstein believes Israel would be destroyed by the implementation of real democracy and equal human rights for all in historic Palestine, he should say so.)

Ahmadinejad also affirmed Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear program, including uranium enrichment, and stated that “the Iranian nation has always resolutely resisted bullying. The Iranian nation will never exchange its dignity and nobility for anything. However, some oppressor countries can not believe that a nation can be powerful and peaceful at the same time. They can not imagine that a nation can possess nuclear technology with no nuclear weapons. They just come to the wrong conclusions through wrong analyses.”

In 2007, Ahmadinejad was interviewed on CBS by Scott Pelley, who asked him, “Is it the goal of your government, the goal of this nation to build a nuclear weapon?” Ahmadinejad, after noting that a nuclear energy program is not the same as a nuclear weapons program, stated:

It is a firm “no.” I’m going to be much firmer now. I want to address all politicians around the world, statesmen. Any party who uses national revenues to make a bomb, a nuclear bomb, will make a mistake. Because in political relations right now, the nuclear bomb is of no use. If it was useful, it would have prevented the downfall of the Soviet Union. If it was useful, it would have resolved the problems the Americans have in Iraq. The U.S. has tested new generations of bombs, many thousands of warheads you have in your arsenals. It’s of no use. And also the Zionist entity, they have hundreds of warheads. It’s not going to help them. The time of the bomb is past. The parties who think that by using the bomb you can control others, they are wrong. Today we are living in the era of intellectual pursuits. You should spend your money on your people. We don’t need the bomb. For 28 years we have defended ourselves in the face of enemy onslaught. Every day we are becoming more powerful. And, again, we don’t need such weapons. In fact, we think that this is inhuman.

These sentiments have been repeated often by Ahmadinejad (and other officials, including the head of state Ali Khamenei).

Speaking at the United Nations, during the May 2010 Review Conference for members of the NPT, Ahmadinejad declared, “The nuclear bomb is a fire against humanity rather than a weapon for defense,” continuing, “The possession of nuclear bombs is not a source of pride; it is rather disgusting and shameful. And even more shameful is the threat to use or to use such weapons, which is not even comparable to any crime committed throughout the history.” The same day, during an interview with Charlie Rose, Ahmadinejad said, “We are opposed to the bomb, the nuclear bomb, and we will not build it.”

Addressing the U.N. General Assembly that September, he said, “The nuclear bomb is the worst inhumane weapon and which must totally be eliminated” and proposed “that the year 2011 be proclaimed the year of nuclear disarmament,” reaffirming Iran’s commitment to establishing a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone in the Middle East.

One can assume Jeremy Bernstein simply dismisses these statements as further examples of sinister Iranian duplicity (after all, remember that “with the Iranians things are never quite as they appear”). This wouldn’t matter if he paid attention to the consistent conclusions of our own country’s massive intelligence gathering infrastructure, which has long maintained that Iran has no active nuclear weapons program. The IAEA has stated that it has no evidence Iran ever did. Unfortunately (for the now-questionable integrity of the New York Review of Books), Bernstein seems only to recite Netanyahu-approved propaganda.

With so much effort being expended to fear-monger about the Iranian nuclear program these days (and for the past three decades), one hopes that, as always, the words of the world’s most famous anti-colonialist, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, remain true:

“An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it. Truth stands, even if there be no public support. It is self sustained.”