What do most of us really know about the Iranian nuclear program? After a decade of hearing that Iran is just one year from getting the bomb, and that its leaders are radically bent on the destruction of Israel and its Western allies, no one could be blamed for thinking that Iran really wants (or already has) atomic weapons.
Gareth Porter knows the narrative. He has worked tirelessly to pursue the truth of the matter. His conclusion: Iran never had a nuclear weapons program and, frankly, it doesn’t want one.
Can he prove it? Well he’s got 300 pages representing at least six years worth of work to try to get you over to his side. Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, published this year by Just World Books, is not just some ham-fisted polemic. It’s a journalist’s read: dense with interviews, reports, citations, notes. He finds obscure sources that would otherwise be lost to history. He pokes holes in unquestioned news stories, and exposes what he believes is an orchestrated campaign by the U.S. and its ally, Israel, dating back to the 1979 Islamic revolution, to prevent Iran from developing a non-weaponized nuclear power program.
His conclusions fly in the face of nearly every establishment view on the subject, from the neoconservative hawks to the liberal humanitarians that inhabit the Democratic Party in Washington. Porter’s position, no matter now doggedly researched, is anathema to current Middle East policy.
Of course, he’s not the only one to reach this conclusion. Paul Pillar, a National Intelligence Officer for the Middle East between 2000 and 2005, tells TAC that Porter is on the right track. “All indications are that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon,” he said in an e-mail. “Gareth Porter’s book provides a useful service in demonstrating that common worse-case assumptions about Iranian motivations and objectives are invalid.”
Porter sat down with TAC to take us through the key junctures in his long passage of understanding: the National Intelligence Estimates, which did not provide the smoking gun Washington and Tel Aviv wanted, the so-called laptop documents, and the photos of the Parchin military complex. And of course, the “expectations” game in the intelligence community, the empty inspections, and the involvement of an Iranian “curveball.”
TAC: Why did you write this book?
Porter: I wrote the book because as I got deeper and deeper into the subject of the nuclear program and the … international politics surrounding it, it became clear that there was a false narrative … surrounding the issue. I had known that this German former official had made a statement in the Wall Street Journal in 2004 that seemed to indicate that the so-called laptop documents were something that we should be wary of; that raised a question, but I had never been able to do anything with it so I didn’t write about it.
But in late 2007, I actually had this German source, face-to-face, saying ‘I can actually confirm that these documents came from a Iranian resistance group,’ which meant the MEK, so he confirmed what Karsten Voight had said in 2004. I did write about it at that time, and then I also began to see that U.S. intelligence on this issue had been problematic. That was based on interviewing National Intelligence Officers for the Near East about the national intelligence estimates on which they had worked, specifically Paul Pillar and Ellen Laipson. And from those interviews I realized that the intelligence assessment on the Iranian nuclear program, starting very early … [were] based not on hard evidence, but based on circumstantial evidence that the Iranians were going for nuclear weapons.
There [were] these two things in my mind when I decided there really was a major disconnect here between the news media narrative and the reality.
TAC: So you don’t think the Iranians have ever intended to develop nuclear weapons?
Porter: That’s correct. I am convinced by the complete record, by the available evidence, that at no time has the Iranian government ever intended to develop nuclear weapons. This is not to say that at no time there was nuclear weapons research done in Iran—clearly there was research done in Iran—but the scope of it is still unclear, and I am concerned the intelligence community does not have much of any idea of it at all.
In my book I discuss in detail the evidence that the Iranian government never authorized a program of research for nuclear weapons. There was a period of a few years, it’s clear that the government had a very loose rein over both the civilian nuclear program and the military in general in relation to this issue, [but] that there was in 2003 a decision to tighten control over the civilian program, no question about that. That means they sent out—the government, [then chief negotiator, now president] Hassan Rouhani—a circular to all government offices—civilian and military—demanding an end to any research related to the nuclear issue, and any research that had not been authorized had to be ceased. This is the account given by the French ambassador at the time.
U.S. intelligence had never found actual evidence of a nuclear program. The only “evidence” we’ve ever seen are the documents that came in 2004.
TAC: Speaking of those documents—the laptop documents—can you tell me about your discovery that they might not be credible?
Porter: One cannot read them—it is impossible to look at the documents themselves, they remain under lock and key. The IAEA have described them, so it is possible on some key points to fact check if you will.
The point I fact check [regards] the documents which were supposed to be computer modeling studies of the re-entry vehicle of Iran’s Shehab 3 missile, supposedly to integrate a nuclear weapon into the re-entry vehicle. They were the most sensational part of the documents, and were given the most play by the Bush administration. It turns out that the missile re-entry b-vehicle that was being shown was of the original Shehab 3. These documents were being created in mid-2002-03, [and by then] the Iranian government Defense Ministry had moved on to a completely different design version of that missile, a completely different re-entry vehicle that bore no resemblance to the old one at all.
This is a major anomaly. As I said in my book I confronted Olli Heinonen [then-IAEA deputy director for safeguards], on this, and he just gave me some argument that did not make sense.
There are things that don’t require a genius to spot. I think anybody—if they really spent time on [the issue]—would have spotted these anomalies.
TAC: Are the laptop documents the ‘smoking gun’ for those claiming Iran is seeking nuclear weapons?
Porter: That was their smoking gun from 2005 roughly to 2011, especially 2008 to 2011, because that is when the IAEA started putting out their reports emphasizing the documents. Then there was a second offensive, which the Israelis mounted, beginning in 2008, and going roughly through 2009. They turned over a whole new tranch of documents and intelligence reports to the IAEA. They did it openly—that was different from the laptop documents the MEK turned over in 2004. This new round of intelligence was that Iran had tested nuclear weapons design in Parchin, in a large steel bomb test chamber, an explosives containment chamber.
First, the Iranians would have never allowed the IAEA to visit and inspect five sites of their own choice in any of the four quadrants in Parchin, as they did, if they had such a chamber there. Any site that the IAEA was interested in [could] have been inspected, and samples taken.
The second point is [that] the IAEA itself acquired a lot of the satellite photos from 2005 to Feb. 2012—a seven year period—of that same locale, that specific site, and upon inspection of those photos they found there was … no activity at that site at any time suggesting Iran had done something to change the site, hide anything that might be done if you were concerned about some future IAEA inspection. That covers the first three months after the IAEA reported the containment bomb facility.
TAC: How complicit is the media in maintaining this false narrative?
Porter: On a scale of one to 10 with 10 being as complicit as Pravda was in the Soviet Union? Nine and a half.
Maybe nine and half doesn’t do them justice—it should be 10. The media has never questioned the false narrative of the Iranian nuclear issue. Indeed there is more than one case where the media has anticipated or gone beyond the official line. I would cite the New York Times coverage on the Iran nuclear issue—David Sanger—who’s hammered away, every chance he’s gotten, at the idea that the NIE in 2007 was wrong to say the Iranians were not working on developing nuclear weapons. A pattern of coverage that insists that this has to be wrong, that’s what the Israeli government believes. But we know that Israeli Intelligence has, at least in the last few years, agreed with the U.S. intelligence that Iran has not made decision to go for nuclear weapons.
TAC: Is the real narrative that Iran is engaging a “hedging strategy”?
Porter: That goes with the concept of latent deterrence capability, which means that by simply having the capability to enrich uranium, that in itself has a latent deterrent effect, and as I point out in the book, [George W. Bush CIA Director] Michael Hayden had discussed the possible use of force against Iran and decided if we did that it would cause the Iranians to go over the line and build nuclear weapons. That is the latent deterrent effect these countries have in mind, to let it be known they have the capability.
TAC: Was that their plan all along?
Porter: I quote—and I believe it was Rouhani—who said we don’t need a bomb … Rouhani did articulate that notion of latent deterrence without saying the term. And I also cite an Iranian political scientist who talked about interviewing people in the late 1990s who said the same thing, that an Iranian enrichment program would have the same effect.
TAC: Is there any way you are wrong about all of this, that you were clouded by your own theories?
Porter: The only possibility, which would be consistent with the evidence, would be that the IRGC [Revolutionary Guard] or some secret faction of the IRGC had their own nuclear program, that they were coordinating among themselves …That is certainly a credible possibility … however, that is not the definition of a nuclear weapons program as it’s generally understood. I just don’t think that my interpretation of the evidence and my presentation in the book is wrong.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.