Global Policy Forum

Demystifying the Iran Crisis


Nuclear Weapons and Mad Mullahs?

Discussion and fundraising reception to support the work of Global Policy Forum.

Special guests: Ervand Abrahamian (CUNY Distinguished Professor)
and John Burroughs (Executive Director, Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy)

Global Policy Forum
November 13, 2007

Ervand Abrahamian

Ervand Abrahamian (B.A., M.A., Oxford University; Ph.D. Columbia University), an Armenian born in Iran and raised in England, has published Iran Between Two Revolutions, The Iranian Mojahedin, Khomeinism, Tortured Confessions, and Inventing the Axis of Evil. He teaches at the CUNY Graduate Center, and has taught at Princeton, New York University, and Oxford University. He is currently working on two books: one on The CIA Coup in Iran; and another, A History of Modern Iran, for Cambridge University Press.

Ervand Abrahamian
Ervand Abrahamian began by calling for a reality check. He noted that mainstream media, including Fox and the PBS Frontline series, describe Iran as a cross between the Third Reich and Stalinist Russia. They say it has grand aims to rebuild a Persian Empire. By using terms such as "hegemonic," "imperialist" and "the most dangerous country in the world" to describe Iran, the media greatly mislead the public, since Iran is relatively weak, both economically and militarily and it does not pose a threat to its neighbors.

There are parallels, he said, between the media rhetoric about Iraq's nuclear threat prior to the US invasion and the rhetoric about Iran's nuclear program today. In misinterpreting the statements of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the US media paints him as the "Hitler of the Middle East."

Abrahamian said that both liberal and conservative viewpoints of Iran are false and misleading, because they describe the country as a major power with aspirations for even greater influence. He said that there was no reality check before Iraq and there is no reality check now.

Abrahamian explained that the Iranian military is a fifth rate force, equivalent to a National Guard army with no defensive capabilities or ability to take troops across water. Iran spends less than US$5 billion a year on the military. This is less than half of what Turkey spends and less than a quarter of Saudi Arabia's US$21 billion military budget. Together, the Gulf States spend far more on military hardware. Early in 2007, US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice offered the Gulf States US$20 billion in military hardware. Iran has no air force because US sanctions prevent Iran from buying spare parts for its aircraft. And, Iran has little navy after the US sunk the Iranian fleet in an unpublicized four-hour attack during the first Gulf War in 1991.

Concerning Iran's nuclear threat, Abrahamian pointed to the limited nuclear generating facilities in the country. Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the UN nuclear watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has said that there is no evidence of Iran using nuclear material for military use. But - as in the case of Iraq in 2003 - the Bush administration argues that Iran has dangerous intentions concerning Weapons of Mass Destruction. The administration seems to think that this is enough to justify a US intervention.

While many worry that Iran is on the verge of building weapons and posing a serious nuclear threat, Abrahamian said Iran has made no decision to build nuclear bombs and the country is at least five to seven years away from contemplating such a decision. The "threat' that the US would have the world believe is not consistent with reality. For example, in a Wall Street Journal article in early 2007, the authors claimed that Iran would drop a bomb on Israel within a few months. This did not happen.

Abrahamian talked about Iranian political leaders' attitude to a nuclear program. He said that while some politicians see a nuclear bomb as useful, pragmatists in the country including former leaders and military commanders argue that the bomb would not help politically. To Abrahamian, the WMD threat in Iraq and the nuclear threat in Iran are similar camouflage issues, which cover up real US policy aims. The Bush administration's rejection of Iranian offers for ironclad safeguards reveals that nuclear weapons are not the issue - rather, the US has a policy of regime change.

While some commentators say that the US cannot afford another war because of the Iraq debacle, Abrahamian argued that it would be dangerous for Tehran to underestimate the US capability for airstrikes and willingness to use them. Iran does have some deterrent capacity. Although not militarily powerful, Iran could cause serious problems for the US in Afghanistan and Iraq. If Bush intervenes in Iran, there would be devastating consequences..

Abrahamian mentioned the role of oil and gas as a motivation for US military action. There is a long history of US intervention in Iran and oil has been a key factor.

John Burroughs

John Burroughs (B.A., Harvard, J.D., Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley), is the Executive Director of the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy. Active in the NGO community at the United Nations and in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review proceedings, he was NGO legal coordinator at the hearings on nuclear weapons before the International Court of Justice in 1995. He teaches at the Rutgers Law School and his most recent book (co-edited) is Nuclear Disorder or Cooperative Security. He follows closely the Iran issue at the IAEA and in the UN Security Council.

John Burroughs

John Burroughs began by noting that Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), will report to the Security Council on November 22, 2007. He will discuss the work plan agreed between Iran and the IAEA concerning Iran's nuclear program. Iran promised to provide the IAEA with a document from the Pakistani scientist, Dr. AQ Khan, containing top secret technology on how to enrich uranium. Kahn had created a network of scientists that were providing nuclear "know how" to various countries including Iran, Libya, and North Korea.

Burroughs reported that Iran had provided the document to the IAEA and that the IAEA had already seen the same document in Libya. He concluded that Iran seems to be complying with IAEA requests, making available information that it had concealed from the IAEA over the years.

Burroughs said that the permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany, have to decide whether to enact a third resolution sanctioning Iran after they hear from Javier Solana (the European Union's High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy) and from the IAEA. The US and others justified the current sanctions, not on the basis of any illegal actions by Iran but on the need to "build confidence in Iran's nuclear program." Burroughs thought that some countries, such as China, might say that, based on Iran's cooperation with the IAEA, confidence has been built and there is no need for more sanctions.

The sanctions are really about the US not wanting Iran to have the capacity to enrich uranium. Iran now has about 3,000 centrifuges but there is not evidence that the country is enriching uranium beyond the grade needed for nuclear power. If the Iranian government would throw out the inspectors, it would still take two to three years to enrich enough bomb material for one or two bombs. But, Burroughs said, Iran would probably want dozens of bombs and delivery systems like all the other nuclear countries, except for North Korea. An unnamed US Senior Strategist admitted in a New York Times article in January 2007 that the US "can't make the case against Iran."

Burroughs reiterated Abrahamian's point that Iranian political leaders say they have no intention of making a nuclear bomb. Religious leaders in Iran say nuclear weapons are against Islam. Iranian diplomats argue that having nuclear weapons wouldn't serve them strategically. But Burroughs, indicating some cause for skepticism, pointed to the example of India and Pakistan, which clandestinely used knowledge of how to produce "peaceful" nuclear power and developed nuclear weapons.

Fourteen countries now enrich uranium. In addition to the nine nuclear weapon states - the US, UK, Russia, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea - five other countries - Japan, Netherlands, Germany, Brazil, and Iran - enrich uranium. And, recently other countries have announced an interest in enrichment: Argentina, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. These countries seek independence from cartels, such as the Bush Administration's announced plans to control the nuclear fuel supply in a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, in which selected countries would supply reactor fuel and arrange to take back the nuclear waste. They may also seek uranium enrichment capacities to gain international prestige and acquire the capacity to make nuclear weapons.

Burroughs also talked about Washington's own nuclear objectives. The US is expanding its work at the Paducah enrichment plant in Ohio, and plans to open another enrichment facility in New Mexico. Burroughs argued for stopping the spread of enrichment facilities and controlling all facilities internationally. At the moment the US is setting up a discriminatory system. The Canberra Commission has noted that the very possession of nuclear weapons is a stimulus to others to acquire them. Burroughs said the US holds out the option of using nuclear weapons against Iran and has a very bad arms control record. Washington refuses to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and does not support a Nuclear Weapons Free zone in the Middle East as was promised at the 1995 Review and Extension conference of the Nonproliferation Treaty.

The good news, John Burroughs continued, is that in January 2007, former cabinet officials, called in a Wall Street Journal op-ed for a major shift in US nuclear policy. Former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz and former Defense Secretaries xxx Cohen and Sam Nunn, argued that the US should take a leadership position in working for the elimination of nuclear weapons and noted that Global nuclear problem has become unmanageable.

Questions from Audience Members

Paul Chevigny, a Professor of Law at New York University, asked the speakers what the response should be to the possible Iranian nuclear threat.

John Burroughs said that there needs to be comprehensive negotiation between the US and Iran. At the moment, the US demands that Iran give up all its enrichment programs before Washington will even site down to negotiate. In a letter to President Bush, Senator Chuck Hagel called for a multinational response to nuclear control. However, the US continues to accuse Iran of supporting Iraqi insurgents. Burroughs suggested that the problem is soluble, but there is also jockeying over US companies' access to Iran's oil and natural gas.

Ervand Abrahamian answered that the US missed an opportunity with Iran to explore its offers of safeguards. This was a good chance for the US to test Iran's intentions and instead the US chose to refuse the offer, believing that once Saddam was overthrown in Iraq, then the US could overthrow the regime in Tehran. Iranian hardliners gain support because of the US attitude, he said. The US refusal to accept Iran's offer has effectively silenced moderate politicians who were willing to negotiate with the US. The US continues to ratchet up its demands until Iran cannot meet them. Abrahamian cited a statement by President Ahmadinejad who said that the US will use Iran's non-compliance with animal rights laws to argue for regime change. This is what Abrahamian describes as the difficulty in bringing other issues into the nuclear debate.

John Burroughs and Ervand Abrahamian

One audience member asked about the role of other countries, particularly Israel, in responding to the Iranian threat. She asked the speakers to comment on Ahmadinejad's statement that suggest he supports the destruction of Israel. She also asked about Iranian support for Hezbollah. Abrahamian said that Ahmadinejad was quoting Khomeni who said that the state of Israel should not exist, which is not necessarily advocating for its destruction. Abrahamian said that magnifying and distorting these comments are part of the media campaign to demonize Iran. Ahmadinejad is certainly not a leader we would prefer, but he has never said that Iran is interested in attacking Israel. Hezbollah's posture towards Israel is defensive, in contrast to the many attacks by Israel against Lebanon.

Another guest, Lucy Webster, asked the speakers the legal ramifications of Iran pursuing an enrichment program. She wondered why Iran's enrichments processes are illegal when other countries that have the same processes are allowed to continue.

Burroughs said that for over 18 years Iran failed to report to the IAEA on the extent of its programs and this is a direct violation of Iran's Safeguards Agreements, and Article 3 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran also violated Article 2 of the NPT which says that countries must not acquire nuclear weapon capabilities. Nonetheless the US uses circumstantial evidence to charge Iran with building nuclear weapons. The US combines Iran's reporting violations with an argument that Iran has no economic case for enrichment, to argue that the country has forfeited any rights to nuclear power under the NPT. Burroughts said that those countries that are now just enriching may one day pursue nuclear weapons, as India and Pakistan did. IAEA Director General ElBaradei says that there needs to be a global approach to nuclear fuel production.

The US often argues that Iran must have sinister intentions because it is secretly pursuing enrichment programs and is not reporting fully to the IAEA. However, Abrahamian noted that Iran may have been concealing information over the years, in order to succeed in getting contracts for the purchase of peaceful nuclear technology. US officials often threaten the sellers, such as Belgium, to prevent them from dealing with Iran. So, again, US policy led to problems in the international nuclear control system.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.