The announcement of the Iranian government that it will activate its Fordow nuclear enrichment site has predictably drawn forth a new round of war propaganda from the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In contrast, the Chinese media accurately report Iran’s affirmation that the new site will be subject to UN inspections and so is perfectly legal.
Ironically, what Clinton says is diametrically opposite from the repeated assurances given by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, that Iran is not trying to construct a nuclear warhead. True, he put it in a misleading way, saying that Iran “is not yet building a bomb,” as though it is only a matter of time. But in order to build a bomb, Iran would have to deny access to UN inspectors and, well, initiate a program to build a bomb. That it has not done so is covered up in mainstream US political and journalistic discourse, to the point where the NYT had to apologize for stating (contrary to Panetta) that Iran has a nuclear weapons program (it does not, as far as anyone can tell).
And now, it turns out, the Obama administration is even willing to admit the truth. The sanctions regime on Iran is not even primarily about the civilian nuclear enrichment program (to which Iran has a right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), but about causing the regime to collapse. (Apparently the appearance in print with its admission of illegal motives provoked a sharp set of phone calls and a revision of the statement to merely a collapse of the nuclear program. I believe WaPo got it right the first time.)
I think blockading a civilian population for the purpose of instituting regime change in a state toward which no authorization of force has been issued by the UN Security Council may well be a war crime. Even advocating a war crime can under some circumstances be punishable, as happened at the Nuremberg trials.
Unlike Israel (Egypt 1956, 1967; Lebanon 1982, 2006) or the US (Iraq 2003), Iran has not unilaterally attacked a nation that had not attacked it, and Iran has not occupied other states’ territory. Both Israel and the US have stockpiles of nuclear warheads. Iran doesn’t have a single one and doesn’t even have a nuclear weapons program. Since Iran has not attacked anyone (and hasn’t done so for over a century), and since the UNSC has not authorized the use of force against Tehran, it would be illegal under the UN Charter for the US or Israel to attack Iran.
Moreover, the toxic and radioactive materials released on civilians in Isfahan as a result of an attack on the Natanz facilities would pose a significant hazard to civilian life in that city– another war crime.
It will not be remembered by most Americans that the Truman and Eisenhower administrations imposed a boycott on the sale of Iranian petroleum in 1951-1953, at the end of which Eisenhower sent in the CIA to overthrow the elected Iranian government. The US, having “caused the regime to collapse,” turned Iran into an absolute monarchy under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who instituted an authoritarian, crony-capitalist state that mainly benefited a few billionaires at the top. In 1978-79 an enraged Iranian public overthrew the US-installed Shah and established a government that is zealously independent of Washington.
So if the US does cause the regime to collapse, as it did in 1953, can’t we just expect another round of pro-American dictatorship and then anti-American revolution?
Clinton says that the Fordow enrichment facility near Qom was not declared as it should have been, but rather was revealed by US satellite surveillance. But after it was declared, the then head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed ElBaradei, was allowed to inspect it and found nothing there, just “a hole in the mountain.” This finding suggests that Iran was within its rights not to declare it was opening a new enrichment site, since it had not done so, just dug a hole in a mountain. There was no nuclear material there when Elbaradei visited in fall, 2009.
The Iranians say that they will try to enrich to 19.75% at the Fordow site. This enrichment level is still that of low enriched uranium, and is the level of enrichment necessary for fuel for Iran’s medical reactor, which produces isotopes for treating cancer. Iran had acquired fuel for the medical reactor, which was given to it by the United States, from Argentina. But it has run out, and Argentina got out of that business. It is not clear why the West wants Iranian cancer victims not to have access to isotopes for radiation treatment.
While enriching to 19.75% LEU is an increase in Iran’s enrichment capabilities, it is nowhere near the 95% generally needed to make a bomb. Moreover, Iran says it is not trying to get a bomb, and the IAEA has acknowledged repeatedly that no nuclear material has been diverted from the civilian program.
If Iran does not permit inspections of Fordow, now that would be suspicious and really would be a violation of NPT obligations. But they seem perfectly willing to let inspectors in.
Clinton said, “There is no plausible justification for this production. Such enrichment brings Iran a significant step closer to having the capability to produce weapons-grade highly enriched uranium.”
But every clause of this statement is false, and it is contradicted by Secretary of Defense Panetta. There is a perfectly legitimate reason for Iran to enrich to 19.75% for fuel for the medical reactor. That level of enrichment is notcategorized as “high enriched uranium” (it is still LEU). And enriching to that level has nothing to do with making weapons. A) You can’t make weapons with LEU and b) Iran intends to use up this fuel in the medical reactor. Not sure how that could turn into a warhead.
By. Juan Cole
Juan runs the popular geopolitics blog Informed Comment where he provides an independent and informed perspective on Middle Eastern and American politics.