Iranian President Hasan Rouhani’s efforts to change Western perceptions of Iran are already being called a “charm offensive.” Imitating Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, Rouhani decided to place an article in one of the other leading American newspapers, The Washington Post. He wrote about Iran’s “peaceful nuclear energy program,” suggesting that its entire purpose was for “generating nuclear power” and “diversifying” Iran’s energy resources.
This was old Iranian argumentation. But he continued with it in an interview on NBC News a day later, saying, “We have never sought, nor will ever seek, nuclear weapons. We solely seek peaceful nuclear technology.” He also took the same message to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. This week in his speech at the U.N. General Assembly he insisted yet again that the Iranian nuclear program was for “exclusively peaceful purposes.”
Thus Rouhani was not only making a statement about Iran’s future intentions, but he was also rewriting history by saying that Iran had not sought nuclear weapons in the past. In doing so, Rouhani was reopening one of the main debates over the last decade about why Iran was constructing such a vast nuclear infrastructure.
Roughly ten years ago, the U.S. State Department published a power point presentation illustrating the inherent weakness of the arguments the Iranians used to defend their nuclear program. It noted that despite Iran’s enormous oil and gas reserves, Iranian officials claimed that Iran could no longer rely on fossil fuels in the future. Ali Akbar Salehi, who today heads Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, but in 2003 served as its representative to the International Atomic Energy Organization, added that Iran had to replace the consumption of oil with the use of uranium ore as the primary source for Iran’s energy.
But the State Department study showed that while Iran still had ample oil and gas, which could supply Iran for at least 200 years (in the case of gas), Tehran actually had very limited supplies of uranium ore, especially if it had plans of eventually building seven nuclear reactors for the production of electricity. In fact, if Iran’s domestic supply of uranium ore was inadequate for a nationwide program of electricity production, it was more than sufficient for the production of a respectable number of atomic weapons every year. For the U.S., this was a red flag indicating that the argument that Iran only wanted a civilian program was completely disingenuous and what it really sought was a full scale nuclear weapons program.
Then there was the question of why Iran insisted that it must enrich its own uranium by itself. Tehran actually had only one working reactor for producing electricity at Bushehr, which used uranium fuel that was supplied by Russia. Moscow assured Tehran that the Russian supply of enriched uranium for Bushehr would not be disrupted. So why spend billions on enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordo?
Moreover, many advanced industrial states in the West import enriched uranium rather than build an uneconomical enrichment infrastructure: for example, Finland, Spain, South Korea, and Sweden. Even in the U.S., 92 percent of the uranium used in nuclear power plants during 2010 was of foreign origin.
There must have been an assumption among Iranian leaders that the West was either naive or extremely gullible, for Tehran persisted with its arguments that its nuclear efforts were only for civilian purposes. When Iran began to enrich uranium beyond the 3.5% level in June, 2010 to the 20% level, its spokesmen argued that this too was for civilian purposes; the small Tehran Research Reactor needed this fuel, the West was told, for manufacturing medical isotopes.
But while a year later, Iran already had enough uranium enriched to 20% to meet its demand for medical isotopes for at least seven years, it continued to produce 20% enriched uranium using the medical isotopes argument, which was transparently false. It was clear that the Iranians’ single-minded determination to expand their stock of this uranium was motivated by the fact that the leap from 20% uranium to weapons-grade uranium could be made in half the time it would take to enrich 3.5% enriched uranium to weapons grade level.
There was one area in which Iranian nuclear activities could not be covered up with the excuse that they had some civilian purpose: the manufacture of nuclear warheads for Iranian ballistic missiles, like the Shahab-3, which has the range to strike Israel. In a highly classified briefing in February 2008 given to ambassadors to the IAEA in Vienna, captured Iranian documents detailed how to design a warhead for the Shahab-3.
There was an illustration of the arc of the missile’s flight including the detonation of its warhead at an altitude of 600 meters. According to the IAEA experts a conventional explosion at 600 meters would have no effect on the ground below, but 600 meters would be ideal for a nuclear explosion, like the one caused by the Hiroshima bomb that exploded at that very same altitude.
An IAEA report from May 2011, validated the concerns that were raised during the 2008 briefing. It detailed a military research program that was based on “the removal of the conventional high explosive payload from the warhead of the Shahab-3 missile and replacing it with a spherical nuclear payload.”
Ironically, Rouhani spoke at a military parade in Tehran before heading out to New York. Significantly, on the front of the lead vehicle of a line of trucks transporting Shahab-3 missiles, there appears a banner that reads: “Israel should cease to exist.”
There is no way that this kind of activity can be characterized as being part of a “civilian nuclear program,” no matter how smooth Rouhani’s performance will be during his visit to New York. Tellingly, in recent years, Iran has firmly rejected Western requests to inspects its weapons complex at Parchin, where much of this warhead development is believed to take place. In the last year, anticipating pressures to open up Parchin to inspections, the Iranians undertook a large concealment operation and poured asphalt over areas it thought the IAEA might want to visit.
Rouhani became famous for his remarks in 2005, when he was head nuclear negotiator and national security adviser to former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, at which time he admitted to having exploited the time of the negotiations with the EU-3 (Britain, France, and Germany) so that Iran could complete its conversion plant in Isfahan, where the fuel that is inserted into the centrifuges is produced. He brilliantly used diplomacy to allow the Iranian nuclear program to advance, while giving the Western powers the feeling that Iran was making concessions at the same time.
This is precisely the sort of formula he will seek now as he launches new negotiations with the Obama administration. Only this time, Iran is far closer to its goal of manufacturing nuclear weapons than it was in 2005. The West will have to be extremely careful to see to it that Iran offers tangible concessions and not just empty generalities about its desire for peace, if its drive for nuclear weapons is to be truly stopped, and the security of the Middle East protected.