Iranian Nuclear Misconceptions

he issue of Iranian nuclear activities will not be solved by repeating Iranian propaganda on the matter.

In an opinion piece in the Irish Times on Thursday 26 June, Dr Julien Mercille under a heading US seeks to create obstacles to resolving Iranian nuclear issue, with a subheading The White House has rejected the latest Iranian proposals to resolve the nuclear dispute and Europe is unwilling or incapable of softening US policies, blames the Iranian nuclear issue on the US, stating that France, Germany, and the UK are being bullied on this matter by the US.

These assertions are contrary to the available evidence.  It is also of concern that Dr Mercille repeatedly places confidence in the statements and declarations of a repressive, neo-conservative, hard line, autocratic regime such as that in Iran, which the UN Security Council holds to be in non-compliance with its non-proliferation obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the NPT, and treats the governments of the democracies of France, Germany, the UK, and the US, (and on this issue the governments of Russia and China) with some disregard.

A large number of inaccurate and/or misleading statements (and proposals that would actually help Iran acquire nuclear weapons) are made by Dr Mercille in his short article.  Six of the more important such statements are set out below with an explanatory commentary beneath each:

  1. “Iran as all nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatories, has the right to enrich [uranium], as long as it is for peaceful (civilian) purposes”. 

    Wrong.While the NPT does not forbid enrichment to any nation in compliance with its non-proliferation obligations, Iran has been found by the UN Security Council to be in non-compliance with its safeguards obligations under the NPT.  This is because of Iran’s eighteen year history of violating safeguards reporting requirements in fourteen different ways.  As a consequence, the UN Security Council mandated, under Article VII, that Iran suspend enrichment.  It is therefore false to say that Iran has a right to enrichment.  The Security Council created new international law in Iran’s case.

    Iran will only have the right to enrich when, in the future, if ever, it ceases its non-compliance with the NPT as determined by the UN, and the IAEA acting as the UN’s nuclear watchdog.

    This error of core importance to this matter at the start of this article undermines the whole article, and “poisons” it almost irredeemably.

    A paper Iran as a Pioneer Case for Multilateral Nuclear Arrangements by Geoffrey Forden and John Thomson issued by MIT on 24 May 2007 summarises Iran’s approach here and its relationship with the IAEA in this regard:  “Nevertheless, their [Iranian] history of lies and evasions, compounded when they were found out by further lies and evasions, has more or less destroyed their credibility in the West.  Not only their word but also their intentions are doubted.  The IAEA has repeatedly sought answers from them on some relatively simple questions and again and again has been ignored or fobbed off.  After some three years of failure to respond to the IAEA on some questions, it is evident that the Iranians find full disclosure embarrassing.  The international community can only suppose that it is a case of no smoke without fire.  And it is upsetting that the Iranians seem to take lightly the fact that they continue to be non-compliant with the IAEA regulations.  This destroys international respect for Iran and makes it hard to take their negotiators seriously.  Whatever the cause of the embarrassment, it is in Iranian interests to come clean”.

  2. “International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections have verified time and again that Iran’s nuclear activities are civilian, not military” 

    Wrong.Dr Mercille has missed the key point (in 1 above) that as it is in non-compliance, Iran must prove its compliance to the IAEA.  In all other cases, of compliance, the onus is on the IAEA to prove non-compliance.  The onus is on Iran uniquely, a point Dr Mercille is clearly unaware of or decides to ignore in his article.

    The IAEA has NEVER verified that Iran’s nuclear activities are solely civilian.  That is not even its role in this unique legal situation.  Any cursory reading of IAEA reports will show that the Agency has been unable to reach such a conclusion.  As is the case with Iran’s spokesmen, Dr Mercille confuses such a conclusion with the Agency’s far more specific conclusion that it has found no evidence of diversion from Iran’s declared programmes.  The lack of diversion does not mean Iran’s programmes are completely peaceful.  To reach such a conclusion would require, at a minimum, that Iran faithfully sign and fully and consistently adhere to and implement the Additional Protocol to the NPT and clear up all suspicions about its nuclear programme.  It has done neither to date despite having almost six years to do so.  The onus is on Iran due to its non-compliance, not the IAEA, a point totally missed or ignored by Dr Mercille.

    This is a further fundamental misunderstanding by Dr Mercille of the NPT and the role of the IAEA under it with respect to Iran.  This further poisons the rest of his article.

    A clear explanation of what is going on here is set out in the following quote by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in 2007:  “In December 2006 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1737 which,inter alia, established an embargo on the export to and import from Iran of certain items and technology potentially related to nuclear weapons.The resolution was a reaction to the fact that the IAEA, after over three years of investigations, was still unable to verify that there were no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran”.

    It is also unfortunate that Dr Mercille does not at any stage in his article consider whether it makes sense commercially or economically for Iran to be involved in nuclear activities for civilian, as opposed to military, purposes.  Many independent reviews have determined that Iran’s nuclear programme makes no sense commercially or economically if it is for pure civilian purposes.  In such circumstances suspicion that the programme must have military or diplomatic purposes increases.

    As an example, this matter is considered in an article titled Assessing Iran’s Nuclear Programme in the Autumn 2006 journal, Survival, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (“IISS”).  The IISS is an independent international think tank set up, 50 years ago this year, to study conflict and particularly nuclear deterrence and related nuclear issues.

    Their article on Iran’s nuclear programme says: “There is little economic or energy logic for Iran’s insistence of producing enriched uranium fuel for its nuclear energy programme, which is still in its infancy, with only one reactor under construction and the planned seven additional reactors many years away.  Of the thirty countries that operate nuclear reactors today, only a third produce their own uranium reactor fuel.  Of the twelve countries that rely on nuclear power for one third or more of their electricity needs, only France, which has the highest rate of dependence on nuclear power, produces its own enriched uranium.  By contrast, when the Bushehr [Russian provided nuclear] reactor is up and running, it will produce 3% of Iran’s electricity, hardly an economic rationale for acquiring self-sufficiency in fuel, especially when Russia has offered the enriched fuel for the life of the reactor and when various proposals are under consideration for backing Russia’s offer with an international guarantee”.

    This analysis excludes the huge financial and economic costs that Iran is now suffering under UN sanctions because of its non-compliance.

    Whatever Iran’s motivations are in this area, they are clearly not driven by civilian needs at the moment.

    The two fundamental errors set out to this point in this analysis undermine the foundations of Dr Mercille’s article.

    For the sake of completeness, I comment on some further errors below:

  3. “Even US intelligence confirmed this [Iran’s nuclear activities are civilian, not military] in its December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate”. 

    Wrong and misleading.The NIE (issued in November 2007 not December 2007 as stated by Dr Mercille) included the following comment: “We assess with moderate confidence that convincing the Iranian Leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult given the linkage many within the leadership probably see between nuclear weapons development and Iran’s key national security and foreign policy objectives, and given Iran’s considerable effort from at least the late 1980s to 2003 to develop such weapons.  In our judgement, only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons – and such a decision is inherently reversible”.

    The 19 December 2007 paper on my website analysing the NIE Assessment gives full background on why Dr Mercille’s characterisation of the NIE Assessment is wrong.

  4. “The latest “evidence” presented by the Bush administration are the alleged “weaponisation studies” found on a stolen laptop of mysterious origins. 

    Those studies supposedly suggest that Iran may have had military nuclear plans, but the claims are dubious. 

    First, the IAEA received much of this information only in electronic form and was not authorised to provide copies to Iranians, which makes it hard to accuse them of not cooperating. [To state the obvious this is nothing to do with “the claims are dubious”]. 

    Second, the studies were received by the US in late 2004 but if the evidence they contain is so strong, why did the West wait nearly three years to bring them to the table?  Third, the fact that the studies were brought to prominence in early 2008, just as the IAEA had declared that all outstanding issues with Iran’s nuclear programme had basically been resolved”. 

    Wrong.With respect to the weaponisation studies and the allegation that this information has been sat on for four years, an independent review in this area – Iran’s Strategic Weapons Programmes   A Net Assessment – issued by the IISS in 2005, three years ago, was well aware of these studies and had this to say on them: “Finally, the IAEA continued to seek access to facilities potentially involved in weaponisation research, especially in light of press reports that Western intelligence agencies had obtained a large collection of computer documents, purportedly relating to the design of a nuclear warhead for the Shahab – 3 – missile”.

    The US first told the IAEA about the computer documents in 2005 and the IAEA has been asking Iran about them ever since.  True, not all the evidence was provided until January 2008.    Not true that the IAEA then had declared that all outstanding issues had basically been resolved.  The February 2008 IAEA report said 4 issues had been addressed in ways that did not contradict the IAEA’s other information, but that the issue of alleged studies remained outstanding.  (Note that paragraph 5 of that report said “As part of the work plan, Iran agreed to address those alleged studies.”  Iran and its spokesmen say today that it was never part of the work plan.  This game-playing with the IAEA, similar to that of North Korea which has ended up with nuclear weapons, has continued for nearly six years).

    In the article in the quarterly journal of the IISS, Survival, in the Autumn 2006 issue, Assessing Iran’s Nuclear Programme – the following relevant comment is made after detailed independent research on this issue: “British, French and German intelligence agencies, with whom the information was shared, all concurred that it appeared authentic”.

  5. “This is why the major powers’ latest package ask for suspension once again.  Iranians have replied that they won’t suspend indefinitely, because they already did so for about two years a couple of years ago, but this led nowhere as the West failed to fulfil its part of the bargain.Under the deal, as stated in the 2004 Paris Agreement, Europe had promised Tehran “firm guarantees” on nuclear and technological cooperation and “firm commitments” on security issues, on the condition that Iran give “objective guarantees” that its nuclear programme is peaceful.

    Towards this end, enrichment was suspended to build international confidence and the additional protocol implemented providing for more intrusive inspections. 

    Therefore, Iran held its part of the bargain, as verified multiple times by the IAEA”. 

    Wrong and misleading on multiple counts.The use of the word “indefinitely” in the second line above gives the impression that the Iranian regime is willing to negotiate on a temporary suspension of enrichment.  However a Farsi (Persian) speaker maintains that the original (Farsi) statements of the Iranian regime contain no such word.  Therefore the Iranian regime is in essence saying – no negotiations on this core issue, contrary to Dr Mercille’s statement.

    The Paris Agreement between Iran, Germany, United Kingdom and France dated 15 November 2004 is available at and is also set out on page 23 of Iran’s Strategic Weapons Programmes   A Net Assessment,issued by the IISS.

    Contrary to what Dr Mercille states in his quote, the relevant provisions of this short agreement reads as follows:  “To build further confidence, Iran has decided, on a voluntary basis, to continue and extend its suspension to include …  The suspension will be sustained while the negotiations proceed on a mutually acceptable agreement on long-term arrangements …

    Sustaining the suspension, while negotiations on a long-term agreement are under way, will be essential for the continuation of the overall process.  In the context of this suspension, the EU – 3/EU and Iran have agreed to begin negotiations, with a view to reaching a mutually acceptable agreement on long-term arrangements.  The agreement will provide objective guarantees that Iran’s nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes.  It will equally provide firm guarantees on nuclear, technological and economic cooperation and firm commitments on security issues.

    A steering committee will meet to launch these negotiations in the first half of December 2004 and will set up working groups on political and security issues, technology and corporation, and nuclear issues”.  (Emphasis added)

    In other words the 2004 Paris Agreement was clearly a deal on “talks about talks”.  Dr Mercille presents such “talks about talks” as a done deal, an agreed position, with required action on both sides.  That is clearly impossible and misleading.

    The quote as set out by Dr Mercille then gives the impression that Iran suspended enrichment under the agreement and signed the Additional Protocol as part of that deal.

    This is factually incorrect on a second count as it is in direct conflict with the Agreed Statement at the end of a visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran by the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany signed in Tehran 21 October 2003.   This agreement is available at and on page 19 of the above publication by the IISS.  It includes the following relevant provisions:

    “Having received the necessary clarifications, the Iranian government has decided to sign the IAEA Additional Protocol, and commence ratification procedures …”

    Iran actually signed up in 2003 to do what Dr Mercille says it agreed to in 2004, although even the 2004 Paris deal was only “talks about talks” on such a POTENTIAL agreement.  This is a very good summary of the on/off, agreed, not agreed, tactical approach the Iranian regime has adopted in its relations with the EU3 and the IAEA for many years, as summarised in 1) and 2) above.

    In addition, with respect to Dr Mercille’s statement: “enrichment was suspended to build international confidence and the additional protocol implemented” the Net Assessment by the IISS has this relevant point on page 31: “To avoid referral [to the UN Security Council], Iran has provided extensive (although not complete) cooperation to the IAEA to verify previously secret nuclear activities; it has begun to implement (although not ratify) the Additional Protocol; and it has reluctantly accepted a partial and then a total suspension of various enrichment-related activities (though not on the heavy-water research reactor project)”.

    The IISS article Assessing Iran’s Nuclear Programme, has this to say with respect to the suspension agreedunder the 2003 deal: “Iran repeatedly interrupted the suspension, which was incomplete throughout most of the time it was in place.  Moreover, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator at the time, then Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hassan Rohani, in a late October 2004 speech to the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, said Iran had agreed to suspend activities only in areas in which it did not have technical problems, and that in the calm diplomatic environment of the suspension, Iran was able to complete work on the uranium-conversion process.  His speech supports a cynical view that Iran’s main objective in the negotiations with the E3 – the UK, France and Germany – was to buy time.  On the other hand, the nature of his senior domestic audience suggests he was also seeking to justify the concessions he made in his negotiation strategy by demonstrating strength and guile”.

    It is in addition also wrong to say “the West failed to fulfil its part of the bargain” in response to Iran’s partial suspension under the 2003 deal, not Dr Mercille’s 2004 deal of talks on talks.  The agreement was that in exchange for suspension, Iran’s case would not be referred to the UN Security Council.  Avoiding being in the UN Security Council docket meant a great deal to Iran at the time, and they succeeded in putting it off for two and a half years until they broke the on/off suspension.

    Finally, I set out below information on Iranian internal politics which explains much of Iran’s actions, and eventual changes of heart and tactics, here.  Dr Mercille has unfortunately ignored that side of the equation, focusing on supposed Western “misdeeds” only.  There are after all two sides to this “deal”.  To ignore one is in essence misleading in itself.

  6. “This Iran has formally announced it would do [sign the Additional Protocol] if its file is sent back to the IAEA by the UN Security Council.  There is no reason why this should not be done immediately”.

    A dangerous idea, which would help Iran in its nuclear activities.Neither the IAEA, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, or the UN Security Council itself [which is capable of sending the matter back to the IAEA], supports what Dr Mercille is suggesting here.  The IAEA Board of Governors in its resolution of 24 September 2005 explains why: “The history of concealment of Iran’s nuclear activities …  The nature of these activities, issues brought to light in the course of the Agency’s verification of declarations … and the resulting absence of confidence that Iran’s nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes have given rise to questions that are within the competence of the Security Council, as the organ bearing the main responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”.

    This resolution makes clear that the IAEA, believes that this is a matter for the UN Security Council and that this is a very serious matter with respect to “the maintenance of international peace and security”.  Dr Mercille apparently disagrees.

    It is also widely understood that North Korea acquired its nuclear weapons by a policy of public denials of nuclear weapons activities, ensuring no “smoking gun” evidence was found on time, and crucially in this regard by an on/off form of diplomatic game playing with the IAEA.  Sending the Iranian file back to the IAEA simply helps the Iranians repeat the North Korean policy of fooling the international community, if it so wishes.  It has done so in the past in this area for 18 years.

    There is much more of such, but I believe by now you have got the point.

    Focusing on what Dr Mercille has said leads to the danger of missing what he has not
    said.  Not once in his short piece does Dr Mercille comment on any of the undernoted:

    a) Iran’s secret nuclear activities for eighteen years – which were exposed on 14 August 2002 by an exiled Iranian opposition group and not by the IAEA or Western intelligence.

    b) The fact that for almost six years since then Iran has been playing “ducks and drakes” with the IAEA as is evident from any impartial review of the activities of Iran in that period.  This is clearly set out in the Net Assessment of Iran’s nuclear weapons activities in the IISS document referred to above (particularly pages 12 to 32),  the quote under 1) above by experts who were trying to be as positive towards Iran as possible, and the quote under 2) above by the independent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in 2007.

    c)The nature of the regime in Iran, the fact that it is under theocratic neo-conservative control, and that the key allies of the neo-conservatives, the Revolutionary Guards Corps, has control of weapons of mass destruction (“WMD”) [including the nuclear programme, the latter verified by the IAEA].

    In ignoring the impact of internal Iranian politics, Dr Mercille has in essence misled the reader by ignoring a key part of the equation involving negotiations with Iran.

    What has happened in Iran is well summarised by Ali M Ansari, an expert on Iranian politics, in his Adelphi Paper for the IISS – Iran under Ahmadinejad   The Politics of Confrontation where he says: “The one real opportunity for a negotiated solution that was represented by the Tehran Agreement of October 2003 [an agreement ignored by Dr Mercille] was lost in February the following year, when the principalists [his term for neo-conservatives] won control of the Majlis [Iranian parliament] …  Iran’s much-heralded agreement to suspend its uranium enrichment activity and sign and ratify the Additional Protocol to the NPT was dismissed by the new Majlis as irresponsible and an irrelevance.  The Protocol was not ratified, and a new and dangerous front was opened up against any further agreements”.

    d) The Iranian Shia practice of dissimulation (Taqiyya) because of historic oppression of the Shia minority in Islam by the Sunni majority.

    In a closed meeting of leading Islamic clerics and academics, Hassan Rowhani, who led Iranian nuclear talks, admitted using dissimulation and other tactics in dealing with the EU3 (France, Germany, and Britain) and with the IAEA.  With respect to the latter he said that when the IAEA had demanded a “complete picture” of Iran’s nuclear activities – “The dilemma was if we offered a complete picture, the picture itself could lead us to the UN Security  Council [ie violations confirmed];  And not providing a complete picture would also be a violation of the Resolution and we could have been referred to the Security Council for not implementing the Resolution”.

    European negotiators and Ministers involved with Iran in these negotiations are quite negative on such Iranian tactics and practices.  Bernard Kouchner, French Foreign Minister had this to say recently:  “I talked to [the Iranian Foreign Minister, Manouchehr] Mottaki and he was open, but open to what?  This is always the case.  We talk and talk with the Iranians, but its always disillusion”. (The Times 18/07/08).

    e) The core weakness in that the NPT as presently structured which allows a country such as Iran to “play by the rules” and yet have nuclear weapons within a number of months of opting out of the NPT, citing “special circumstances”.  The Director General of the IAEA, Mohammed El Baradei, had this to say in that regard: “Should a state with a fully developed fuel cycle capability decide, for whatever reason, to break away from its non-proliferation commitments, most experts believe it could produce a nuclear weapon within a matter of months”. [The Economist, 18 October 2003].

    f) The perils of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East if Iran continues on its current path.  This is set out inNuclear Programmes in the Middle East  In the Shadow of Iran   by the IISS, issued 20 May 2008.

    g)The usage of WMD by Iran in the Iran/Iraq war.  Such is not widely understood but is confirmed both in the IISS Net Assessment set out above and in Ethics and Weapons of Mass Destruction  Religious and Secular Perspectives, edited by Sohail Hashmi and Stephen Lee (Cambridge).

    h) The need that Iranian neo-conservatives have for international tensions abroad to keep their citizens distracted at home.  With major economic and financial issues, unpopular oppression and widespread corruption, the regime needs a major distraction.  A self created major international crisis is ideal in that regard.  This is well summarised in Ansari’s IISS Adelphi Paper as set out above.  Nuclear weapons may also be seen by the regime as a guarantee of their continual control – no “regime change” by the US or anyone else.


When dealing with the detail of the comments and proposals of Dr Mercille, it is possible to lose sight of the overall point he is making.

In summary this is that Iran is a relatively innocent victim in this process, and the US is apparently intent on provoking conflict with Iran for some reason.  In that effort it is bullying the EU, and for some inexplicable reason, China and Russia are going along with the US in this area.  The West is also applying double standards and so Iran should be allowed to enrich uranium under certain conditions.

Put so simply the hollowness of the underlying thesis is clear.  If China, Russia, Germany, France and the UK are prepared to take the positions they do with respect to the Iranian nuclear issues at the UN, in the IAEA, and in negotiations with Iran, despite a very attractive market in Iran of nearly 70 million people, there must be some possibility that there is a reason they are doing so other than some unexplained pressure generated for some unstated intent.

By ignoring the presence of significant numbers of North Koreans in Iran over a long period of time and the well known and documented Pakistani “nuclear arms bazaar” connections with Iran, Dr Mercille also omits important information.  If Dr Mercille’s analysis is right then the EU, the US, China, Russia, the IAEA, and the UN are all involved in some type of charade for rather unclear purposes and with possible devastating outcomes.

An expert view by two Russian nuclear experts, Alexei Abratov and Vladimir Dvorkin, in their book Beyond Nuclear Deterrence   Transforming the US/Russian Equation (published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006) puts the issues here in perspective.  Having considered the worst case scenario in terms of the number of nuclear states, they go on to say:  “What is more probable in the next ten to fifteen years is “8 + 2” (the eight states that currently possess nuclear weapons plus North Korea and Iran)”.  The danger from such, ignored by Dr Mercille, is summarised by them:  “It is clear that relations between countries possessing nuclear weapons may not be based on deterrence in a number of situations …  when two states nuclear weapons are vulnerable and there is a lack of reliable command – and –   control and early warning systems, in which case deterrence may be fragile and mutually dangerous; India and Pakistan, Israel and Iran”.

Dr Mercille’s article was quite short. The number of problematic areas listed above in such a short article is notable. Each of the matters commented on by me “favour” Iran in Dr Mercille’s analysis, as does the overall thrust of his article. One could fairly expect that misunderstandings or even mistakes in such a very complex and nuanced matter like this would logically tend to fall 50:50 “for” and “against” Iran, or in some reasonably-balanced proportion. Not here.

For me the important question is this: why does Dr Mercille’s analysis favour, and in many areas essentially repeat, the noxious Iranian regime “party line” ?

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