Jeffrey LewisMore on the Gerdab Nuke Test Story

Well, we finally have some clarity on that very strange post on an IRGC website about the day after Iran’s first nuclear test.  It appears that the website in question, Gerdab.ir, reposted content from an Iranian blog.

The blogger-in-question appears to have contacted Julian Borger, who wrote the original story for The Guardian.  He also (it appears) left a comment on this site.

As I thought, it does appear that many people  were reading a bit too much into his post, which was in part a satirical look at journalism around the world.

The author, according to Julian Borger, is Seyed Ali Pourtabatabaei, a 30-year-old from Qom, who runs a blog called Kheyrazanonline.  Pourtabatabaei contacted Julian to explain he was the author of the original post, which Gerdab reposted.  He (or someone claiming to be him) also left a comment on this site, explaining that he was frustrated with sanctions:

about 2 months ago, i was so angry about sanctions and their effects on internet price and quality in Iran, so i thought the reason of this sanctions is our peaceful nuclear program. Then i thought until End of The Days, west parties continue their sanctions and it’s better for us to build a nuclear bomb and put an End to any thing like India.

That was the only reason! Gerdab likes my posts and republished some of them before. They publish this post but after 2 months, Guardian post an article about IRGC website who promote nuclear bomb! so funny!

[snip]

My goal from writing this program was showing the differences between medias to cover Iran’s news. I am a journalists and these differences is interesting for me.

However, disputes arose about my article were not true. so analyze it with full brain ability 🙂

I suppose I could swap IP addresses with Julian to make sure it is the same fellow, but I am not sure how much more attention this warrants.  Borger is trying to contact him for an interview, which should wrap this up.  I will only add that the story checks out — the original blog post pre-dates the item on the Gerdab website and the original blog has been updated (English) to note that the author has contacted Julian.

Some commentators are being a bit harsh on Julian.  I don’t think his original story is particularly sensational or irresponsible.  Some of the stories that came after his original post by others looking to use the example, however, were downright silly. The two comments I would offer for the future are that Julian seemed to draw a causal inference from the timing of the piece, which clearly demonstrates the dangers of that sort of exercise, and perhaps didn’t anticipate how his post would explode in cyberspace.  But on balance, I read the post as withholding judgment (he quotes Meir Javedanfar calling it a “one-off”) and  I can’t hold Julian responsible for what other people write.

Misinterpeting the 2007 (and 2011) National Intelligence Estimates

Despite writing what I thought was a cautionary post about reading too much into the story — that we should “be cautions about interpreting an article with a satirical tone” and  “we ought not read too much into this bit of satire” — I too got flamed by the Iranian cyber brigade. (I am being flip; I don’t think the flame-throwers are actually an Iranian cyber brigade.)

I suppose one reason is that I noted the belief of the US intelligence community that the Rev Guards (IRGC) pursued a nuclear weapons program until 2003.  Several commentators, picking up on Sy Hersh’s latest piece in the New Yorker, have argued that the 2007 and 2011 National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) on Iran’s Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities give Iran a clean bill of health. But Sy and the commentators can’t have it both ways: If you believe, as I do, the conclusion of the 2007 NIE that Iran has “halted” its nuclear weapons program, you must also believe there was a covert nuclear weapons program to halt.  Moreover, what the  2007 NIE found — if you read it carefully — is that Iran halted same-said covert nuclear weapons in response to international scrutiny and pressure.  Again, if one accepts the conclusion of the NIE, one must also accept that pressure is a good thing. Somehow, I think the Iranian cyber brigade isn’t signing up for either claim.

Then there is the issue of Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant.  For some reason, Sy doesn’t mention Iran’s effort to construct a covert facility enrichment site near Qom (the so-called Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant). One overlooked finding of the 2007 NIE was that if Iran were to attempt to restart its nuclear weapons program, it would do so not at Natanz, but at a newly constructed covert facility.  The 2007 NIE even contained a list of possible candidates for a covert site.  I don’t know if the facility near Qom was on that list, but I am confident that the US intelligence community found the site precisely because it was looking for one.

The Fatwa

Another thing that upset some people is that I questioned the infamous fatwa precluding the development, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons.  Iranian officials announced the fatwa in August 2005 , but there is no text, transcript or context provided for it. We don’t even know where and when the Supreme Leader issued it — beyond the claim that it was issued “at Friday prayers” sometime in September 2004.  If the text is and other information is out there, it would do the community a load of good to pick up a copy.

What is the nature of the constraint created by existence of the fatwa?  The question is fundamental: Iran breached its comprehensive safeguards agreement, leading many of us to conclude that Iranian leaders do not feel particularly bound by their obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). A religious prohibition is potentially a significant confidence-building measure — Hasan Rowhani argued the fatwa was a stronger restraint than the NPT — but we lack details about the precise nature of that prohibition. I still don’t know if I should be reassured that the Supreme Leader has forbade nuclear weapons or disturbed that the Islamic Republic regards treaty obligations so lightly.

Is a “fatwa” in this context is simply the equivalent of a Presidential Policy Directive?  We know, according to the NIE, that Iran decided to halt its nuclear weapons program in 2003.  Perhaps that halt was formalized by one “fatwa” and can be reversed by another. Or is a “fatwa” closer to a treaty, in the sense that a religious prohibitions in a Sharia-state like Iran function much as legal prohibition would in a secular country like the United States? Or some other option that I am just not clever enough to imagine?  Is there even a good book on the role of fatwas in Shariah governance?

Perhaps it was irresponsible to ask whether this article tells us anything about that debate, but it stills seems to be a legitimate question to me.  Presumably both the author of the post and the Gerdab geeks believe they are Muslims and patriots.  They also believe openly supporting the testing of a nuclear weapon is consistent with those beliefs, fatwa or not.  The comments on the original blog post seem to suggest some back-and-forth about whether nuclear weapons are permissible, but I reading with a translation engine.  A competent Persian speaker might take a closer look.

I think my posts are getting too long.  At the very least, I am spending to long on them.  I’ll try to tighten it up here over the next couple of weeks.

Update | 18 June 2011 I’ve updated the post to correct a mistake — Gerdab reposted the original blog one day later, notmore than a month later” as I originally wrote.  (I think the posts appeared on April 23 and 24.) And I also fixed a link to an English post on Kheyzaran.

Update | 21 June 2011 Julian Borger has posted his interview with Seyed Ali Pourtabatabaei, the blogger who’s post Gerdab reposted.

Comments

  1. masoud (History)

    Fatwa’s are strictly a religious finding. They are not a treaty you enter in today and exit from next week. Nor can they be negotiated. You can compare them to the way common law is set by precedent in the British-type legal systems. A Jurist is presented with a problem, and makes a ruling, and his future judgments hinge on compatibility with that ruling.
    Shariah changes over time, but slowly. Generally speaking, the longer a particular understanding has been widely accepted by the community of Islamic scholars, the harder it is to change it.

    Fatwa’s are not the equivalents of Executive Directives, and don’t have anything to do with the state bureaucracy whatsoever.

    Of course, your suggestion that Iran does not ‘feel bound by treaty obligations’ is ridiculous, but I’m sure others will pick up that argument.

  2. shaheen (History)

    Jeff – Thanks for this post. It is not too long, and it is a sober and rational analysis, in sharp contrast with many of the comments made about Iran on this blog. Some of your readers don’t deserve you.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      That’s kind of you to say. For all the trolls, though, there are a couple of new voices that make it worthwhile.

      MohammadD, on this site but really over on Julian’s site, has been a one man cultural ambassador of goodwill and understanding.

      And sharp-penned, too, when he needs to be.

    • MohammadD (History)

      Thanks, Jeffrey. That’s kind of you indeed.
      You also made me go through the hassle of finding the meaning of “sharp-penned”! The major dictionaries don’t have it. And after getting a feeling about its meaning, I just realized that we have almost a word-by-word equivalent of it in Persian, albeit in a different way (i.e. “He has a sharp pen” is used in Persian with an identical meaning).

  3. MohammadD (History)

    “Pourtabatabaei contacted Julian to explain he was the author of the original post, which Gerdab placed online more than a month later.”

    Correction: Pourtabatabaei had written the post on April 23rd, and Gerdab reposted it only one day later at April 24th. Then Julian Borger popularized the post at June 8th, when the post was no longer on the first page of Gerdab or the blog.

    Also, the blogger has posted an explanation in English on his blog. Apparently you wanted to link to this post, but mistakenly linked to the Persian explanation. I mean in this section (emphasis added):
    “I will only add that the story checks out — the original blog post pre-dates the item on the Gerdab website and the original blog has been updated (English) to note that the author has contacted Julian.”

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Ah, thanks. I’ve updated the post.

  4. MohammadD (History)

    Regarding the fatwa, looking at the discussions between Pourtabatabaei and his readers in his blog and his friends under a shared item in a social network (which he asked not to disclose in public), he is trying to defend his post saying that it does not contradict the fatwa. He bases this on two arguments:
    1. The fatwa forbids the use of nuclear weapons, not owning them.
    2. Even if the fatwa forbids building nukes, it does not forbid hypothetically or positively talking about having nuclear weapons.

    Regarding point #1, I searched in khamenei.ir for mentions of the fatwa, and found that the religious fatwa probably only forbids using nukes, but as a policy statement, Khamenei has stressed that Iran will not after building or owning nukes. In two cases Khamenei says “we regard these weapons as haram and so will never go after building them” or something similar. In one case, after forcefully asserting that Iran opposes building and stockpiling WMDs and will not go after them, he says “we regard the use of WMDs haram and believe that trying to protect the humanity from these weapns is everyone’s duty”. In a perhaps more revealing case, he says “we have announced that using nuclear weapons is haram and forbidden in Islam; and keeping them is a large danger and a large hassle. We are not after them and we don’t want them. Even if someone pays us to have them, the Iranian nation does’t want it, the officials don’t want it.”

    So it appears to me that the fatwa forbids using nukes, and as a matter of policy, Iran does not want to go after nukes.

    • MohammadD (History)

      It should be also noted that since Iran’s government is based on the principle of Velayat-e Faqih (or Guardianship of the Jurisprudent), policy statements or executive orders of the Vali-e Faqih (Supreme Leader) are religiously binding. That is, there is a fatwa which says that.
      The difference between fatwas and policy statements by the Supreme Leader is that fatwas are necessarily based on religious considerations, but policy statements are mostly based on secular, pragmatic considerations (albeit in the context of a religious worldview). So fatwas are much less likely to change over time.

    • MohammadD (History)

      Seeing this comment on raceforiran.com, I should admit that the difference specified between “hukm” (which I called policy statement or executive order) and fatwa cited in that comment is more accurate than what I offered in my previous comment. Nevertheless, what I said still mostly holds.

      If you’re not familiar with Shia jurisprudence, you can look up the Velayat-e Faqih (or Hākim Shar’) and Marja’ concepts. In short, in mainstream Shia thought, people should follow their Marja (which themselves choose to follow based on perceptions of knowledgeability and fairness and can be one of the Grand Ayatollahs including Khamenei) and if their Marja approves of the principle of Velayat-e Faqih, they should also obey the hukms of the Supreme Leader if they reside in Iran. So hypothetically, if a rogue employee of AEOI follows an anti-Islamic Republic Marja (who does not approve of Velayat-e Faqih), who also allows him to become a government employee and try to build nukes, he is religiously permitted to try to build them, but not otherwise. Needless to say, that is (besides being very improbable) irrelevant to the issue of state policy.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      That is interesting.

      In 2005, the Islamic Republic presented the fatwa as prohibiting the “production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons.”

      http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Infcircs/2005/infcirc657.pdf

      Jeremy Stone has an interesting summary of the back-and-forth.

      http://catalytic-diplomacy.org/chapter.php?order=26

    • MohammadD (History)

      Thanks (esp. for the CD link). I had seen that claim (which Khamenei had issued a fatwa in 2005 prohibiting any nuke-related activities) in Persian-language websites, but I’ve not found it in Khamenei’s website. I just submitted an Istifta (request for fatwa) to his website, hoping that I’ll get a response.
      Nevertheless, Juan Cole’s opinion (at the bottom) should be taken seriously. With the forceful and repeated declarations all these years that Iran will not go after nukes, practically a “virtual” fatwa has been issued; i.e. the effect is the same IMHO. And while the next Leader can in theory reverse the (virtual or concrete) fatwa, again I find it as unlikely as dropping some of the basic slogans of the IRI, since much reputational capital has been invested in the nuclear issue and it’s now effectively an ideological position (esp. regarding Iran’s history with chemical weapons). The only way for it to go away is to fade away that position by not talking about it for many years.

  5. Anon (History)

    And since it is a wonk site, I refer interested folks to Daniel Joyner’s work on the contentious and misunderstood issue of the Code 3.1 [mod] which is legally wonkish by its very nature:

    http://jurist.org/forumy/2010/03/qom-enrichment-facility-was-iran.php

    “..all of this analysis by the IAEA Legal Advisor’s office, and by commentators like James Acton, assumes that the Subsidiary Arrangements agreement is in fact a treaty, or a legally binding agreement in and of itself, and is thus on par with the Safeguards Agreement. But this is not clearly the case. ”

    =============================

    So, yes, Iran may be racing to the red-line of NPT (without crossing it), but it may be cleverly obeying the letter of the law.

  6. A. Different Anonymous (History)

    The NIE is produced by intelligence community professionals who have a vested interest (their jobs) in not contradicting themselves.

    So a mistake made several years ago has corporate inertia to only change slightly from NIE to NIE, even when new contradictory evidence is obtained. It can be buried at lower levels within the report, or redacted entirely as not “probable” (i.e not agreement with past reports).

    I look at the overall material from all sources as inputs to a data fitting exercise. I ask which hypothesis fits the data best. The best fit is that Iran has the motivation and most likely has a covert nuclear weapons program.

    The best fit hypothesis for the hearsay “Fatwa” is similar. Religion has been used by “governments” for thousands of years. The unwritten “Fatwa” only described second hand though state media aligned with the leadership, fits the covert nuclear weapons hypothesis as a means to delay an allied response until after first demonstration of a weapon. It fits the data well and the fit cannot be rationally denied.

    Finally, the Jeffrey’s hypothesis that the other “anon” commenter is an agent of Iran fits the observed comments as well as any other. I appreciate “Anon’s” contributions, but I am not sure of his/her loyalties — any more than you are sure of mine.

    • Anon (History)

      There would be no contradiction if the 2011 NIE said that Iran had re-started its nuclear weapons program between 2007 and 2011. What would be the problem? Who would be angry with the DNI?

      So that argument does not apply.

      Yes, I would be a very highly paid Iranian agent to tell the world what the US DNI has said. I will ask for a raise from Tehran.

      Maybe Sy Hersch is an Iranian agent also?

      More likely it is the agents of another middle eastern country with great power over Capitol Hill that are interested in fanning the flames of war over a tempest in a teapot.

      And I am not sure what prompted the censorship of my comment where I said that it is entirely possible that Iran had a pilot nuclear weapons’ physics research program prior to 2004?

    • Anon (History)

      I tend to look at it in the opposite way: I find that now there are two consecutive NIEs that state a “high confidence” that Iran has stopped it’s incipient nuclear weapons research program as of 2003-4. This underscores both their conclusions which are consistent and span almost a decade now.

      I find that much easier to believe than to believe that two DNIs are lying to us and going out of their way to say “high confidence” in their results. Or that our last two DNIs are Iranian agents.

      If anyone has evidence of an on-going Iranian nuclear weapon’s (versus an enrichment) program let’s talk about it.

      Indeed, I do think Iran is racing to the red-line allowed by the NPT. That’s a fault of the NPT, if anything.

    • kme (History)

      The IC also have a vested interest in not being shown to be completely incorrect by facts that later become public. So if they say that they don’t think there’s a currently ongoing program to develop a weapon, then at least they don’t expect there will be an overt test or announcement of possession any time soon.

  7. Anon (History)

    You may be interested in Hibbs’ view from yesterday on the politicization of the BoG and DG:

    http://carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=44691

    “It is far from certain that this approach will become an accepted and effective way forward. Its credibility might be boosted if the IAEA board and secretariat cooperate to define what specifically constitutes noncompliance. But given recent increased politicization of the board, the biggest challenge is that many members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) no longer trust the IAEA secretariat in matters of verification.”

    “The IAEA’s technical safeguards judgment was not accepted by many NAM states. This lack of trust and confidence in the IAEA’s verifiers is the most fundamental obstacle to any future noncompliance finding. It has no simple fix and restoring confidence will require a long time and a concerted effort by the IAEA member states and secretariat.”

    “There is no Band-Aid solution because the board has always been—and is now—a political body. ”

    “Since the 2005 Iran resolution, and again last week, the board’s Western and advanced members have been inclined to disregard the board’s tradition of consensus and to simply discount the NAM’s abstention votes to get a result.”

  8. Andrew (History)

    Is it really productive to over parse satirical musings on Iranian blogs? What is next, following the 1984 assertions of Senate Minority Whip Alan Cranston that Iran was seven years away from being able to build its own nuclear weapon (thus implying they have had weapons since 1991)?

    It might be good to acknowledge a number of issues:
    * Iran has no fissile material which could be readily or immediately used in a nuclear weapon, and its current nuclear material remains subject to IAEA safeguards
    * Iran has no miniaturization technology to place a weapon on a warhead
    * Iran remains at the very least several years away from being able to develop a weapon capable of travelling to Europe, let alone the continental United States
    * At the current stage, no one can prove or credibly suggest that Iran has decided to build nuclear weapons. In fact, every statement by Iranian officials seems to suggest the complete opposite.
    * A number of states in the double digits already possess or have the capability to possess nuclear weapons if a decision were made to do so.

    In regards to the fatwa, there are a number of sources which all make the same point:

    * [http://www.mathaba.net/news/?x=302258] : “The Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued the Fatwa that the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who took office just recently, in his inaugural address reiterated that his government is against weapons of mass destruction and will only pursue nuclear activities in the peaceful domain”

    * [http://english.khamenei.ir/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1442] : “On numerous occasions, the Iranian people and government officials have announced that they do not seek to develop nuclear weapons and that nuclear weapons have no place among the needs of the nation and the military system of the country. We believe that using nuclear weapons is haraam and prohibited and that it is everybody’s duty to make efforts to protect humanity against this great disaster. We believe that besides nuclear weapons, other types of weapons of mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons also pose a serious threat to humanity.”

    “They mix up nuclear technology with development of nuclear weapons. The truth is different from what they say. Nuclear technology and nuclear weapons are two different things which are not closely related to one another. Nuclear weapons are based on uranium that is enriched above 90 percent through the use of complex technologies. Only those who have the motivation will go after nuclear weapons. The Islamic Republic of Iran does not have this motivation, and it has never been after nuclear weapons. Iran does not need a nuclear bomb. Iran has overcome its enemies so far without depending on nuclear weapons.”

    * [http://english.khamenei.ir/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1287&Itemid=16] : “We believe that besides nuclear weapons, other types of weapons of mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons also pose a serious threat to humanity. The Iranian nation which is itself a victim of chemical weapons feels more than any other nation the danger that is caused by the production and stockpiling of such weapons and is prepared to make use of all its facilities to counter such threats. We consider the use of such weapons as haraam and believe that it is everyone’s duty to make efforts to secure humanity against this great disaster.”

    * [http://articles.sfgate.com/2003-10-31/news/17515120_1_nuclear-program-nuclear-weapons-supreme-leader/3] Miboudi, a mullah who is professor of political science at Mofid University in Qom, said any reversal of such a high-profile issue would require years of awkward theological maneuvering. “There is room for maneuver in Islam. Things can be haram (forbidden) one day and halal (acceptable) later on. But this takes time,” he said.

    * [http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/articles/brmiddleeastnafricara/640.php] A new WorldPublicOpinion.org poll finds that two-thirds of Iranians would favor their government precluding the development of nuclear weapons in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions against Iran. WPO, a collaborative project involving research centers from around the world, is managed by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.

    One wonders where the world would be if the same drive and skepticism here were used in moving towards a world free of nuclear weapons.

  9. Mark Lincoln (History)

    Iran has twice ventured to investigate at a small level nuclear weapons. Once during the war following Iraq’s attack in the early 1980s, and again when many in the Bush administration were talking loudly that Iraq would be next as soon as we could wrap up the Iraq way.

    The current ‘threat’ from Iran seems more a matter of it developing a break-out capability than it having an active weapons program.

    It remains obtuse and the sanctions are fully justified. Iran needs to submit to the Additional Protocols as well as answer outstanding questions.

    While the primary goal of the NPT is to prevent proliferation, a secondary goal is to give the world maximum warning of any attempt to break out of the treaty.

    The government of Iran is despicable, and not trustworthy. This does not change the fact that Israel and the USA have been engaged in a long-term campaign of incitement of revolutionary groups in Iran. Or continuous threats to attack it.

    The lesson taught by the west discarding the assurances given when Libya gave up it’s weapons program must be considered by Iran. As well, the sudden end to Bush administration threats of attack upon the DPRK following it’s test must also have been noted.

    Two nations remain the largest threat to the NPT by their actions. One is not a signatory, and regularly trades in prohibited technology and materials. The other blatantly violated the treaty by conveying prohibited materials and engineering to India in the last few years.

    Both possess nuclear weapons and both continue to threaten attacks upon nations which don’t and thus encourage those nations to secure their survival by acquiring nuclear weapons.

    The world does not need another nuclear weapons state. Nor does it need nuclear weapons states which constantly threaten to attack states without a deterrent force.

    • hass (History)

      Iran and the IAEA made a list of outstanding questions in Aug 2007, and they were resolved in the Feb 2008 IAEA report. No country can be legally forced to sign a treaty, including the Additional Protocol, which Iran not only implemented for 3 years but has offered to permanently ratify as long as its right to enrichment is recognized. Far from seeking “breakout capacity” (a nonsense term applicable to any country with a nuclear progam) Iran offered to place limitations on its nuclear program well beyond its legal obligations, which the US torpedoed (noted by ElBaradei). So the burden is not on Iran but on the US to prove its goodwill. As long as the US insists — quite illegaly — on zero enrichment, the standoff will continue, and this is precisely what the US wants because the entire nuclear issue is pretextual anyway as was “WMDS in Iraq”.

  10. archjr (History)

    Three comments:

    1) I think this debate has been terrific over time, but became particularly acute, enlightening, and specific when prompted by an Iranian blogger no one seems to know;

    2) “Fatwa” or not, we should not ascribe particular importance to what governments say. I believe that declaratory policy is useful when everyone knows you already have nuclear weapons, not so much if everyone is wondering what you might do; and

    3) The difference between what Iran says and what it does (or hides) is pretty stark;

    4) Sorry! I am so glad discussions like this can be had in public. There was little info on India before ’74, but lots of intel the USG never used afterward to any effect, and we all know about the intel failures pre-’98. I think a credible case can be made that the existence of forums like these, and sat photos, and NCRI, has made a difference in the considerations of a divided Iranian government. So kudos to all who take the time to participate.

    • John Schilling (History)

      What governments say, can matter. If a government says a thing that will seriously hurt its credibility (amongst people whose opinions are important to it) should it implement policy X, that is a pretty good sign that the government in question does not intend to implement policy X. At least, not this side of circumstances so dire that the loss of credibility would be the lesser evil, from that government’s perspective.

      Declaratory policy by established nuclear powers, that would only be put to the test in the event of an actual nuclear war, or something very close to it. And the price for not “winning” a nuclear war, is high enough that nobody is going to balk at doing what is necessary no matter the cost to their credibility.

      But a declaration or demonstration of nuclear capability by an emerging power, is a different matter. And Iran is populated largely by people of sincere religious belief – if it is said that “The Lord God Almighty has forbidden Policy X, Or Else”, then the Iranian government will pay dearly should it try to implement policy X.

      So it is a matter of legitimate concern whether A: the alleged fatwa proscribes the development/posession or merely the use of nuclear weapons, and B: the extent to which Iranian Muslims will understand it to be the unalterable Word of God via His local spokesman. I suspect neither of these is truly absolute, but they may be sufficient to dissuade future Iranian governments from building nukes.

      And I welcome commentary from people more knowledgeable than I on the role of fatwas in Iranian religious and political thought – it may be very relevant.

    • Hairs (History)

      John,

      Talking to (admittedly Sunni) friends in the Gulf, a fatwa – being just a learned opinion – seems not to be as binding as I (and perhaps many others) had previously imagined. By the accounts I’m hearing it has somewhat less influence than a legal opinion in the West, and individuals are free to choose whether to abide by it or not.

      Equally important for this thread, the person who issued the original fatwa can rescind it at any time; so in the specific case of the Khamenei, who issued the Iranian fatwa we’re talking about, he could wake up tomorrow and simply say it’s no longer valid.

      What might prompt such a volte face? Well, I can imagine that if Iran felt itself at serious risk of invasion then a religious obligation to preserve Iranians as the followers of Ali, as well as to defend many holy sites from infidel occupation, could well trump any religious qualms about WMD (secular issues about using WMD being something different), and the fatwa would be revoked in an instant. The same feelings might be evoked if Iran’s territory were heavily bombed,

      As we all know, history is replete with examples of religious leopards changing their spots when the need arises, so I’ve no doubt that Khamenei’s current fatwa on nuclear weapons would be rescinded in a flash if Iran’s sovereignty (and by implication its Shia clerics’ influence) were sufficiently threatened.

      On this basis, the potential loss of government credibility might be enough for the fatwa to hold back nuclear weapon development / deployment under current circumstances, but I can’t see it holding back a government *and* an indignant people if Iran were to be significantly threatened.

      Consequently I don’t think we should be relying on a (rescindable) fatwa to dissuade Iran’s government from building a nuclear weapon.

  11. Nick (History)

    Looks like this website regularly steers towards the discussion of SA code 3.1 for Iran’s nuclear projects. We have discussed it many many times.

    It is a very simple binary decision tree, if you will.

    If SA code 3.1 is true for Iran, regardless of inaccurate interpretations by Acton (incidently, his NewsHour expert discussion on Fukushima disaster was a bit below par, sorry 🙁 ) and like minded people as to how Iran should ratify a treaty, then Fordo and the remaining proposed sites are within Iran’s agreements with the Agency.

    By the way, my suggestion for folks that are making a living on vilifying Iran’s nuclear dossier in the press and some of the think tanks around DC, is to take the time and read Iran’s Safeguard agreement, it may help your cause.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      This is just wrong. Iran agreed to the modified Code 3.1 language in February 2003, which obligates it to notify the Agency “as soon as a decision to construct” is taken.

      Implementation of the provisions of the subsidiary agreement can only be suspended by the agreement of both parties. The IAEA has made clear that it does not consent to Iran’s suspension of the modified Code 3.1 language.

      What the IAEA has said, in reference to other facilities that Iran failed to report despite its modified Code 3.1 language, is that these actions are inconsistent with its safeguards obligations, but that it is difficult to conclude this rises to the level of noncompliance or a breach.

      I wouldn’t be so smug about accusing other people of not having read things, when you seem to be the person with some items still on your list. Why don’t you start with this legal opinion from OLA before offering us any more of your wit and wisdom: http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/file_download/162/Legal_Adviser_Iran.pdf

  12. Nick (History)

    You are still missing the point again.

    You can cite all the legal documentations on the web you want, but the “Majlis” in Iran approves treaties, regardless of what the Iraninan rep in Vienna did with his letter to DG or public presentations.

    It was not approved by the Majlis, theerfore, it was a voluntary agreement for the duration of negotiations.

    This is a similar argument to US Congress not approving CTBT when Clinton agreed to it.

    My point about the safeguard agreement was that this document truly explains what is at stake here, in terms what is covered and what is not. For instance, heavy water and uranium mining is not part of it, but say enrichment is, of course.

    For those that utilize all the media sources (blogshere, press, panels in conferences, etc.) it is essential to know this document very well.

    Since SA code 3.1 is at the heart of some of these arguments spelled out by you and the Agency’s recent reports, then have a panel in the next conference to discuss Iran’s constitution as it relates to approval of treaties and modifications to safeguard agreement. In my opinion, that would be a great contribution to this discussion.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      We’ve had these panels, Nick, and the conclusion is that you are wrong. (Where is Joyner right now?)

      First, you appear to be confusing the Additional Protocol and the Subsidiary Arrangements. Not the same thing. (You would have a point if we were talking about the AP.)

      Second, as far as I know, no state has subjected subsidiary arrangements to anything like a ratification process. That doesn’t mean those are not real obligations. As Iran’s safeguards agreement states clearly, the subsidiary arrangements cannot be altered without the consent of both parties. (If you would stop justifying an Iranian bomb for two seconds, you would see why mutual consent is an important principle for such detailed arrangements.)

      Third, international law is basically blind to the domestic distinctions states make among different types of agreements. Iran can assert that treaties can only ratified by 2/3 of the Majlis participating in a circle jerk, and that everything else is just an international agreement subject to Presidential signature, but they are all treaties. (Though one might not wish to be the depository for an Iranian treaty.)

      Clinton could have submitted the CTBT as a Congressional-Executive Agreement, rather than a “treaty”, it would still be a treaty under international law. Both the US and Iranian distinction are irrelevant under the Vienna Convention.

      The OLA position — which you dismiss as a “legal document from the web” as though Laura Rockwood is some random blogger — is that Iran’s actions are inconsistent with its safeguards obligations.

      If you want to know why many people suspect Iran of building a bomb, it is tendentious arguments like yours. The moment that Iran suspended its compliance with the modified Code 3.1 language, we all took that a sign to start looking for clandestine facilities in Iran. That is the common-sense implication of this arcane legal maneuver. And, low-and-behold, what did we find? Iran was constructing a covert facility near Qom, for which it had taken pains to provide a legal justification.

    • Nick (History)

      I think you are being very judgemental in your assessment and I am fully aware of the differences between AP and SA.

      Our problem is that folks with know-it-all attitude participate in global security panels or write op-ed pieces without an ounce of deep understanding of the operation of the country they are targeting.

      It really amazes me how qucikly you have marched towards fear mongering of a nuclear bomb. What does the discussion on 180 days notice for DIV has to do with bombs!? There are many steps to ensure that IRI doesn’t join the nuclear weapons club.

      However, the fact that BOG cannot reach a consensus that member countries should not threaten other members with attacking safeguarded sites is far more critical than anything that SA 3.1 or other matters could offer. If there was truly a litmus test (Article 39) for endangering world peace this one would be on my top ten list.

      Thanks for explaining better than I did. The excutive branch wanted CBTB, treaty or no treaty and the legislative body was against it. It is exactly the same argument in Iran. Only Iran’s IAEA rep agreed with the change. In another case, the executive body wanted to swap the Tehran reactor fuel and the legislative body was against it. There are a lot of contentious issues between these two bodies in Iran, if you have been follwing the news recently.

      The Agency’s Safeguard Department when exchanging letters with member countries’ respresentatives on revised SA 3.1 or other modifications MUST confirm that this action has been ratified by the legislative body of the member country or not. I think if this practice is followed there will be fewer complications as is the case here.

      Given all the saber rattling about attacking Iran’s nuclear sites, it is logical for them to continue digging underground tunnels to hide their centrifuges. The results would have been far better, if pundits had taken a less confrontational analysis of Iran’s dossier to give more breathing room for enegagement.

    • masoud (History)

      I don’t know where Dan Joyner is, but here is an article he wrote about the matter.

      http://jurist.org/forumy/2010/03/qom-enrichment-facility-was-iran.php

      For what it’s worth I agree with that analysis, and disagree with you.

      If Iran has indeed violated it’s ‘obligations’, when exactly did those obligations come into force? And through which mechanisms did they come into force? If you can’t answer those questions, the Subsidiary Arrangements aren’t treaties. And even if they were treaties, you can ask George Bush about how easy it is to withdraw from those.

      Article 39 of Iran’s CSA states in black and white
      “The Subsidiary Arrangements may be extended or changed by agreement between the Government of Iran and the Agency without amendment of this Agreement.”
      The Agency does not have the power to unilaterally extend code 3.1 without the agreement of the Government of Iran.

      Iran was only temporarily adhering to the modified code 3.1, while temporarily also implementing the Additional Protocol. Once it became evident that it’s efforts were in vain because Iran’s counterparts were acting in bad faith, it withdrew from implementing both. If the actual exchange of letters documenting the processes by which Iran and the Agency formalized the SA’s supported the Agencies view, you could bet your bottom dollar they would have been leaked years ago, and you would have posted them here.

    • masoud (History)

      It is not even evident to me that Iran negotiated Modified Code 3.1 as a Subsidiary Arrangement to the CSA as opposed to as a Subsidiary Arrangement to the Additional Protocol. In the latter case, there’s not even an argument: modified code 3.1 became ‘quaint’ as soon as Iran sent the IAEA a letter informing it that it was withdrawing from the AP.

  13. Andrew (History)

    The United States government and its allies haven’t suddenly realized Tehran was up to something in the past few years or decade, it has been directly tied to Iranian compliance with U.S. foreign policy goals.

    The United States government almost immediately stopped supporting and started questioning the nuclear program of Iran after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 which saw the overthrow of the autocratic U.S.-supported Shah.

    Before the revolution:
    *In 1967, the Tehran Nuclear Research Center (TNRC) was established with a U.S.-supplied, 5-megawatt nuclear research reactor.

    *In 1974, while Richard Cheney was the White House Chief of Staff, and Donald Rumsfeld was the Secretary of Defense, a Ford administration paper said the “introduction of nuclear power will both provide for the growing needs of Iran’s economy and free remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals.” This was in spite of a 1974 CIA proliferation assessment which stated “if [the Shah] is alive in the mid-1980s … and if other countries [particularly India] have proceeded with weapons development we have no doubt Iran will follow suit.”

    After the revolution:
    *In the 1980s, the United States cut off the supply of highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor and persuaded the IAEA to terminate its project to assist Iran in producing enriched uranium. At this point, Argentina resumed providing fuel for the reactor until U.S. pressure would eventually lead to Iran producing it for itself.

    *In 1984, Minority Whip of the U.S. Senate Alan Cranston was quoted as claiming Iran was a mere seven years away from being able to build its own nuclear weapon. (“Senator says Iran, Iraq seek N-Bomb”, June 27, 1984, The Age, p. 7)

    *A 1992 House of Representatives report suggested that Iran could have two or three operational nuclear weapons by April 1992.

    *In 1992 the CIA foresaw atomic arms in Iranian hands by 2000.(http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2009/02/going-nuclear-before-and-after.html#ixzz1Px1a3Uxx)

    *In 1992, the German weekly focus reported that Iran acquired nuclear weapons “ready for immediate use”. —”Iran Reportedly Acquires Nuclear Arms from CIS,” Central Eurasia, 28 January 1993, p. 6.

    *In 1995, the director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, testified before Congress that “Iran could have the bomb by 2003”.

    *Greg Gerardi in The Nonproliferation Review (Vol. 2, 1995) reported on claims that Iran could be much closer to an atomic bomb than previously thought.

    • yousaf (History)

      Great summary.

      I had an old letter in FT about this — incidentally this applies right now after the 2011 NIE as it did then after the 2007 NIE, since both these NIEs are in essential agreement that there is no current Iranian nuclear weapons’ program:

      http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/2725a9fc-a467-11dc-a28d-0000779fd2ac.html#axzz1QAc8L4yc

      We need to overhaul what is a flawed non-proliferation treaty

      December 7 2007

      From Dr Yousaf Mahmood Butt.

      Sir, David Miliband (“Why we must not take the pressure off Iran” December 5) is correct to point out that the Iranian uranium enrichment programme remains a concern despite the just-released US National Intelligence Estimate suggesting that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons programme in 2003.

      However, no amount of “diplomacy with teeth” can compensate for what is fundamentally a flaw in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): signatory nations (such as Iran) are allowed by law to enrich uranium – ostensibly for peaceful uses – and thus collect the raw material needed, should they wish, for a bomb.

      Instead of the selective application of United Nations sanctions to nations perceived to be unfriendly or unco-operative by the west (eg, No to Iran, Yes to Brazil for uranium enrichment), it would make more sense to overhaul the 1970 NPT; and, while at it, also make sure that the new treaty punishes more aggressively those (predominantly western) nations that do not abide by their arms-reduction obligations in the current NPT.

      “If someone asks me to disarm and keep a slingshot while he comes at me with a cannon, what good does that do?” Brazillian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has said of the NPT; but it could well be said by the Iranian government in reference to Israel, which is openly allowed by the west to stockpile 200 or so nuclear warheads in the region.

      It is telling that President Ford, in 1976, encouraged Iran (then under the US-backed shah) to build both uranium enrichment as well as plutonium processing plants. How is it that what was permissible then under the 1970 NPT, has now become forbidden – under the very same treaty – to the point that there are cries for further UN sanctions against Iran?

      The answer is to be found in Mr Miliband’s article: we don’t trust Iran and it is not our friend. Unfortunately, if international law is to be taken seriously, it must be blind.

      Yousaf Mahmood Butt,
      Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics,
      Cambridge, MA 02138, US

    • Andrew (History)

      Thank you for reading my post whether you agreed or disagreed with it, I would have gone in to more detail but then I was afraid no one would read it.

      “If international law is to be taken seriously, it must be blind” is the exact framework which ought to be used in the sustainment of any truly credible nonproliferation regime or any even semi-effective disarmament scheme.

  14. masoud (History)

    “And, low-and-behold, what did we find? Iran was constructing a covert facility near Qom, for which it had taken pains to provide a legal justification.”
    Quick reality check: you “found out” about Fordo, when El Baradei opened up a letter mailed to him by the IRI informing him of it’s existence. Unless you want to take some beloved(beloved in general, i mean) anonymous Washington official at his word when he wispers that Iran’s espionage networks in America are somehow so sophisticated that they were able to penetrate into Obama’s inner circle and find out what he was going to ‘announce’–about a week and a half before that press conference was even scheduled.

  15. Simon (History)

    Iranian state television on Thursday quoted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as saying: “If we do want to make a bomb, we are not afraid of anybody.”

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle-east/president-iran-not-afraid-to-make-nuclear-weapon-but-has-no-intention-of-doing-so/2011/06/23/AGLGX0gH_story.html?wprss=rss_world#weighIn

    • mamdali (History)

      Simon, you failed to post the title of the article:

      “President: Iran not afraid to make nuclear weapon but has no intention of doing so”.

      Thanks!

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