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10.1.2009 A manufactured crisis

By Jack A Smith

No one knows what will emerge ultimately from the talks beginning in Geneva on October 1 between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany on the matter of the Tehran government's nuclear program.

Iran says it looks forward to the talks and promises to be forthcoming. But judging by the stance of the United States, Great Britain, France and Germany last week at the United Nations conferences in New York and the Group of 20 meeting in Pittsburgh, draconian sanctions may be enacted against Iran in a few months. This would result in yet another crisis that the world doesn't need just now.

Russia and China - which hold veto power in the Security Council that can weaken or prevent additional sanctions - have up to now resisted the Barack Obama administration's drive for tough new UN punishments. Obama met separately during the week with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao in an effort to obtain their agreement to threaten more stringent sanctions should Iran procrastinate during the talks.

The White House later suggested to the press that Medvedev may be coming around to Obama's point of view, but this seems to be based on very skimpy evidence - a remark that "in some cases sanctions are inevitable". Hu evidently didn't even go that far. China opposes sanctions in principle as a means of resolving international disputes.

Moscow and Beijing do not subscribe to the negative depiction of Iran promoted by Washington, Tel Aviv, London, Paris and Bonn. They understand the situation to be far more complex than the US and its allies publicly acknowledge.

The Iran question suddenly took center stage on September 25 during a week of hectic political activity. The White House set up a hastily arranged and theatrically produced press conference at the start of the Group of 20 meeting in order to detonate a political bombshell intended to destroy Tehran's contention that it is only interested in nuclear power, not nuclear weapons.

The conference opened with Obama standing at the microphone with French President Nicholas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown positioned solemnly to his left and right. It was explained that German Chancellor Angela Merkel would have joined the trio but was delayed.

Obama then declared that Iran had for several years been secretly building an underground plant in mountainous terrain to manufacture nuclear fuel near the city of Qom about 160 kilometers from the capital Tehran, in addition to the plant and facilities in Natanz already known to the world. He suggested the new plant was intended to produce weapons without the world's knowledge, though that was not proven.

Obama then charged, "Iran's decision to build yet another nuclear facility without notifying the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] represents a direct challenge to the basic compact at the center of the non-proliferation regime ... Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow ... and threatening the stability and security of the region and the world." Refusal to "come clean", he said, "is going to lead to confrontation."

Sarkozy and Brown followed Obama and seemed to go even further than the American leader in denouncing Iran, explicitly demanding harder sanctions. Said Brown: "The level of deception by the Iranian government, and the scale of what we believe is the breach of international commitments, will shock and anger the entire international community."

The New York Times reported that "after months of talking about the need for engagement, Mr Obama appears to have made a leap toward viewing tough new sanctions against Iran as an inevitability ... American officials said that they expected the announcement to make it easier to build a case for international sanctions".

The majority of House and senate members have long been critical of Iran's government and the new allegations have only fanned the flames of their hostility. Right-wing Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the leading Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, declared: "The US and other countries must immediately impose crippling sanctions on the Iranian regime, including cutting off Iran's imports of gasoline. The world cannot stand by and watch the nightmare of a nuclear-armed Iran become reality." Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated, "Now is the time to supplement engagement with more robust international sanctions."

As intended, the hyped disclosure created headlines around the world. It probably convinced many Americans, already primed to detest Iran, that Tehran is building nuclear bombs to obliterate the US and Israel. This is not an unlikely conclusion for many people to accept after 30 years of Washington's incessant campaign to demonize the government that overthrew and replaced America's puppet, the dreaded shah of Iran. The US broke diplomatic relations with Iran after this act of lese majeste and the subsequent "hostage crisis", and has nourished a grudge to this day.

If push does come to shove with Iran it is important to remember how effortless it was to hoodwink the majority of American politicians and the masses of people into backing a completely unnecessary war against Iraq. As in the buildup to the unjust invasion of Iraq, today's US corporate mass media are playing its principal part to perfection - uncritically echoing government distortions about the danger of Iran's nonexistent nuclear weapons. The Iran situation is different, but yet similar in terms of mass public manipulation and the possibility of a future confrontation getting out of hand.

Can this be, once again, a situation of high-stakes geopolitics where things are rarely as they seem? We think so. Let's look at the immediate charge against Iran, based on the "revelations" of the last week.

The "shocking" news may have been delivered with a sense of surprise and high urgency, but US intelligence agencies, joined by their counterparts in some allied countries, were aware since 2006 that Iran was constructing a second uranium-processing plant that still remains under construction and is not operational. According to a September 26 article circulated by the McClatchy newspaper group quoting a US intelligence official, "There was dialogue with allies from a very early point."

George W Bush administration director of national intelligence Mike McConnell first informed Obama about the facility soon after he won the election. He has been kept up to date since then. Before going public with the information last week, the president saw to it that several other governments were told in advance, as was the IAEA and others.

Washington officials claimed Iran became aware "in late spring" that the US was spying on the "secret" facility. They said Iran then informed the IAEA on September 21 about the existence of its project, implying Tehran did so because its cover was blown. In a statement on September 24, the IAEA acknowledged that Tehran had informed them that a "pilot fuel enrichment plant is under construction in the country", and that it "also understands from Iran that no nuclear material has been introduced into the facility".

Iran insisted to the Vienna-based IAEA and the world that the enrichment plant under construction is designed only for fueling nuclear power installations. Soon after Obama's G-20 speech, Iran's Atomic Energy Organization declared the new "semi-industrial enrichment fuel facility" was "within the framework of International Atomic Energy Agency's regulations". Press reports said, "The head of Iran's nuclear program suggested UN inspectors would be allowed to visit the site." The invitation was extended before Washington's demand that it do so.

A quite unruffled Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared at a press conference in New York after Obama's disclosures. He seemed to regard the American president's allegations, and the staged manner in which they were delivered, not only the making of a mountain out of a molehill but an act of bad faith just before the talks are to begin, suggesting non-threateningly that Obama will come to regret his confrontational demeanor.

Ahmadinejad told the press that the plant in question wouldn't be operational for 18 more months and that it did not violate the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). He went further and said nuclear weapons "are against humanity [and] they are inhumane", comments in keeping with his recent calls for eliminating all nuclear weapons. The Iranian leader also said that Iran informed the IAEA about the plant only a few days ago instead of when ground was broken because construction had reached the stage where it should be reported, not because it found out that a US spy agency was watching.

What are we to make of this? First it must be understood there is a dispute over the IAEA's safeguard provisions governing the NPT.

Iran considers itself to be in total compliance with the NPT, and this appears to be true. Inter Press Service reporter Jim Lobe wrote on September 25 that "Under the basic Safeguards Agreement of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of which Iran is a signatory, member states are required to declare their nuclear facilities and designs at least 180 days before introducing nuclear materials there". (See Plenty to talk about Asia Times Online, September 29, 2009.)

According to an article in the September 26 New York Times by Neil MacFarquhar, "Tehran's stance hinges on different interpretations of the agency's regulations, said Graham Allison, the director of Harvard University's Belfer Center and an Iran nuclear expert.

"For two decades, the agency required Iran to report only when nuclear material [for uranium enrichment] was introduced to a facility. By 2003, it rescinded that, in line with the guidelines for most [but not all] countries, demanding reporting when construction began, Mr Allison said. But the agency never declared Iran out of compliance when Tehran claimed the old agreement was still in place."

In talking to the press after Obama's speech, Ahmadinejad said that the new facility would be completed in 18 months, so under Iran's understanding of its responsibilities, the notification was a year in advance. The US maintains that Iran informed the IAEA when it learned US spy agencies had become aware of the plant, but if that were so, why did Teheran wait three months before contacting the nuclear agency? Had they acted out of fear of being exposed as noncompliant wouldn't they have contacted IAEA immediately?

"What we did was completely legal, according to the law," the Iranian president said. "We have informed the agency, the agency will come and take a look and produce a report and it's nothing new." According to the Associated Press, Teheran's notice to the IAEA specified that the enrichment level would be up to 5%, suitable only for peaceful purposes. Weapons-grade material is more than 90% enriched.

The AP also noted that the IAEA now "says Iran is obliged to make such a notification when it begins design of such facilities" and that "a government cannot unilaterally abandon such an agreement". This is confusing. But since Iran was never designated as non-compliant and was allowed to proceed under the previous rules for years after it registered its rejection of the new terms, the thunderous criticism emanating from the US, Britain and France appears to have no serious merit.