#09 Prejudice
Jerry Sommer

Iran – Nuclear Conflict: Prejudices, Myths and Facts

For over ten years now, Iran's nuclear programme has occupied politics and the international community. The sabre rattling increases every couple of months. If and when a diplomatic compromise could be reached or whether a military attack by Israel and/or the USA on Iran might occur is unclear. Potential military attacks are always justified by the claim that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons and the possible consequences of this.


In 2003, the US government justified its war on Iraq by claiming it had been reliably proven that Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. By now it has been well established that this mistaken assessment was based in part on misjudgements, prejudices, exaggerations, myths and lies. In 2008 then Chairman of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, John D. Rockefeller IV, summed up the results of a report from his committee on the run-up to the Iraq war as follows: "The (US) administration made significant claims that were not supported by the intelligence. In making the case for war, the administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted or even non-existent. As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed".[1]

"As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed"

In view this negative experience, it seems appropriate in the case of Iran to explore very closely the extent to which some basic assumptions about the Iranian nuclear programme, which politicians and many media in the Western world in particular are acting on and spreading, have arisen out of prejudices, exaggerations, half-truths and even lies, or are actually supported by facts.[2]

Iran vs. the USA

The relationship between the two main protagonists, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the USA, is coloured by decades of animosity and the respective mistrust engendered by it. This is due in part to the overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian government by the CIA in 1953, US support of the Shah dictatorship, the hostage taking of US diplomats in Teheran in 1979, US support of Iraq in its war against Iran, and Iranian support of Hezbollah and Hamas.

Iran's leadership views the USA as its archenemy. In turn, the US government under George W. Bush included Iran in the "Axis of Evil". Even today the overwhelming majority of the US establishment supports a regime change in Iran because the Islamic Republic is viewed as the greatest enemy to US policy in the Near and Middle East.[3] So it is entirely understandable that sympathies and antipathies influence statements about Iran. This is another reason statements about Iran should be subjected to through fact-checking before they are granted any credibility.

"Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons"

The media talk almost daily about how the West believes that Iran is trying to produce nuclear weapons. "The West suspects that Iran intends to produce nuclear weapons" reported the "Washington Post" on 29 June, 2012.[4] It has been "practically proven that Teheran is secretly building an atomic bomb,"[5] claimed the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" in an editorial. These are just two examples.

Currently Iran does have the technology to enrich uranium. It can be used to produce fuel rods for civil nuclear energy plants that require an enrichment of under 5 percent as a rule. For very few reactors, such as the Tehran Research Reactor which produces the medical isotope for 800,000 Iranian cancer patients, fuel rods are made from 20-percent enriched uranium. If uranium is further enriched to over 90 percent, this results in the material necessary for an atom bomb.

Since Iran has uranium enrichment facilities and over 6,000 kg of 3.5-percent enriched uranium, it is therefore theoretically in a position to produce weapons-grade 90-percent enriched uranium for around five to six atomic bombs. A claim can therefore be made that Iran – like Brazil and Japan, for example – already has nuclear weapons capability.

But today, as in the past, there is no unequivocal proof that Iran has ever had a nuclear weapons program or is conducting one at present. US intelligence agencies are standing by their conclusion that Iran ended its structured nuclear weapons program in 2003, and since then has not made any decision to start it up again. In keeping with this, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta stated at the beginning of 2012: "Are they [Iran] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No."[6]

In principle Iran has the technological capacity to build an atom bomb, explained the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, on January 31, 2012: "We assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons [...] We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons."[7] Clapper continued by saying that Iran's rationale is guided by a cost-benefit approach.

The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly declared his rejection of nuclear weapons: "from an ideological and fiqhi (religious) perspective, we consider developing nuclear weapons as unlawful. We consider using such weapons as a big sin. We also believe that keeping such weapons is futile and dangerous, and we will never go after them."[8] In addition to religious reasons, according to which the killing of innocent people by means of nuclear weapons is judged to be un-Islamic, the Teheran leadership also regards the possession of nuclear weapons as harmful from a political and strategic standpoint. This would provoke an arms race in the Near East, a development that would be at odds with Iranian security interests.[9]

We cannot entirely rule out that statements of this kind are propaganda. There is some evidence that Iran might have begun a nuclear weapons program in the 1980s when the country was attacked by Iraq with chemical and other weapons, but discontinued the program in 2003 after the fall of Saddam Hussein. There are, however, very strong arguments that speak against assuming that Iran is still endeavouring to make nuclear weapons. Their possible deterrent effect against an attack would be limited. If Iran were to build nuclear weapons it would have to reckon with an immediate military intervention by the vastly superior United States. Additionally, Teheran would lose all political and economic support from, among others, Russia, China, India, and Brazil.

"Iran does not intend to become a second North Korea."

Interpreting the Iranian nuclear programme as an unequivocal pursuit of the bomb is misleading. According to a Reuters report "the US, its European allies and even Israel are in agreement: Teheran does not have a bomb, has not decided to build one."[10] It is, however, possible that, over and above economic and prestige-related grounds, Iran also links its nuclear program, which is based on achieving an independent fuel cycle, to security issues – albeit without the intention of crossing the "red line." One person who holds this view is former General Secretary of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed El Baradei: "Iran does not intend to become a second North Korea – an international outcast nuclear weapons state, but rather a second Brazil or Japan, a technological power which keeps open the option of developing nuclear weapons in an unfavourable political situation, but otherwise remains a non-nuclear weapons state."[11]

"Time is running out"

Israeli government politicians in particular have repeatedly tried to awaken the impression that the time in which an Iranian atomic bomb could be prevented is running out, and have threatened military attack.
From a legal point of view, Article 2 of the UN Charter prohibits the "threat or use of force." Article 51 provides for the right to self-defence only "if an armed attack occurs."[12] However, a military attack by Iran is exceptionally unlikely. A preventive war by Israel and/or the US against Iran would be – as both Sweden and Finland pointed out in a joint public declaration by their foreign ministers in March 2012 – "a clear violation of the charter of the United Nations."[13]

But beyond the niceties of such international law arguments, the claim that time is running out fails upon closer inspection as well. US intelligence estimates that Iran has not decided to build nuclear weapons. The Israeli Minister of Defence confirmed this assessment in June 2012 in an interview with the "Washington Post": "We all know that, until now, [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei did not order the actual building of weapons or explosive devices".[14]

Additionally, since there are no signs that Teheran possesses any kind of secret enrichment plant, further processing of low-enriched uranium to 90-percent weapons-grade uranium would have to take place in the existing, known plants in Natanz or Fordow. But these are under the continual supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency, (IAEA). Additional enrichment to 90 percent would be discovered almost immediately, or Iran would have to order the IAEA out of the country beforehand. Either way, the international community would have sufficient time to respond.

In any case Iran would not suddenly come into possession of nuclear weapons overnight as it were. In alignment with US national intelligence, in January 2012 Leon Panetta estimated that if Iran were to make the decision today: "it would probably take them about a year to be able to produce a bomb and then possibly another one to two years in order to put it on a deliverable vehicle of some sort in order to deliver that weapon."[15] So there is time for diplomacy.

"If Iran had the bomb, it would be an existential threat to Israel"

It is true that support for Hezbollah and Hamas as well as the anti-Israel polemic of Ahmadinejad awaken fears about the threat in Israel. These are being fomented further by the current Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu. But the assertion of an existential threat to Israel posed by an Iranian bomb is strongly disputed, even within Israel. Take former Israeli Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, for example, who stated that "Iran poses a serious threat, but not an existential one".[16] Even Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak evaluated the situation realistically in 2010: "I don't think the Iranians, even if they got the bomb, (would) drop it in the neighbourhood. They fully understand what might follow. They are radical but not totally crazy. They have a quite sophisticated decision-making process, and they understand reality".[17]

Here Barak directly contradicts statements such as those made by Prime Minister Netanyahu in August 2012, for example, when he claimed: "They (Iran) very likely could use weapons of mass death."[18]
Alarmist representations by Israeli officials are also being criticized by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert according to a report by the "Israel News" in August. They are "trying to stir up overblown drama", he said and concluded: "Iran is far from reaching the threshold from which there is no way back. Statements by which (a strike) is inevitable do not truthfully reflect the current situation from what is known to the security establishment." [19]

The leaders of Iran are not irrational. After all, their dominant goal is to keep their system in place.

In view of Israeli and US nuclear weapons potential, an Iranian atom bomb attack would be tantamount to collective suicide. But the leaders of Iran are not irrational. After all, their dominant goal is to keep their system in place. The anti-Israel statements of Ahmadinejad change nothing here, especially bearing in mind that, contrary to what is frequently asserted, he has not threatened to wipe Israel from the map. He also repeated a Khomeini statement: "The regime that is occupying Jerusalem must be eliminated from the pages of history."[20] According to the German security expert and former Director of the Berlin "Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik" think tank, Christoph Bertram, however, the context made it clear "that this should be achieved in the course of history, not through military action."[21]

Israeli Defence Minister Barak described what really causes him concern in January 2012: "Imagine if we enter another military confrontation with Hezbollah ... and a nuclear Iran announces that an attack on Hezbollah is tantamount to an attack on Iran. We would not necessarily give up on it, but it would definitely restrict our range of operations."[22]

It is conceivable that an atomic bomb could give Iran a feeling of strength. But linking this to a military advantage seems improbable. The Iranian regime would scarcely be ready to risk its own survival in order to defend south Lebanon, for instance, with nuclear weapons. In the final analysis, Ehud Barak's statements suggest that an Iranian nuclear weapon would not threaten Israel's existence. If there is a threat, it might be to Israel's military hegemony and its freedom of action in future military operations in the region.


Comparing the public representation of the "Iranian threat" and the actual undisputed facts brings clear discrepancies to light. As before the Iraq war, prejudices, exaggerations and one-sided assessments are widespread. It is however notable that US intelligence statements regarding Iran are rather balanced and carefully formulated. This can in all likelihood be traced back to the fact that they would like to avoid being accused of making the same mistake as with the Iraq war. US policy relies on facts (and intelligence analyses) on a case by case basis. At times threat scenarios are inflated, at other times alarmist assessments are contradicted in accordance with analyses from US intelligence. This depends on the respective goal, whether it is to find arguments to back up further sanctions against Iran or to delegitimise unwanted Israeli military attacks.

It would be helpful if the discussion could be objectified through the media and politics, since an exaggerated perception of threat blocks our view of viable compromises.[23] Anyone who is certain that Iran is working toward developing nuclear weapons, for example, will have a hard time coming to terms with the fact that Iran is allowed the ability to enrich uranium all at, even for civil purposes, though this is closely monitored. It seems unrealistic to expect Iran to abstain from any sort of uranium enrichment, as the international community is demanding, since this is unanimously seen by the Iranian establishment and large segments of the population as a symbol of technological progress and national independence.

Limiting the enrichment of uranium is not absolutely necessary to ensure Iran does not pursue nuclear weapons. More comprehensive international controls of Iranian nuclear facilities by the IAEA and a political relaxation of the relationship between Iran and the USA in particular could be sufficient to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. This is the art of politics, as the former US Deputy Minister of Defence under Bill Clinton and Harvard professor Joseph Nye stated: "to persuade them that they would be better off following the example of Japan. The Japanese have the technology to build a nuclear weapon. But they decided it is too costly to be a nuclear power and not very useful for enhancing prosperity". "[24]


[1] CNN: June 5, 2008: "Senate report slams Bush over pre-war intelligence"

[2] The following remarks are based on a more comprehensive analysis by the author: "Iran - Wie kann man die Kriegsuhren anhalten?" in "Friedensgutachten 2012". An English version: Jerry Sommer: "Iran – how can the countdown to war be stopped?" is included in: "Peace Report 2012 – A Selection of Texts", page 85-98. Available at: http://www.friedensgutachten.de/tl_files/friedensgutachten/pdf_eng/FGA2012_aselectionoftexts.pdf

[3] See for example Henry Kissinger: "A new doctrine of intervention?", "The Washington Post", March 31, 2012: "For more than half a century, U.S. policy in the Middle East has been guided by several core security objectives: preventing any power in the region from emerging as a hegemon; ensuring the free flow of energy resources, still vital to the operation of the world economy; and attempting to broker a durable peace between Israel and its neighbors, including a settlement with the Palestinian Arabs. In the past decade, Iran has emerged as the principal challenge to all three."

[4] http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/irans-un-ambassador-says-some-nations-not-serious-about-nuclear-talks-warns-of-standoff/2012/06/29/gJQA7rw2BW_story.html

[5] Hubert Wetzel: Beispiellose Isolation, in: Süddeutsche Zeitung, November 11, 2011, p. 4.

[6] Leon Panetta, on: CBS "Face the Nation", January 8, 2012; cited from: Kevin Hechtkopf: "Panetta: Iran cannot develop nukes, block strait". CBSNews, January 8, 2012.

[7] James Clapper: "Unclassified Statement for the Record on the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence". Washington, January 31, 2012.

[8] Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: "Supreme Leader's Speech to Nuclear Scientists", February 22, 2012,

[9] Ali Laridschani, former Secretary of the Iranian National Security Council and current parliamentary speaker, Interview, in: Süddeutsche Zeitung, February 12, 2007, p. 3.

[10] Tabassum Zakaria and Mark Hosenball: "Special Report: Intel shows Iran nuclear threat not imminent". Reuters, March 23, 2012. [11] Mohamed El Baradei: "Wächter der Apokalypse. Im Kampf für eine Welt ohne Atomwaffen", Frankfurt/New York 2011, p. 223.

[12] United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe: Charter of the United Nations and Statute of the International Court of Justice.

[13] Carl Bildt/Erkki Tuomioja: "The Only Option on Iran" in: International Herald Tribune, March 21, 2012, p. 6.

[14] Washington Post, June 20, 2012: "Lally Weymouth's interview with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak"

[15] Leon Panetta, on: CBS "60 Minutes": "The Defense Secretary: Leon Panetta". January 29, 2012.

[16] Dan Halutz, cited from: "Former IDF chief: Iran doesn't pose existential threat", in: Israel News, February 1, 2012.

[17] hud Barak on February 22 2010 in Washington. Cited from: "Israeli official doubts Iran would nuke his country", in: US Today, February 26, 2010.

[18] Cited in: Jerusalem Post, August 9, 2012: "US, Israeli intel Iran closer than ever"

[19] Cited in: Israel News, August 12, 2012: "Olmert: No reason to attack Iran now"

[20] See Katajun Amirpur: "Der iranische Schlüsselsatz", in: Süddeutsche Zeitung, 26.3.2008

[21] Christoph Bertram: "Partner nicht Gegner. Für eine andere Iran-Politik". Hamburg. 2008, p. 19.

[22] Quoted from: Ronen Bergman: "Will Israel Attack Iran?" in: New York Times Magazine, January 25, 2012.

[23] On negotiations with Iran, compare with: Bonn International Center for Conversion: BICC Feature 3: Jerry Sommer: "Iran-Verhandlungen und wie weiter?", Bonn July 2012

[24] Joseph Nye in: „Der Spiegel", August 17, 2009, SPIEGEL-GESPRÄCH "Ein Amerika, das zuhört". English version available at: http://www.spiegel.de/

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