In his book, Porter challenges the official Western portrayal of the dispute, and argues that the evidence pointing to possible military dimensions in Iran's nuclear program is not trustworthy. The root of the crisis, according to Porter, is not in Iran's defiance of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, but instead, in Washington's denial of Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear program.
On 27 November, Porter visited Helsinki to speak about his research. After his speech at Tieteiden talo, Helsinki Times sat down with him to talk about his new book and its main findings.
Could you begin by talking about the early stages of the nuclear crisis? In the West, Iran's failure to report some of its nuclear activities during these years have been interpreted as an indication that it intended to secretly develop nuclear arms.
Iran failed to report certain experiments and activities involving uranium, which for the most part was the testing of centrifuges in the late 1990s and 2000s. Also, this has to do with the first enrichment facility, Natanz, the existence of which was made public in 2002. The implication of reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been that Iran must be covering something up and that creates a suspicion that they must have worked on nuclear weapons, and that that was the reason of their failure to report. This was the argument made by the George W. Bush administration and it continues to be made by the Obama administration. What I found in my research is that the real reason that Iran did not report those activities was very simple and it had nothing to do with nuclear weapons.
First of all, none of the activities, as confirmed yesterday in Stockholm at a meeting that I had with three former IAEA officials, including former Director General Hans Blix, would have been disapproved by the IAEA, or would have been regarded as any indication that had to do with nuclear weapons. In fact, they would have been approved by the IAEA.
The reason that Iran did not report these activities and did not report Natanz had to do with the fact that Iran had purchased uranium from China in 1991, and it was that uranium that had been used in all of these experiments that they didn't report. There is no question about this: the real reason was that the Chinese did not want to report the sale of uranium to Iran in 1991. China was under pressure from the US not to have anything to do with the Iranian nuclear program. So the Iranians were essentially afraid of losing the support of the Chinese and the access that they had hoped to have to various kinds of nuclear technology, particularly a conversion facility that they were negotiating about with the Chinese.
One of the major themes in your book concerns the credibility of the more recent evidence against Iran, namely the "laptop documents".
They allegedly indicate that Iran has been working on military applications for its nuclear program. What did you discover about these documents?
What I was able to establish for the first time unquestionably in my book is that the 'laptop documents' did not come from the original source as has been claimed by the officials of the Bush administration – not speaking publicly but leaking to the news media. They came from the armed opposition in Iran, Mojahedin-E-Khalq (MEK), which is a terrorist organisation. The MEK delivered those documents to the German foreign intelligence agency, the BND, in 2004. I got this information from senior German foreign service official Karsten Voigt. He told me the whole story on record in 2013. That story, of course, should raise the most fundamental questions about the "laptop documents" as a source to be relied upon as far as the issue of Iran having had nuclear weapons ambitions is concerned. Unfortunately, that has not happened. The documents have continued to be treated by the Obama administration and other governments, as well as by the news media, as though these are obviously authentic documents. This is a stance that is absolutely contradicted by the evidence, and which I think, is simply taken because it's politically necessary in order to support a policy that these governments are committed to. It's as simple as that.
What I show in the book is that the documents could not be authentic because there are contradictions between what is shown in the documents and the timeline that can be constructed both for the Iranian missile program, which is depicted in the documents, and the Iranian nuclear program with regard to the mining and ore processing sector of the program. Those timelines, based on both documents that the IAEA itself has obtained and documents that can be found in the public record and from independent experts, make it clear that these documents cannot be authentic. They were written by people who either did not understand what was really going on in the missile program or who were not aware that the information that they got was going to become public. These are key evidentiary factors in my conclusion that these documents are fabrications. I also establish in the book from a lot of circumstantial evidence, that this was done by the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency.
I suppose one of the reasons why the media has not treated this evidence more critically is that the case against Iran has been corroborated by the IAEA, which is seen as a neutral and independent arbiter in this crisis.
You're absolutely right that the role of the IAEA has been crucial in giving legitimacy to the evidence that has been used to accuse Iran of having had a covert nuclear weapons program. If it hadn't been for the IAEA embracing this evidence, I think there would have been at least some chance that the news media would have been more cautious about its treatment of this evidence.
The problem is that the IAEA, which for many years has maintained a very independent stance toward the arguments and claims of the US with regard to Iraq and Iran, did in fact become, in effect, an extension of the policy of the US during the Bush administration, beginning in 2008. It happened because of Olli Heinonen reaching an agreement with the Bush administration to push the idea that, not only were these documents credible – which is the word that they used in their reports – but that the Iranians had even acknowledged that some of the documentation was accurate. This was an outright lie. And I document this very clearly in the book.
That was crucial to getting the foreign governments and news media to accept the idea that these documents coming from a mysterious source, which the IAEA was never able to identify, were in fact authentic. The reality is that Mohamed ElBaradei, when he was Director General of the IAEA, never accepted, or believed in, the authenticity of these documents. And other senior officials have acknowledged to me that they did not trust those documents – or others that came later directly from Israel – either and believed that at least some of the documents were probably fabricated.
It was particularly destructive of the objective role of the IAEA that Heinonen decided to push this line, and he was clearly acting in support of US policy. Since then, the IAEA has played a role that has been extremely partisan and has continued to avoid the question of the credibility of these documents, and has acted as though the documents should be assumed to be authentic, when in fact the evidence is all against that. In my book I show in detail how these documents could not possibly be authentic.
I'm sorry to say that the result is that the IAEA has, for the last two-to-three years, been playing a role that is essentially to keep Iran under suspicion, while the US and its allies put pressure on Iran to negotiate an agreement that they find acceptable. I think that's the role the IAEA has come to play. This loss of independence, which Heinonen was central to and which continued under Baradei's successor, Yukiya Amano, has been a big part of the problem.
Could you elaborate on the role of the media in this crisis?
Well, I think there are broadly speaking two aspects that bear on the unfortunate role the media has played in this, which is to amplify the false narrative that has been created by these false documents used by the Bush administration, and then repeated by the Obama administration and US allies ever since these documents were first mentioned publicly in 2004.
The first factor is that the news media simply is not doing the job that it has to do in order to get to the truth, which is to check facts when it's given information by governments. Governments always lie; they always shape the storyline so that it favours their interests. And these reporters covering the Iran nuclear issue simply don't fact check. And, of course, since they don't even fact check, its obvious they don't investigate. Without investigation, it is inevitable that the news media will end up simply being a mouthpiece for the governments whose interests are served by the narrative that's created. So part of it is the simple fact that the news media fails to fact check and investigate.
At a deeper level, however, I think what's going on here is that the news media becomes captive of their official sources on issues of national security. There's a long history of this – it's not just on Iran, it's not just on Iraq. This is a pattern that has been established in every major American war: At the outset of the war the news media fails to investigate the alleged rationale and need for the war.
The media wants to maintain their good relations with their sources in the national security state. If they were to go off and investigate and tell the truth and expose the lies, they'd be cut out of the action by their sources and their competitors would get the stories. And they're not going to do it and so they'll never learn the truth. So it's a circle that never ends.