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Context of 'December 12, 2002: Study Reveals Iran Constructing Two Nuclear Facilities'

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The US, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and 58 other countries sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The NPT’s preamble refers explicitly to the goal of a comprehensive nuclear test ban, and to the “determination expressed by the parties [to the treaty] to seek to achieve the discontinuance of all test explosions of nuclear weapons for all time.” The NPT will become effective on March 5, 1970. (Federation of American Scientists 12/18/2007) In 2008, author J. Peter Scoblic will write that the NPT “relied heavily on appeals to national interest.” Scoblic will continue: “Given that the treaty allows five states to legally possess nuclear weapons while prohibiting the other 183 from ever developing them, why did dozens of states agree to the top-tiered, discriminatory system—a system of nuclear apartheid, as India put it (see June 20, 1996)? Because it made sense for them to do so.” The NPT gives nations a chance to opt out of nuclear arms races with their neighbors, and gives them the opportunity to share in nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Over the years, far more nations will, under the NPT, give up their nascent nuclear programs—Taiwan, Brazil, Argentina, South Korea, others—than start them in defiance of the treaty. (Scoblic 2008, pp. 274-276)

Alireza Jafarzadeh, a spokesman for the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), supplies the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with information about two hidden sites in Iran—an underground uranium enrichment at Natanz and a heavy-water production plant at Arak. Iran will later declare both sites to the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). (Charbonneau 3/24/2005)

Mohamed ElBaradei, the president of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), meets with President Bush in the Oval Office to discuss the news of Iran’s restarted nuclear program (see August 2002 and December 12, 2002). ElBaradei tells Bush that the Iranians want to meet with an American delegation to discuss the program, obviously with the intent of negotiating a cessation in return for American concessions. ElBaradei offers to help set up the talks, and even keep them low-profile. But Bush is uninterested. His goal, as he later tells British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is to “free Iran.” Author J. Peter Scoblic will later write that any negotiations that might succeed in shutting down Iran’s nuclear program would also serve to strengthen and legitimize Iran’s government; it is, therefore, worth the risk of a nuclear Iran to continue working towards “regime change” in that nation. This also helps explain why, several months later, Bush officials refused to consider Iran’s offer of the so-called “grand bargain” (see May 4, 2003). (Scoblic 2008, pp. 247)

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) releases a report saying that satellite photos indicate that Iran is constructing two nuclear facilities (see August 2002). The report says the first facility, near Arak, is a heavy-water production facility, which raises concerns that Iran might be constructing a nuclear reactor moderated by heavy water. Lending further suspicion to the purpose behind the heavy-water facility is the fact that the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear reactor does not use heavy water. Additionally, ISIS reports, Iran’s existing research reactors do not consume enough heavy water to warrant the need for a heavy-water plant. The report also says that Iran appears to be building a uranium enrichment plant, possibly using gas centrifuge technology, at a site called Natanz, 25 miles southeast of the city of Kashan. (Albright and Hinderstein 12/12/2002; Nuclear Threat Initiative 12/13/2002) The following day, Iran’s UN Ambassador Javad Zarif tells CNN that his country is not developing nuclear weapons. “No. Absolutely not,” Zarif says in response to a question on whether Iran is developing a nuclear weapons program. “Iran is a member of the [Nuclear] Nonproliferation Treaty. We have safeguard agreements with the IAEA. Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction do not have a place in our defense doctrine. We have stated that clearly. And we have shown it.” (CNN 12/13/2002)

North Korea announces that it is withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (see December 12, 1985). Since its attempts to reopen diplomatic talks with the US were rejected (see October 27, 2002 and November 2002), it has announced its restarting of its nuclear energy program (see December 12, 2002) and expelled international inspectors (see December 31, 2002). Around this same time, it begins removing some 8,000 spent fuel rods from storage, a direct indication that it intends to restart its nuclear weapons program. This is a burgeoning crisis for the world, as North Korea is, in many experts’ view, the definition of a “rogue nation,” but the Bush administration refuses to recognize it as a crisis. In 2008, author J. Peter Scoblic will write, “President Bush, focused on Iraq, refused to label it as such.” North Korea has enough nuclear material to make six to eight nuclear weapons; some experts believe it already has one or two. With the inspectors gone, the world has no way to know what North Korea is doing with its spent fuel rods, or where they are being stored—removing the possibility that the US could destroy them with a targeted air strike. Bush’s response to the North Korean crisis is contradictory. While labeling it a member of the “axis of evil” (see January 29, 2002), and sometimes acting belligerently towards that nation (see March 2003-May 2003), he also insists that the US will not use military force to restrain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Diplomacy is the answer to the crisis, Bush says, but his administration refuses to talk to the North Koreans (see November 2002) until later in the month (see Mid-January 2003). (BBC 12/2007; Scoblic 2008, pp. 239-240, 242)

Iranian political leader Mohammad Khatami reveals that Iran has begun building two nuclear processing plants devoted to enriching uranium. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, later says that one of the Iranian plants is already near completion and a second plant is well underway. Although Iran claims that the nuclear plants are strictly for peaceful energy creation, the Bush administration believes that the Iranians have used the cover of practices not strictly forbidden by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (see July 1, 1968) to hide a nuclear weapons program. One Bush official says that if the Iranians run the Bushehr reactor (see December 12, 2002) for five or six years, withdraw from the Nonproliferation Treaty, just as North Korea has done (see January 10, 2003 and After), and reprocess all of their radioactive material, they would have enough weapons-grade uranium and/or plutonium to build as many as a hundred nuclear weapons. Bush officials hope that a combination of pressure from Russia and the US occupation of neighboring Iraq—one senior Bush official says, “I think the presence of 200,000 American troops on their border for X period of time may tend to concentrate their attention”—may keep Iran’s nuclear program under restraint. (Keller 5/4/2003)

Sadegh Kharrazi.Sadegh Kharrazi. [Source: University of Cambridge]In the wake of the US-led conquest of Iraq, the government of Iran worries that they will be targeted for US invasion next. Sadegh Kharrazi, Iran’s ambassador to France and the nephew of Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, drafts a bold proposal to negotiate with the US on all the outstanding conflicts between them. (Porter 5/21/2006) Diplomats refer to the proposal as “the grand bargain.” The US sends neoconservative Zalmay Khalilzad, a senior National Security Council official, to talk with Iran’s UN ambassador, Javad Zarif. (Unger 3/2007) The proposal was reviewed and approved by Iran’s top leaders Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mohammad Khatami, and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi. Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador to Iran, is used as an intermediary since the US and Iran do not have formal diplomatic relations. (Kessler 2/14/2007)
bullet According to the language of the proposal, it offers “decisive action against any terrorists (above all, al-Qaeda) in Iranian territory” and “full cooperation and exchange of all relevant information.” In return, Iran wants “pursuit of anti-Iranian terrorists, above all [the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK)],” a dissident Iranian group which the US officially lists as a terrorist organization.
bullet Iran also offers to accept much tighter controls by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in exchange for “full access to peaceful nuclear technology.” It proposes “full transparency for security [assurance] that there are no Iranian endeavors to develop or possess WMD” and “full cooperation with IAEA based on Iranian adoption of all relevant instruments (93+2 and all further IAEA protocols).” That is a references to IAEA protocols that would guarantee the IAEA access to any declared or undeclared facility on short notice.
bullet The proposal also offers a dramatic change in Iranian policy towards Israel. Iran would accept an Arab league declaration approving a land-for-peace principle and a comprehensive peace with Israel in return for Israel’s withdrawal to 1967 lines, a softening of Iran’s usual policy.
bullet The proposal further offers to stop any Iranian support of Palestinian opposition groups such as Hamas and proposes to convert Hezbollah into “a mere political organization within Lebanon.” It further offers “coordination of Iranian influence for activity supporting political stabilization and the establishment of democratic institutions and a nonreligious government” in Iraq.
bullet In return, Iran wants a democratic government in Iran, which would mean its Shiite allies would come to power since the Shiites make up a majority of the Iraqi population. The proposal wants the US to remove Iran from its “axis of evil” and list of terrorism sponsors. (Porter 5/21/2006)
US Rejects Offer - The US flatly rejects the idea. “We’re not interested in any grand bargain,” says Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton. (Unger 3/2007) The American Prospect will later comment that “Iran’s historic proposal for a broad diplomatic agreement should have prompted high-level discussions over the details of an American response.” State Department counterterrorism expert Flynt Leverett will later call it a “respectable effort” to start negotiations with the US. But within days, the US rejects the proposal without even holding an interagency meeting to discuss its possible merits. Guldimann, the Swiss intermediary, is reprimanded for having passed the proposal to the US. (Porter 5/21/2006) Larry Wilkerson, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, will later say that it was a significant proposal for beginning “meaningful talks” between the US and Iran but that it “was a non-starter so long as [Dick] Cheney was Vice President and the principal influence on Bush.” (Hirsh 2/8/2007) He will also say that the State Department supported the offer, “[b]ut as soon as it got to the Vice President’s office, the old mantra of ‘We don’t talk to evil‘… reasserted itself” and Cheney’s office turned the offer down. (BBC 1/18/2007) Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage will later claim that, “We couldn’t determine what was the Iranians’ and what was the Swiss ambassador’s,” and says that he though the Iranians “were trying to put too much on the table.” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice will say of the proposal, “Perhaps somebody saw something of the like” but “I just don’t remember ever seeing any such thing.” (Hirsh 2/8/2007) Colin Powell will later say that President Bush simply didn’t want to negotiate with an Iranian government that he believed should not be in power. “My position… was that we ought to find ways to restart talks with Iran… But there was a reluctance on the part of the president to do that.” He also says, “You can’t negotiate when you tell the other side, ‘Give us what a negotiation would produce before the negotiations start.’” (Hirsh and Bahari 2/12/2007) Days later, Iran will propose a more limited exchange of al-Qaeda prisoners for MEK prisoners, but the US will reject that too (see Mid-May 2003). Author Craig Unger will later write, “The grand bargain was dead. Flush with a false sense of victory, Bush, Cheney, and [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld felt no need to negotiate with the enormous oil-rich country that shared a border with the country America had just invaded.” (Unger 2007, pp. 308-309)
Proposal Echoed Four Years Later - In 2007, the BBC will note, “Observers say the Iranian offer as outlined nearly four years ago corresponds pretty closely to what Washington is demanding from Tehran now.” (BBC 1/18/2007)

The Mujahedeen-e Khalq’s (MEK) political wing, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), holds a press conference in Paris. Mohammed Mohaddessin of the NCRI tells reporters, “In mid-2004, [Iran’s supreme leader] Khamenei allocated $2.5 billion to obtain three nuclear warheads.” Mohaddessin claims the Iranian regime is accelerating work on a reactor in Arak, 150 miles south of Tehran, which could produce enough plutonium for one atomic bomb per year. “The regime told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the reactor would be operational in 2014, but in reality, they want to start it in 2006 or 2007,” he says. In August 2002, the NCRI first revealed information about the Arak heavy-water production plant, along with the Natanz uranium enrichment plant (see August 2002) describing it then as part of a secret nuclear weapons program. Iran later declared both sites to the IAEA. (Gehmlich 3/31/2005; National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism 5/12/2005)

The US is receiving false and misleading information about Iran’s nuclear capabilities from an Iranian dissident group labeled as a terrorist organization, says a former UN weapons inspector. The Mujahedeen-e Khalq, or MEK (see 1970s), is an exile group labeled by the US State Department as a terrorist organization, but embraced by many Washington neoconservatives, including a key group of White House officials operating inside Vice President Dick Cheney’s office and another working with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), says, “We should be very suspicious about what our leaders or the exile groups say about Iran’s nuclear capacity. There’s a drumbeat of allegations, but there’s not a whole lot of solid information. It may be that Iran has not made the decision to build nuclear weapons. We have to be very careful not to overstate the intelligence.” Albright says the information from MEK is somewhat more believable than the extravagantly false information provided by Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraq National Congress, which was used to bolster Bush administration allegations that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq posed a grave and imminent threat to world peace and US security (see (1994). In 2002, MEK provided critical information about Iran’s nuclear-enrichment complex at Natanz and a heavy-water production facility at Arak (see August 2002). It is unclear if Iran is pursuing a nuclear-weapons program; one UN official says of the information gleaned by the IAEA, “It’s a mixed bag.” Of MEK, he says, “The Mujahedeen Khalq appears to have some real sources inside Iran, but you can’t trust them all the time.” Iran has not been fully compliant with IAEA attempts to determine the nature and extent of its nuclear program. Nevertheless, some Congressional lawmakers say that, in light of the misinformation surrounding the claims of Iraq’s weapons programs, policy makers need to be doubly cautious about making claims and pursuing aggressive deterrence operations against Iran. Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, says, “In Iran, as well as North Korea, Syria, and so on, we need accurate, unbiased and timely intelligence. Iraq has shown that our intelligence products have a credibility problem and improvements are critically needed.” Iranian journalist Emadeddin Baghi, a columnist for the liberal Sharq newspaper who served two years in prison for criticizing the religious establishment, says that in Iran, skepticism runs deep. “Many Iranians instinctively disbelieve anything their own government says, but they also disbelieve the Americans, and what has happened in Iraq has strengthened that,” Baghi says. “Iranians see the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and they see the American accusations about nuclear weapons as just another pretext for other hidden aims.” (Collier 10/26/2006)


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