The fantasy of an Iranian bomb

Apr 13, 2024
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showing diagram of a bomb during his address to the U.N. General Assembly; Sept 27 2012. Image shot 2012. Exact date unknown. Image: Alamy/ Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

Iran has never had a nuclear bomb—why does Israel insist that it’s an imminent threat?

It remains a classic moment in United Nations history. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the dignified setting of a General Assembly speech in the fall of 2012 to raise the spectre of an Iranian nuclear bomb. He displayed a cartoonish drawing of what he said was an Iranian bomb with a lighted fuse on top and asked: “How much enriched uranium do you need for a bomb? And how close is Iran to getting it?” He called his crude drawing a “diagram.”

The catcalls came immediately. Jon Stewart of The Daily Show waved a copy of the Israeli drawing that night and said, “Bibi, bubbe, what’s with the Wile E. Coyote nuclear bomb?” Stewart showed his antidote to the bomb: a cartoon drawing of a giant magnet.

Fifteen months earlier, in a report for the New Yorker, I disclosed that a highly secret National Intelligence Estimate, whose conclusions were unanimously approved by delegates from seventeen American intelligence and counterintelligence agencies, found that there was no conclusive evidence that Iran had made any effort to build the bomb before or after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. (A similar unproven allegation, that Iraq possessed an undeclared nuclear and chemical weapons arsenal, was used by the administration of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to justify the invasion in the wake of the September 11 attacks of 2001.)

As in 2012, there is still no evidence that Iran, which does utilise low levels of enriched uranium to run its sole nuclear power plant, has the capacity to produce the needed amounts of highly enriched uranium for a bomb. Nor is there any evidence of a secure facility capable of fabricating enriched uranium into a solid nuclear core that could trigger a bomb. The American intelligence community has spent years, without success, searching for signs of an underground fabrication facility with ventilation holes that could surface many miles away—in Iran’s more than 600,000 square miles. It’s been decades of searching for air holes.

I reported then that CIA and Special Forces teams had dropped sensors disguised as stones capable of measuring the weight of vehicles traveling on roads leading to mountain complexes in Iran to determine whether trucks in the area went in heavy and came out light. That would be a clue to possible secret weapons work going on inside. Street signs near universities suspected of conducting nuclear research in heavily populated areas of Tehran were removed and replaced with identical signs implanted with radiation detectors. Street disturbances were triggered late at night by the gutsy American operatives in downtown Tehran to divert passersby and enable American technicians to replace a brick quickly in a suspected nuclear research building with a perfect match capable of measuring, as a Geiger counter would, nuclear emanations. No signs of nuclear emissions were found.

None of this has altered the view of the Israeli leadership that Iran, under its revolutionary Islamic government, is a soon-to-be nuclear power. At the time I wrote about the NIE, it was clear that the new estimate would be politically sensitive, in terms of the US-Israeli relationship. “If Iran is not a nuclear threat,” I was told at the time by a senior official, “the Israelis have no reason to threaten imminent military action. The guys who worked this are good analysts, and their bosses backed them up.”

That was then and this is now. The Biden administration made it plain after taking office, an informed official told me, that it has little interest in NIEs, which are prepared by CIA experts who consult with many of the best scholars in the areas being studied. For example, the final document in the 2012 study of the nuclear capability of Iran was reviewed and evaluated by an esteemed scholar teaching at a major American university who, when he and I spoke privately, vouched for the integrity of the report.

There has been no known NIE dealing with the current war in Ukraine, the on-going Israeli war in Gaza, or the consequences of an oft-threatened Israeli assault on Iran.

Israel is now involved in an expanding exchange of missiles with Hezbollah, the Shitte militia in Lebanon that, under the religious and military leadership of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has steadily expanded its political role within the country along with its arsenal of long-range missiles. Israel has evacuated more than 100,000 residents in the past few months whose homes near the Lebanese border have been or could be under missile attack. Israel has returned fire deep into southern Lebanon by missile and air strikes.

Netanyahu has responded to increasing pressure from the usually permissive Biden administration to mitigate conditions inside stricken Gaza by escalating his rhetoric and his actions against Iran. On April 1 Israeli planes struck an annex of the Iranian embassy in Damascus, the Syrian capital, killing sixteen people, including a commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, also known to some as the Quds force. Netanyahu’s message to Biden, as the American president slowly backs away in a tough election year from all-out support for the Israeli war in Gaza, may be, in essence: “I’m going to keep doing whatever I want.”

The Israeli bombing attack in Syria was a stunning escalation of what has been for decades a low-level tit-for-tat war between Damascus, Tehran, and Tel Aviv. It immediately raised speculation in Israel and elsewhere that Netanyahu is willing to risk war with Iran to stay in office. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the 84-year-old Iranian supreme leader who has been in power since 1989, immediately vowed, as he has done before, to respond. “Israel would regret its crimes,” he said. Iran has repeatedly made clear that it does not want an all-out war with Israel and has relied on its allies in the region to respond. There has so far been no response by Syria to the April 1 bombings.

Nasrallah, who led Hezbollah to what many viewed as a stalemate in its war with Israel in 2006, told his followers last Friday in the aftermath of the killings in Syria: “Rest assured that the Iranian response to the attack on the . . . consulate will inevitably come.” A similar threat of future action came the next day from Major General Mohammad Bagheri, chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces. Israel, he said, according to a report by Al Mayadeen in Beirut, “will regret its actions and we are the ones to determine the method of retaliation.”

There was no hint of an immediate response. The Israeli government, however, has in the days since called up reserves and halted all leaves of IDF soldiers serving with combat units in Gaza.

Netanyahu has been increasingly criticised in Israel for the seemingly slow pace of the war against Hamas—a much quicker victory was publicly envisioned at the outset—and his failure to recover Israeli hostages. It is unclear how many hostages have survived in captivity since October 7, when Hamas staged its attack on southern Israel. Netanyahu’s promise of a full inquiry into the slow response by the Israeli Defense Forces has yet to take place and may never happen.

I asked the knowledgeable official an important question: what is going to happen now, given what seems to be Netanyahu’s obvious determination to stay in power by expanding Israel’s far-from-completed war in Gaza into the West Bank and the continued diminishment of the Palestinian Authority?

“The Israelis never put a timeline on the war,” he said, “and its people are behind the war 100 percent.” As for Hamas, “all are going to die or escape into obscurity.” Hamas’s last gasp, he added, is the hope that “somehow the United States or the world is going to convince the Israelis to come to their senses.”

About the possible response by Iran to Netanyahu’s continued aggressiveness, the official asked rhetorically: What was a ranking officer of the Iranian Quds Force doing in the Iranian embassy in Syria? He answered his question: “The Palestinians are being targeted, and the Iranians are helping the Palestinians. And the Israelis have been blowing up Quds guys in Lebanon and Syria.” Amid the increasing tension, “the Iranians are not looking for a fight. They’ve got no bomb, and they’ve got ISIS-K”—the terrorist groups that struck last month at a rock concert in Moscow—“breathing down their necks. And Ayatollah Khamenei’s got big troubles with internal strife” throughout Iran. “The old religious leaders in Iran are dying off, and they are dealing with a population that seriously wants to be accepted throughout the world.”

He added that the long-standing economic sanctions on Iran that “we in America have imposed only impact on the people at the [economic] bottom, and not the leaders. Iran has people in uniform,” he said, “but it has no bomb and cannot win a war.”

Republished from Seymour Hersh on April 10, 2024.

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