Book Review

The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran

Yossi Melman and Meir Javedanfar.

2009, Volume XVI, Number 3

The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran takes on the highly charged issue of Iran’s nuclear program — a tricky project even under the best of circumstances, given the interests of all the relevant parties to the dispute in promoting their own version of reality. A critical challenge in carrying out such a study is to avoid becoming captive of an official propaganda line, and co-authors Yossi Melman and Meir Javedanfar have failed to surmount that challenge. Although they seek to distinguish themselves from the camp followers of those who advocate a military solution to the issue, The Nuclear Sphinx

tilts sharply toward the official Israeli view on virtually every question surrounding the Iranian nuclear program. Melman is an investigative journalist specializing in Israeli intelligence, which gives him excellent access to senior Israeli intelligence officials. That advantage is also his weakness, because it makes him far too ready to accept uncritically what he is told by his Israeli sources. It appears that his analysis has dominated in the conversation between the two coauthors.

The thesis of the book is clearly stated in the first four chapters: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a dangerous Islamic extremist whose determination to exterminate Israel and belief in the coming of the Twelfth Imam (the Mahdi) adds up to a desire for war against Israel, with nuclear weapons if possible. In this section of the book, we learn that Ahmadinejad believed that the Mahdi would reappear in 2007, that Iran “could become nuclear in 2007,” and that such a nuclear status “might give the regime the confidence to start a war,” which would be the occasion for hastening “the return of the Mahdi.” Even without nuclear weapons, however, the authors suggest that Ahmadinejad would be tempted to start a war.

Ahmadinejad undoubtedly believes in the reappearance of the Madhi, as do many Shiites. But it is a long stretch from that point to the argument that this belief poses an acute risk of aggressive war by Iran. As Noah Feldman pointed out in The New York Times Magazine in October 2006, belief in the return of the Mahdi is not the same as the belief that the return can or should be hastened by violence. There is no evidence to support the view that Ahmadinejad adheres to the latter. Not surprisingly, the authors support the Israeli government’s position that Ahmadinejad has not only publicly threatened to obliterate Israel physically, but is intent on doing so. This represents a tendentious interpretation of his assertions that the Israeli regime must go, and that the Palestinians should be the instruments of regime change.

For the first 145 pages of the book, the reader is led to believe that it is, indeed, Ahmadinejad who is in control. In Chapter 5, however, the authors finally concede that it is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who actually makes the decisions about nuclear policy and that, indeed, Ahmadinejad is Khamenei’s “puppet” on the nuclear issue. The contradiction between the central thesis of the book and this admission of Ahmadinejad’s dependent status is never addressed.

In a chapter called “The Grandfather of Iran’s Bomb,” Melman and Javedanfar offer a glimpse — though not a complete account — of the origin of Iran’s nuclear program, based mainly on an interview with the scientist who was in charge of the shah’s program in the 1970s, Dr. Akbar Etemad. As its title implies, the chapter suggests that the shah was already secretly planning to build a bomb. But, in fact, Etemad confirms that the original program was based on a perceived need to diversify Iran’s energy sources because of fears that it would deplete its oil, while the need for energy would grow rapidly. The only evidence of an intention to procure nuclear weapons is Etemad’s recollection that the shah once made a remark to him about “the need in the future to consider having the bomb.”

That language, if accurate, would suggest that the shah thought it wise for Iran (like other major states with nuclear programs, including Japan) to retain the option of a nuclear weapon under some unspecified circumstances. One might have expected the authors to at least discuss whether that might be the Iranian intention, acknowledging that many specialists on the issue of Iranian intentions, including Director General Mohammed El-Baradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), have embraced that interpretation. Another possibility, which the U.S. intelligence community has adopted in past estimates, is that the Iranian leadership is preparing to move toward an eventual nuclear-weapons capability but is prepared to negotiate a non-nuclear alternative if offered an acceptable one. However, the authors entertain only the view that the Iranian intention is actually to produce nuclear weapons.

When it comes to describing and analyzing the Iranian nuclear program itself, Mel-man and Javedanfar appear to rely entirely on their Israeli sources, presenting the most alarmist interpretation possible. They subscribe to the thesis that Iran is carrying out a “secret parallel program” of uranium enrichment, alongside the publicly acknowledged program that the IAEA has been monitoring since the beginning of UN Security Council accusations against Iran as being non-compliant with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The authors argue that such a “shadow program” was started in 2003, after the discovery of the Natanz site. The logic of that argument is, however, unclear. They write that “Iran almost reached its nuclear destination” but that “that path” — presumably meaning the use of the centrifuges at Natanz — was “blocked.” Of course, the use of the centrifuges at Natanz was never “blocked,” and U.S. intelligence later discarded the idea of a “secret parallel program.”

The authors criticize the CIA and other intelligence agencies for rejecting the “Israeli intelligence estimates” claiming an Iranian “shadow program.” Indeed, the Israeli attack against the November 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that Iran’s preliminary work on a nuclear weapon had been stopped in 2003, is clearly foreshadowed by the Melman-Javedanfar critique of the CIA’s analysis of the Iranian program. In attacking the CIA’s more cautious approach, the authors relied on the views of Israeli and American officials with a record of putting out only information that supports the aggressive policy they advocate toward Iran.

The book contains yet other arguments about Iranian policy that reflect the views of the Israeli government and are unsupported by any ostensible evidence. To pick just one example, Iran is said to be preparing Shiite networks in Latin America that would presumably carry out unspecified violence “when Iran decides that the Day of Judgment has arrived.”

Interestingly, in the last few pages of the book, the authors seem to pull back from the alarmist vision of a nuclear Iran outlined in the earlier chapters. They suggest that Iran has “occasionally proved to be responsible and even restrained,” and that, even if Iran were to manufacture a nuclear weapon, there could be a new “balance of terror” between Iran and Israel, not unlike the nuclear balance during the Cold War. They refer in passing to the possibility of “dialogue and negotiation” with Iran over the issue. These passages are so at odds with the overall tone and substance of the rest of the book that they left me wondering whether the coauthors actually held two very different views that they could not quite reconcile in time to present a coherent and unified position. They would have been well advised to take more time to achieve one.