Sometimes conventional wisdom develops around a major issue of public policy and becomes firmly entrenched even though it is not fundamentally true. The first ingredient for this to happen is usually a grain of truth, around which the crystal of embellishment can grow. Then there usually are political forces with an interest in promoting the conventional wisdom. Add to that a broader propensity for the public to see things in a way consistent with the conventional wisdom, and a perception by the press that this way is more attention-grabbing than a more mundane alternative. With the passage of time, a history of commentators referring to the supposed truth encourages still more commentators to refer to it as a given.
Something like this has characterized the belief, which is the subject of Gareth Porter's Manufactured Crisis, that Iran is bent on developing a nuclear weapon. The element of truth is that Iran probably has had at various times some interest in such weapons, has considered developing them as an option, and may have taken some steps toward preserving that option. The principal political forces that have promoted the belief in an Iranian drive for a nuclear weapon are the government of Israel, for which the specter of an Iranian nuclear threat serves several other interests, and its neoconservative allies in the United States. The larger public propensity is the tendency of Americans to see the Islamic Republic of Iran, ever since the hostage crisis of 1979-1981, as a major adversary of the United States and, since the end of the Cold War, as maybe even its prime enemy. The perspective of the press is to see secretive weapons work as more eye-catching and newsworthy than someone's energy and research program. And as time has gone by, the habit of referring incorrectly to Iran's "nuclear weapons program" has become entrenched.
The belief involved, and whether it is accepted as true or exposed as false, has major implications for U.S. policy toward Iran and toward the Iranian nuclear program, which has been the subject of intense negotiations with the United States and its diplomatic partners since last year. A belief that Iran really is determined to acquire nuclear weapons makes a prime consideration in negotiating an agreement with Tehran the erecting of barriers, through the dismantling of Iranian capabilities, to frustrate any Iranian attempt to build such weapons. Such a belief did come to dominate, explicitly or implicitly, much American discussion of a deal with Tehran, as reflected in a narrow focus on what would be needed to prevent Iran from "breaking out" from an agreement and racing to build a bomb. If that belief is incorrect, however, a different approach is called for: one that does not risk missing opportunities for a mutually beneficial improvement in relations with Iran while seeking ironclad guarantees against "breakout." Porter's investigation thus is highly germane to an important policy issue.
The book is an admirably thorough treatment of the context of Iran's nuclear program and how that program has been perceived, depicted, treated, exploited, and responded to by policymakers in the United States and Israel, international diplomats, and the press. One of the book's two main contributions is as an overall history of the understanding, or misunderstanding, of the Iranian program. It addresses each of the elements, mentioned above, that have contributed to the conventional wisdom about Iranian objectives concerning nuclear weapons. The book also adds other useful background to understanding current issues about the program. An early chapter, for example, explains how U.S. determination, dating from the 1980s, not to cooperate with any peaceful nuclear activity by Iran led the Iranians to turn what had been a modest endeavor into a more ambitious program including enrichment of uranium.
The book's other contribution, as implied by its title, is to debunk the conventional wisdom that Iran is set on getting nuclear weapons. Porter examines nearly everything that needs to be examined in assessing that widespread but mistaken belief. His examination of individual pieces of evidence — the documents or observations that have been invoked as support for the belief — often goes into minute detail. This gives much of the book a down-in-the-weeds quality, but Porter's analysis of such minutiae is generally convincing.
For the most part Porter apportions his attention to where it ought to be directed to tell this story. This means a lot of attention to — besides the strategy of the Israeli government — the activities of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has necessarily been at the center of this issue. Several major contributions to the mistaken conventional wisdom have involved the work of the IAEA. One has been the belief that Iran has been in violation of obligations to the IAEA, when in fact the violations, since corrected, have been on bookkeeping matters that were no more serious than those of several other members states that never had their files referred to the United Nations Security Council. Another is the belief that Iran failed to declare the existence of a major facility such as the enrichment plant at Natanz, whereas Iran actually conformed to the agency's rules of when such facilities need to be announced.
The IAEA also has relied heavily on accusations evidently fed to it by a combination of Israel and the Iranian dissident/terrorist group, the MEK. Porter examines this part of the story in much detail and makes a persuasive case that the principal documents involved, which have been the focus of much IAEA attention and repeated demands on the Iranians for explanations, are bogus. There also has been a widespread belief that Iran has refused to provide answers to IAEA questions about some activities at military bases, even though it has responded to the questions and even allowed IAEA inspectors to visit. The press shares as much responsibility as the agency for fostering public misperceptions about this. Porter probably is being fair, however, when he accuses the IAEA of not conveying the full flavor of Iranian responses, making renewed demands for access to non-nuclear military facilities that it knows the Iranians would not accept, and then pointing to Iranian refusals as evidence of an overall unwillingness to cooperate.
Porter's critical examination of this entire story would stand up well if it stopped there. Unfortunately he tries to argue, much less convincingly, that biases against Iran go even farther than that. He essentially says that almost the entire U.S. national security bureaucracy is in on the effort to hype artificially the notion of an Iranian nuclear threat. His contention is that this threat is hyped as part of an effort to hype weapons proliferation generally, and that the U.S. departments and agencies involved are doing the hyping to justify their budgets. Some version of this cliché has been around, especially since the end of the Cold War. Porter repeats the cliché while doing nothing to support it. The accusation denies the entire importance of weapons proliferation, whether involving Iran or anyone else, as a legitimate national security concern. It also does not explain why a government component would deliberately try to be wrong when being shown later to have been wrong on such an issue would be one of the biggest setbacks and embarrassments it could experience. Porter's unsupported allegations of motives on such matters contrast starkly with his meticulous examination of evidence in constructing other parts of his story.
Porter also has a propensity in places to tell his story too much in terms of individuals and their motives. The one time when personalities and their inclinations clearly made a difference was with the replacement of the independent-minded Mohamed El Baradei as director general of the IAEA with the more pliable Yukiya Amano. In U.S. bureaucracies, however, an explanation couched in terms of good guys vs. bad guys — mostly bad, in Porter's rendering — is unconvincing. The very nature of a bureaucracy is to submerge individual motives into an organizational mission.
The author's effort to spread attributions of bias around very broadly leads him to understate differences at the political level between different U.S. administrations. The difference between the most recent two administrations in their policies toward Iran has been sharp. The George W. Bush administration did not want to deal with the Islamic Republic at all, even when Iran had a reformist president; by contrast, the Barack Obama administration has staked much on negotiating with Iran an agreement that, if successful, probably would be seen as its biggest foreign policy achievement. One does not get a sense of this contrast from Porter, however, who says in his closing paragraphs (p. 302) that "it is doubtful that Obama administration policymakers and advisers or Obama himself were capable of distinguishing the false narrative about Iran's nuclear policy they had found so useful in the past from the reality."
The supposed usefulness of a false narrative refers to Porter's contention that the Obama administration has essentially been in cahoots with the Netanyahu government in Israel in using a false threat of an Israeli military attack to get a bargaining advantage against the Iranians. Porter sources this idea to a (now former) administration official who has revealed his hardline inclinations since leaving office. It is more likely that current administration officials see Netanyahu as a big thorn in their side rather than a help as they deal with Iran. It also is questionable whether the threat of an Israeli military attack on Iran has been quite as fake as Porter portrays it. The fact that such an attack, as wiser Israelis realize, would not be in Israel's interests does not mean that a government that has made hostility toward Iran the focus of its policy, backed by a militant public that genuinely fears an Iranian bomb, would never attempt such a strike.
A depressing conclusion from Porter's depiction of the Obama administration's perspective is that there would be no hope in the foreseeable future for a better-informed U.S. policy toward Iran. Readers of his book, however, should overlook that depiction and also his other assertions about motives within the U.S. government, and concentrate instead on Porter's much better documented treatment of what Iran has and has not been doing with its nuclear program.