Top Things You Think You Know About Iran That Are Not True

Thursday is a fateful day for the world, as the US, other members of the United Nations Security Council, and Germany meet in Geneva with Iran
in a bid to resolve outstanding issues. Although Iranian president
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had earlier attempted to put the nuclear issue off
the bargaining table, this rhetorical flourish was a mere opening
gambit and nuclear issues will certainly dominate the talks. As Henry
Kissinger pointed out, these talks are just beginning and there are
highly unlikely to be any breakthroughs for a very long time. Diplomacy
is a marathon, not a sprint.

But on this occasion, I thought I'd
take the opportunity to list some things that people tend to think they
know about Iran, but for which the evidence is shaky.

Belief: Iran is aggressive and has threatened to attack Israel, its neighbors or the US

Iran has not launched an aggressive war modern history (unlike the US
or Israel), and its leaders have a doctrine of "no first strike." This
is true of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, as well as of Revolutionary Guards commanders.

Belief: Iran is a militarized society bristling with dangerous weapons and a growing threat to world peace.

Iran's military budget is a little over $6 billion annually. Sweden,
Singapore and Greece all have larger military budgets. Moreover, Iran
is a country of 70 million, so that its per capita spending on defense
is tiny compared to these others, since they are much smaller countries
with regard to population. Iran spends less per capita on its military
than any other country in the Persian Gulf region with the exception of
the United Arab Emirates.

Belief: Iran has threatened to attack Israel militarily and to "wipe it off the map."

No Iranian leader in the executive has threatened an aggressive act of
war on Israel, since this would contradict the doctrine of 'no first
strike' to which the country has adhered. The Iranian president has explicitly said that Iran is not a threat to any country, including Israel.

Belief: But didn't President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threaten to 'wipe Israel off the map?'

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did quote Ayatollah Khomeini to the
effect that "this Occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the
page of time" (in rezhim-e eshghalgar-i Qods bayad as safheh-e ruzgar
mahv shavad). This was not a pledge to roll tanks and invade or to
launch missiles, however. It is the expression of a hope that the regime will collapse, just as the Soviet Union did. It is not a threat to kill anyone at all.

Belief: But aren't Iranians Holocaust deniers?

Some are, some aren't. Former president Mohammad Khatami has castigated
Ahmadinejad for questioning the full extent of the Holocaust, which he
called "the crime of Nazism." Many educated Iranians in the regime are
perfectly aware of the horrors of the Holocaust. In any case, despite
what propagandists imply, neither Holocaust denial (as wicked as that
is) nor calling Israel names is the same thing as pledging to attack it

Belief: Iran is like North Korea in having an active nuclear weapons program, and is the same sort of threat to the world.

Iran has a nuclear enrichment site at Natanz near Isfahan where it says
it is trying to produce fuel for future civilian nuclear reactors to
generate electricity. All Iranian leaders deny that this site is for
weapons production, and the International Atomic Energy Agency has
repeatedly inspected it and found no weapons program. Iran is not being
completely transparent, generating some doubts, but all the evidence
the IAEA and the CIA can gather points to there not being a weapons
program. The 2007
National Intelligence Estimate by 16 US intelligence agencies,
including the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, assessed with
fair confidence that Iran has no nuclear weapons research program
This assessment was based on debriefings of defecting nuclear
scientists, as well as on the documents they brought out, in addition
to US signals intelligence from Iran. While Germany, Israel and
recently the UK intelligence is more suspicious of Iranian intentions,
all of them were badly wrong about Iraq's alleged Weapons of Mass
Destruction and Germany in particular was taken in by Curveball, a
drunk Iraqi braggart.

Belief: The West recently discovered a secret Iranian nuclear weapons plant in a mountain near Qom.

Iran announced Monday a week ago to the International Atomic Energy
Agency that it had begun work on a second, civilian nuclear enrichment
facility near Qom. There are no nuclear materials at the site and it
has not gone hot, so technically Iran is not in violation of the
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, though it did break its word to the
IAEA that it would immediately inform the UN of any work on a new
facility. Iran has pledged to allow the site to be inspected regularly
by the IAEA, and if it honors the pledge, as it largely has at the
Natanz plant, then Iran cannot produce nuclear weapons at the site,
since that would be detected by the inspectors. Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton admitted on Sunday that Iran could not produce nuclear
weapons at Natanz precisely because it is being inspected. Yet American
hawks have repeatedly demanded a strike on Natanz.

The world should sanction Iran not only because of its nuclear
enrichment research program but also because the current regime stole
June's presidential election and brutally repressed the subsequent

Actuality: Iran's reform movement is dead set against increased sanctions on Iran, which likely would not affect the regime, and would harm ordinary Iranians.

Isn't the Iranian regime irrational and crazed, so that a doctrine of
mutally assured destruction just would not work with them?

Iranian politicians are rational actors. If they were madmen, why
haven't they invaded any of their neighbors? Saddam Hussein of Iraq
invaded both Iran and Kuwait. Israel invaded its neighbors more than
once. In contrast, Iran has not started any wars. Demonizing people by
calling them unbalanced is an old propaganda trick. The US elite was
once unalterably opposed to China having nuclear science because they
believed the Chinese are intrinsically irrational. This kind of talk is
a form of racism.

Belief: The international community would
not have put sanctions on Iran, and would not be so worried, if it were
not a gathering nuclear threat.

Actuality: The centrifuge
technology that Iran is using to enrich uranium is open-ended. In the
old days, you could tell which countries might want a nuclear bomb by
whether they were building light water reactors (unsuitable for
bomb-making) or heavy-water reactors (could be used to make a bomb).
But with centrifuges, once you can enrich to 5% to fuel a civilian
reactor, you could theoretically feed the material back through many
times and enrich to 90% for a bomb. However, as long as centrifuge
plants are being actively inspected, they cannot be used to make a
bomb. The two danger signals would be if Iran threw out the inspectors
or if it found a way to create a secret facility. The latter task would
be extremely difficult, however, as demonstrated by the CIA's discovery
of the Qom facility construction in 2006 from satellite photos. Nuclear
installations, especially centrifuge ones, consume a great deal of
water, construction materiel, and so forth, so that constructing one in
secret is a tall order. In any case, you can't attack and destroy a
country because you have an intuition that they might be doing
something illegal. You need some kind of proof. Moreover, Israel,
Pakistan and India are all much worse citizens of the globe than Iran,
since they refused to sign the NPT and then went for broke to get a
bomb; and nothing at all has been done to any of them by the UNSC.

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© 2023 Juan Cole