Iran's nuclear program: 4 things you probably didn't know
Tensions over Iran's nuclear program, which some in Israel and the US say is meant to produce nuclear weapons, continue to run high in the West. Most recently in a Iranian New Year's sermon, Ayatollah Khamenei promised that Iran would respond "on the same level" as any attack against it. But even as Israeli and Iranian officials take turns rattling their sabers, several key points remain misunderstood. Do the US and Israel believe that Iran has a nuclear weapons program? Did President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad really promise to "wipe Israel off the map"? The answers may surprise you.
1. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never said that Israel should be "wiped off the map."
One frequently proffered explanation for why a war with Iran is needed is because President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants Israel "wiped off the map," and that with a nuclear weapon, he could. But some argue that Mr. Ahmadinejad's statement was mistranslated from less incidiary language.
Ahmadinejad's alleged condemnation of Israel came at a "World Without Zionism" conference in Tehran in Oct. 2005, in which he was quoted by an English-language Iranian news site as saying "Israel must be wiped off the map." But as several analyses of the original Farsi statement show, this appears to be a mistranslation.
Arash Norouzi of the Mossadegh Project noted in 2007 that Ahmadinejad "never... uttered the words 'map,' 'wipe out,' or even 'Israel'" in his statement. Rather, he argued, the translation should have been that "this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time." (Both The Washington Post and The Atlantic came up with similarly variant translations.)
This is a key difference, Mr. Norouzi argued, because Ahmadinejad used the "vanish from the page of time" idiom elsewhere in his speech: when describing the governments of the Shah of Iran, the Soviet Union, and Saddam Hussein. While war and revolution were involved in the three regimes' collapse, none of them, Norouzi argued, were "wiped off the map." Rather, they underwent regime change. This suggests in turn, he said, that Ahmadinejad was calling for regime change in Israel, not nuclear genocide. Juan Cole, another critic of the speech's translation, compared Ahmadinejad's statement to Reagan-era calls for the end of the Soviet Union.
Critics note that the translation is a matter of semantics and that regardless, they show Ahmadinejad's hostility to Israel. Ahmadinejad did not help the case for mistranslation when in subsequent interviews he refused to clarify whether he truly meant that Israel should be wiped off the face of the Earth. But the ambiguity of the words and the indications from context suggest that "wiped off the map" is not the best translation for his statement.
2. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons.
Whatever words Ahmadinejad used to describe his attitude towards Israel, it is undeniable that he is not the true leader of Iran. That role is filled by the country's supreme leader and foremost religious figure, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Mr. Khamenei's words are highly influential among religious Shiites –thus making his 2005 fatwa against nuclear weapons a significant factor in discussing Iran's nuclear program.
A fatwa is a ruling on Islamic law issued by a recognized religious figure. While generally nonbinding, fatwas have influence among the faithful, and fatwas issued by Iran's supreme leader have more influence than most in Iran, both politically and religiously. So when on Aug. 9, 2005, Khamenei issued a fatwa against the production and use of nuclear weapons, it was not simply a sermon – it carried political weight. As Jamil Maidan Flores wrote in a commentary last week for the Jakarta Globe, "Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa on nuclear weapons does count for something. He issued it as the supreme spiritual and temporal leader of Iran, and as a marja, a holy man. The fatwa should be binding to all Iranian Shiites, and most binding of all to he himself who issued it." Khamenei has repeated his commitment to the fatwa many times since. Most recently, in February he called having nuclear weapons a "sin."
But there is another Shiite religious concept, that of taghiyeh, which "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ" author Hooman Majd translates as "dissimulation." A byproduct of the early years of Shia's split from the Sunni mainstream, taghiyeh allows Shiites to lie in order to avoid death. Mr. Flores notes that taghiyeh could be a factor in Khamenei's fatwa on nuclear weapons, if somehow lying about development of such weapons would protect Shiites. But Mr. Majd notes that taghiyeh is meant only for the purpose of lying about one's religion to avoid death – which is not the case here – and adds that neither Khamenei nor the former supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, ever to anyone's knowledge made use of taghiyeh.
3. Iran has a legitimate need for more energy, which is driving its nuclear efforts.
Iran has always insisted that its nuclear research was for peaceful purposes only: to provide more energy to a growing Iran. In all the debate over the possibility of Iranian nuclear weapons, it is easy to overlook the fact that Iran does indeed need more power, power which nuclear plants could provide.
While Iran is a major supplier of both oil – it is the fourth largest producer in the world according to the CIA's World Factbook – it is also a major consumer. The Green Party of Iran (an environmental party not to be confused with the Green Movement behind the 2009 presidential protests) estimated in 2000 that Iran ranked second only to the US in gasoline consumption. But despite Iran's huge oil production, it lacks the facilities to refine it into gasoline, forcing it to import a barrel of oil for every eight it exports. According to Majd, some Iranians blame their lack of refining infrastructure on Western sanctions.
Iran is also the world's fifth largest producer of natural gas globally according to the CIA's World Factbook. But it consumed 137.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas in 2010, almost as much natural gas as it consumed that year.
4. The US and Israel both say Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program.
Just last month, National Intelligence Agency Director James Clapper wrote in a report to the Senate Armed Services Committee that "Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons... should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons."
When asked in a hearing by Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan to confirm that "Iran has not yet decided to develop nuclear weapons," Mr. Clapper did so, saying “That is the intelligence community’s assessment …," and he reiterated that he has doubts about whether Iran is attempting to create a nuclear weapon when pressed further by Sen. Lindsay Graham (R) of South Carolina. Gen. Roland Burgess of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who also appeared at the hearing, agreed with Clapper's assessment.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made statements even more to the point than Clapper's in January. In the January 8 edition of CBS's Face the Nation, Mr. Panetta said flat out, "Are they [Iran] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No."Israeli intelligence also does not believe that Iran is currently pursuing a nuclear weapon. In January, Haaretz reported that Israel believes Iran "has not yet decided whether to translate [its efforts to improve its nuclear power] capabilities into a nuclear weapon - or, more specifically, a nuclear warhead mounted atop a missile." That same month, Israeli military intelligence chief Gen. Aviv Kochavi told a Knesset hearing that Iran is not working on building a nuclear bomb, reported Agence France-Presse