Serri: Iran’s UN Inspectors are Repeating the Iraq Mistakes

Hamid Serri of Florida International University writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:

The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency under Yukiya Amano is adopting toward Iran the same approach as the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) and Hans Blix chose with regard to Iraq. The methods and arguments are very similar and the result will be similar too: No matter what Iran does there will be no end to inspections, questions and gaps of knowledge. Iran needs to adapt accordingly.

The United Nations was an undeniable engine behind the Iraq war in 2003. For 12 years the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) and UNMOVIC fueled tensions by producing reports riddled with accusations that later on were proved baseless. They kept complaining about the ‘knowledge-gaps’ in Iraq story and requested more and more access to Iraq.

The inspectors’ requests were limitless. They inspected “industrial sites, ammunition depots, research centers, universities, presidential sites, mobile laboratories, private houses, missile production facilities, military camps and agricultural sites” but the problems were not solved. So they said they needed aerial surveillance. They used U-2 and Mirage IV medium- altitude surveillance planes along with eight helicopters but their alleged knowledge gaps remained! ( Twelfth Quarterly Report February 28, 2003.)

They also based their reports on unsourced or poorly sourced foreign intelligence reports and asked Iraq for explanations. Consider two of the most infamous accusations based on foreign intelligence reports. Both of these ‘detailed’ foreign intelligence reports were proved baseless after occupation: First,

“Several governments have provided UNMOVIC with information relating to truck- mounted BW agent production facilities. The reports, which are reasonably consistent, refer to a series of usually three large articulated trucks that together comprise a complete, but small, biological factory. The reports indicate that one truck would carry fermenters, another the mixing and preparation tanks and the third, equipment to process and store the product.”


“UNMOVIC has also received many reports of underground facilities involved in a range of proscribed activities from research to the production of CW and BW agents. Such facilities have been reported to be at locations throughout Iraq, from the mountains in the north, to buildings in Baghdad, including a Baghdad hospital.” (Draft Work Program March 17 2003)

Despite the fact that those extensive inspections turned up no real evidence and those intelligence reports turned out to be false, the UN reports became harsher and harsher. On March 17 2003 (3 days before the war) UNMOVIC published a report with a 12 page annex detailing the actions that Iraq had to take to come clean, i.e. the “Draft Work Program March 17 2003.”

The 12 pages that were not necessary at all. Iraq didn’t have a “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) program in 2003. The question is that why did UNMOVIC fail? Why did their inspections move them away from the reality on the ground? Why didn’t they reach the conclusion that in 2003 Iraq didn’t have WMD program? What else did they need? Did they need more inspections, more intelligence or more time? The answer is: None of them!

The problem was not the information, it was the premises of the inspectors. In Robert Jervis’ words the problem was the inspectors were wedded to a theory of Iraq WMD that could never be disproved and so was not ‘disconfirmable’ (see: Robert Jervis, Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War, NY:Cornell University Press, 2010.) Premises such as: we cannot trust Iraq. Inspections with such premises are doomed to fail. Not only will the seemingly dispositive evidence be cherry-picked but the ‘absent evidence’ will be ignored, since you cannot prove a negative.

Hans Blix and crew were never neutral towards Iraq. They had already made their minds, the rest was formality. It seems that people like Amano and Olli Heinonen are insisting in making the same analytic mistake again. In his last article for the pro-Israel “Washington Institute for Near East Policy,” Heinonen bases his article on the judgment that Iran is deceptive and its nuclear program has military dimensions. (See Olli Heinonen. Building on the Opportunity of the IAEA Report on Iran).

He says that Iran’s “shift to higher-enriched uranium that would shorten the time to reach weapons-grade level” is a matter of serious concern. Ordinary nuclear reactors for electricity generation require that the uranium be enriched to about 3.5 percent. But Iran was given a medical reactor that produces isotopes for treating cancer that requires enrichment to 19.75 percent. (Weapons grade enrichment is something like 95 percent). Heinonen does not mention that Iran was forced to try to enrich to 19.75 percent (which is still considered low enriched uranium) because its source of fuel for the medical reactor, Argentina, ceased providing it. From 2009 Iran repeatedly offered to swap its stock Low Enriched Uranium (at 3.5 percent) for fuel for the medical reactor. The offer has been repeatedly rejected. If Iran were so bent on pursuing the construction of a nuclear warhead, it would never show itself willing to send its stock of LEU out of the country. But Heinonen cannot see any of this explanatory context.

Just as UNMOVIC had done in Iraq, Heinonen accuses Iran of having “Undisclosed Production” facilities, a charge that cannot be disproved. His only evidence is that “Concealment and denial have been hallmarks of Iran’s nuclear activities”. If Amano and Heinonen want to take the same road that once Hans Blix took, then we already know what the end result will be: No matter what Iran does there will be no end to inspections, questions and alleged “gaps in knowledge.” Iran needs to adapt accordingly.

Hamid Serri
Florida International University

18 Responses

  1. All right, that’s the detail view of this current bit of petty machinationism. Now, what are the prime movers, the ratio pre-decidendi, and of course, what are all the pieces of the money trail? Or are we all just a bunch of Mr. Bills, just KNOWING we are the ones who truly Understand The Great Game, mouthing, for possibly excusable or maybe more likely sneaky little reasons, all the Narrative Platitudes fed into the mix by the few who have figured out how to keep this crap going, and going along with some tribal idiocy in the working out of a species death wish? “Comfort ye, my people… Armageddon is a Good Thing, and that’s just the way things are…”

    Mastering the arcanae of some role-playing game, assigning comfortably dishonorable roles and motives to The Others, stumping around accumulating the gelt and power tokens and Secret Knowledge in the Cave or the Dungeon, becoming Masters and Magisters, ain’t the same as being for-the-good-of-our-great-great-grandchildren wise and cautious. The Id defines the Doctrine, under which Tactics become exalted as Strategies, and the very few of the worst of us define the goals and parameters of the Game for all the rest of us.

    But then most of the scowling, pursed-lipped iCognoscenti are either still in pimples or a little long in the tooth, have found that they can get off or get rich touting the Game, feeling like they are either riding the crest of the Great Wave of History, or at least hanging around with the Student Council and Debate Club members, and they know that even if they are towing and spreading great loads of Evil down the timeline, like the Cheneys of the world, there will be no negative consequences for them, personally — quite the opposite. They will live out their lives comfortably and in pleasure, cocksure about the Rightness of their actualization of their Narrative. And with any luck, they will get to literally Make History — forcing results that are senseless and maybe terminal, species-and-planet-wise, but oh so personally gratifying.

    Can’t we do any better? Wait, wait — don’t tell me — I know the answer to that one.

  2. There really seems to be an inevitability being spun around the need to “go kinetic” on Iran. Iran seems to regard this as a big chess game, and on that basis they’re correct and safe, since all this political posturing serves the domestic purposes of Iran, Israel and the US, and rationally it should go no further. And as events unfold, the US withdrawals at least from Iraw, Iran is being left sitting pretty, sanctions asides. The KSA may gets its nose out of joint by developments, but they’ll just learn to live with them, as the balance of power between Iran and KSA simply augers for regional stability. Rationally this should be the end of it, insofar as military action goes.

    One problem with this scenario is the power of self-fufilling prophecies, even when the perpetrators know all their posturing is theatre. There is a ton of very good psychological research about how brains do not differentiate between acting and the real thing….its the essence of learning and preparation through practice. And going on down the line about the general population thinks and perceives, expecting them to be well-informed and rational is a pretty lame bet.

    The other problem is the relentlessness of the neocons and Israeli rightwing to press the attack agenda (to the very last American). They have had nothing but time, and the war drums have been beating at some level for, what, 6-8 years? Wasn’t the real main driving idea in 2003 to make the world safe for our 51rst state, by first neutering Iraq, then Iran?

    When we see these sort of patterns and developments maybe we need to remember the notion of manufactured consent, per Chomsky (although, I think the phrase came from someone else.)

    Looked at THE PATTERN and CONSISTENCY of all these things, wouldn’t you see a fight with Iran as an inevitability? And, as it unfolds, the underlying justification you’d hear, would be, “They (Iran) just keep on asking for it….”?

  3. At the reference to Jervis in para. 8, that should be “not ‘disconfirmable’”, right? Thanks for this extremely valuable post.

  4. Let’s see, “unsourced or poorly sourced foreign intelligence reports”. Hmm,…. is there anybody out there that does not see the SAME trial leading to extremist Likunicks,in Israel/US ???
    Iran is funding Hizbollah/Hammas with resisantance options.Iraq was paying Palestinian families $25,000 after Israel demolished their homes. Iran is their next target.Unfortunately Israel will never need to make peace if it can run roughshod around mideast with US taxpayer funding and WMD. Hell! US picked up a couple of hundred million aviation fuel tab during Israel pummelling of Lebanon in 2006.

  5. Not only is there a demonisation of Iran which is orchestrated by USI, but the whole idea that secret production of one or two nukes is putting Israel (no one else matters) or the whole world (Netanyahu’s interpretation) in danger is preposterous. Israel’s secret nukes are known, the USA has over 5000 and India, Pakista

  6. As I recall, Hans Blix was pretty specific that there were no WMD. On the eve of destruction as it were, he made the comment that it would be ironic when no WMD were ever found. The reports I remember pretty much said that Bush was blowing smoke and that his quibbles with the reports that nothing was being found were irrelevant.

    • I agree on Blix. He testified that there was no definitive evidence of WMD, but he assessed that it was a matter of weeks or a few months to find out, just before the invasion. Bush then promptly kicked out the inspectors from Iraq and spent the next 8 years saying that Saddam kicked the inspectors out (which Hussein had done, but not before the invasion) and the U.S. media let Bush spread this obfuscation with no challenge.

    • I dialed in comments specifically to (if not refute, at least to) harp on Blix’ specific disagreement with the WMD charge. Is there a language problem here?

      Big difference between IAEA and the outfit Blix worked for: IAEA owns a reputation for being an industrial corrollary. Blix was/is just UN. This article takes on a poorly thought-out odor due to the lumping of Blix in with the late push by neo-cons/Obama/Likudniks regarding Iran.

      Putting Blix into the frame of the Iraq war build-up is like blame for the passers-by for a traffic accident.

    • Ditto. This attack on Blix and the UN really lets the Bushies off the hook. The UN inspection teams were in the process of confirming that there were no active programs when Bush told them they had to get out because the war was about to start.

    • I remember a Blix comment on the CIA’s Iraq WMD intelligence. Something close to this: How can you be 100% sure WMD exist, and have zero knowledge of their location?

      The US did have 100% knowledge of everything the UN inspectors did and found, so if there was some objectionable nuance to the UN’s output, the US could effortlessly filter it out. The only nuance the US objected to was the implication (backed by absolutely no correlation between CIA intelligence data and realities on the ground) that there are no WMD in Iraq.

  7. I’ve never given much credence to the idea that “gaps” in information are evidence of obfuscation. If you’ve ever lived in a Third World country, you know that documentation is nearly always gappy. Just like a murder defendant whose alibi can’t be verified doesn’t mean that that in itself is “evidence” of the crime.

    • It’s worth noting here that the UN inspectors didn’t just point to “gaps” when they accused the Saddam government of not cooperating, but to actions they took to stymie the activities of the inspectors.

      What Serri fails to acknowledge is that Saddam and his government was, in fact, actively working to bluff the world about WMDs – to create enough doubt that there would still be a deterrent effect.

  8. Mr. Serri writes “The United Nations was an undeniable engine behind the Iraq war in 2003.” To the contrary, the Security Council’s refusal to bow to Bush Administration pressure obliged it to launch its misadventure without UN sanction, and with few allies; the UNSC’s (and Turkey’s) principled stand against the invasion of Iraq probably would have been enough to prevent it altogether, had they been dealing with a “normal” American administration endowed with a modicum of common sense, not the ultra-ideological zealots who came to office determined to execute its neocon mission, to liberate the oil fields of Iraq.

    It is true that the US national security establishment had been “using” UNMOVIC, by repeatedly feeding it false leads, and even as a cover for covert “regime change” operations. But this duplicitous misuse of the UN mission was done without the knowledge or consent of most of the non-American members (and some Americans, for example Scott Ritter), and specifically including Hans Blix, who is one of the more credible, indeed heroic, figures in the whole sorry Iraq War story.

    Has Mr. Serri bothered to read the recent IAEA report on the Iranian nuclear program(s), one wonders? Evidently he doesn’t even bother to keep up with newspaper reports on the subject, for he writes, quite misleadingly:

    “Ordinary nuclear reactors for electricity generation require that the uranium be enriched to about 3.5 percent. But Iran was given a medical reactor that produces isotopes for treating cancer that requires enrichment to 19.75 percent. (Weapons grade enrichment is something like 95 percent). [A report Serri is criticizing] does not mention that Iran was forced to try to enrich to 19.75 percent (which is still considered low enriched uranium) because its source of fuel for the medical reactor, Argentina, ceased providing it. From 2009 Iran repeatedly offered to swap its stock Low Enriched Uranium (at 3.5 percent) for fuel for the medical reactor. The offer has been repeatedly rejected…”

    To the contrary, it was Iran who repeatedly rejected offers by other countries, including Russia, to swap suitably-enriched uranium fuel rods for an equivalent amount of Iranian LEU, or to enrich Iranian LEU and then fabricate suitable fuel rods from it. It made (and makes) no sense for Iran to do its own enrichment, for Iran still lacks the capability to fabricate solid fuel rods from its gaseous low-enriched uranium hexaflourine. But according to the IAEA report, Iran HAS been studying how to convert gaseous uranium hexaflourine into uranium metal–still useless for its medical reactor, but just what would be needed to make a nuclear warhead or bomb. And had Mr. Serri bothered to follow the “medical reactor” story in the newspapers, and the technical details that emerged during that period, he would realize the 19.75% is much, much closer the weapons-grade HEU than 3.5%–well over half way, in terms of the energy, effort and time required to enrich from 19.75 to 95%.

    Mr. Serri’s comments are so misleading and wrong-headed as to smack of deliberate disinformation, and I am frankly surprised and disappointed to see Juan Cole give them credence.

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