George W. Bush

Lesson: Iran's Nuclear Program (Teachable Moment)


In February 2003 the world learned from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran had been working for years on a secret nuclear program. Iranian leaders insisted that the program was strictly for peaceful purposes. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, declared that nuclear weapons are "un-Islamic."

But the U.S. and other members of the UN Security Council were suspicious. Suspicions mounted when Iran refused to allow IAEA inspectors into certain sites. The Security Council then began efforts to make a deal with Iran that would satisfy its civilian needs and prevent it from creating nuclear weapons in the future.

In 2005 a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which is a consensus view of all 16 American spy agencies, declared that it assessed "with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons." UN Security Council meetings with Iran continued. Iran's nuclear program included uranium enrichment with centrifuges. These machines spin very rapidly to concentrate or enrich a form of uranium. The resulting materials can be used for nuclear reactors to produce energy for civilian purposes--or, in time, to create nuclear weapons.

In December 2006 the Security Council imposed economic sanctions on Iran because Iranian leaders refused to stop this enrichment process. Iran's leaders maintained, correctly, that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which most nations approved years ago, gives them the right to enrich uranium (for peaceful purposes). But they did not explain their secrecy.

President Bush repeatedly warned of Iran's nuclear weapons threat. In an October 2007 news conference, he declared that Iran's nuclear weapons program might lead to World War III. Later that month he spoke of the need "to defend Europe against the emerging Iranian threat." The U.S. announced additional sanctions on Iran, targeting individuals as well as companies and state-owned banks.

On December 3, 2007, American intelligence agencies released another NIE, which was based on new information that had been collected months earlier. It contradicted the 2005 NIE and contained a huge surprise: "We assess with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons." But, with "high confidence," the NIE now declared, "Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure…." The report added that intelligence agencies "do not know whether it [Iran] currently intends to develop nuclear weapons."

President Bush said the next day that Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, had advised him in August about new intelligence on Iran's nuclear weapons program but did not explain it in detail. He said he had not received the drastically different intelligence assessment until the week before it was made public. "That's not believable," said Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the foreign relations committee and a Delaware Democrat now running for president.

Why had the president been warning ominously of an Iranian nuclear threat months after intelligence agencies had changed their earlier assessment? White House Press secretary Dana Perino said that McConnell had warned the president in August that "new information might cause the intelligence community to change its assessment of Iran's covert nuclear program, but the intelligence community was not prepared to draw any conclusions at that point in time…."

The president said, "I view this [new NIE] report as a warning signal that they had the program, they halted the program. And the reason why it's a warning signal is that they could restart it. And the thing that would make a restarted program effective and dangerous is the ability to enrich uranium." The international community needs "to pressure the Iranian regime to suspend its program."

This did not satisfy the president's critics. Said David Albright, a former IAE weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security: "Bush has made a big mistake, and he's not responding in a way that gives confidence that he's on top of this. He isn't able to respond because he's not able to say he's wrong." (New York Times, 12/6/07)

Flynt Leverett, a former member of the National Security Council under President Bush, said, "The really uncomfortable part for the administration, aside from the embarrassment, is the policy implication. The dirty secret is the administration has never put on the table an offer to negotiate with Iran the issues that would really matter: their own security, the legitimacy of the Islamic republic and Iran's place in the regional order." (New York Times, 12/5/07)

Mohamed El Baradei, director general of the IAEA, said that the NIE "tallies with the [IAEA's] consistent statements over the last few years--that although Iran still needs to clarify some important aspects of its past and present nuclear activity, the agency has no concrete evidence of an ongoing nuclear weapons program or undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran."

El Baradei had said earlier, "I would hope we would stop spinning and hyping the Iranian issue….The earlier we follow the North Korea model, the better for everybody." He was referring to what appear to be successful diplomatic efforts to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Both U.S. and foreign officials said the new NIE means that imposing additional international sanctions on Iran will now become much more difficult.

For Discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What reasons are there for suspicion about Iran's nuclear program?

3. What differences are there between the 2005 and 2007 NIE reports?

4. What is President Bush's view of the new NIE?

5. What is Dr. El Baradei's view of the new NIE?

6. What criticisms do Albright and Leverett make? Is each justified? Why or why not?

7. Why do officials think that imposing more sanctions on Iran will now be unlikely?

Source: Written by Alan Shapiro;


Lesson: Iran and the U.S. (Teachable Moment)


Origins of Shia Islam

The words "Shia" and "Shiite," are short forms of a phrase that in English means "follower of Ali." Ali was a first cousin, as well as a son-in-law, of Islam's founder, Mohammad, and regarded by Shia as his legitimate successor. Both Ali and Hussein, Mohammad's grandson, were assassinated in a 7th century struggle between the followers of Islam's founder. This is the origin of the power of martyrdom in the Shia faith and the long-standing conflict with Sunnis, or "followers of the way" which became the majority branch of Islam.

With a population of about 70 million, Iran is the largest Shia-ruled nation and the only ethnically Persian Islamic country. The only other Shia-ruled countries are Iraq and tiny Bahrain. Other nearby Middle East Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are led by Sunnis who view Iran with a wary eye.


Oil reserves, economic woes, nuclear program

Despite its huge oil and natural gas reserves, which are its major sources of income, Iran suffers from economic problems, especially since the decline of oil prices. These economic problems have fueled many Iranians' criticisms of Ahmadinejad. At least 12.5%, perhaps as many as 25%, of Iranians are unemployed. As poverty has grown, so has the rate of inflation, which now stands at about 25%. Another criticism of the president has been that his harsh critique of other nations and confrontational approach have isolated Iran.

Nevertheless, in recent years, Iran has become a growing power in the Middle East. It commands a position on the Persian Gulf, through which much of the world's oil is shipped. It supports Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon with weapons and money. These two groups are on the U.S. State Department list of terrorist organizations.

Iran is developing a nuclear program that Iranian leaders maintain is strictly for peaceful purposes. But many believe that Iran aims to develop nuclear weapons. International criticism and off-and-on negotiations with Iran have failed to resolve this nuclear issue, which is a major reason for Iran's poor relations with the U.S.


Some U.S.-Iran history

The U.S.-Iran relationship today needs to be viewed against a background of events going back more than a half-century. They include:

1953: A new and democratically-elected Iranian government led by Mohammad Mossadegh ended British control of its oil reserves by nationalizing them and compensating Britain. President Dwight Eisenhower authorized a CIA operation that, with some British help, overthrew Mossadegh and replaced him with Shah Pahlavi. U.S. oil companies gained a 40% share of Iran's oil. The Shah led a secular government for a quarter century whose secret police was feared and hated by Iranians.

1979: Returning from exile in France, the Ayatollah Khomeini led a revolution that ousted the Shah and established Shiite rule. Iranian students held U.S. diplomats as hostages for 444 days. The U.S. has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since that time.

1980: Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, invaded Iran in a war that lasted eight years, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Iranians, and ended inconclusively. The administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan supported Saddam Hussein with weapons and military intelligence despite Iraqi use of chemical weapons. Many of Iraq's Shiite leaders, including Nuri al-Maliki, its prime minister today, went into exile in Shiite Iran. The majority of Iraq's people then and now are Shiite but Sunni leaders governed the country until the American invasion in 2003.

2001: Despite this history and because Al Qaeda and the Taliban were common enemies, Iran actively supported the U.S invasion of Afghanistan.

2002: President George W. Bush declared that Iran, along with North Korea and Iraq, made up an "axis of evil" because, he charged, they sought weapons of mass destruction and supported terrorists.

2003: Iran sent the U.S. an offer "to work together to capture terrorists, to stabilize Iraq, to resolve nuclear disputes, to withdraw military support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and to moderate its position on Israel, in exchange for the U.S. lifting [economic] sanctions and warming up to Iran." (Nicholas Kristof,


Obama and Ahmadinejad

Responding to the turmoil in Iran, President Obama said on June 23 that he was "appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings and imprisonments of the past few days." Ahmadinejad said Obama should stop interfering in Iranian affairs and owed an apology to Iran for his comments.

Earlier, in a June 4 speech in Cairo, Obama acknowledged before a Muslim audience that the U.S. "played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government" (in 1953). This is something that no American president before him had acknowledged, though in fact the U.S. played more than "a role." Obama did not comment on other U.S. actions that have hurt Iran, such as U.S. support for Iraq's war on Iran. However, he declared that there are "many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect."

Given the current suppression of Iranian dissidents and what may have been a stolen election on behalf of Ahmadinejad, the future of U.S.-Iran relations is unclear. In the light of the brutal treatment of demonstrators, President Obama withdrew invitations to Iranian diplomats to attend Fourth of July celebrations at U.S. embassies around the world.


For Discussion

  1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2. What is the origin of the split in Islam between Shia and Sunnis?
  3. Why does martyrdom play a large role in Shia Islam? How might that explain why the authorities would not permit mourning ceremonies for Neda Agha-Soltan?
  4. Why is Iran a country of major importance in the Middle East?
  5. What are the sources of U.S.-Iran conflict? How has U.S. behavior fueled this conflict? How has Iranian behavior fueled the conflict?
  6. Why do you think that President George W. Bush did not respond to Iran's 2003 offer? If you don't know, how might you find out?

Source: Written by Alan Shapiro;