Pentagon nixed Iran nuclear visit
in 1998 By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - In 1998, the Defense
Department vetoed plans by a delegation of
prominent US nuclear specialists investigate
Iran's nuclear program at the invitation of the
government of newly-elected Iranian president
Mohammad Khatami, according to the nuclear
scientist who had organized the mission.
The Pentagon objected to the delegation's
mission even though it was offered the option of
including one or more scientists of its own
choosing on the delegation, according to Dr Behrad
Nakhai, a nuclear scientist.
veto of the nuclear scientists' delegation
eliminated the Khatami government's most promising
initiative to promote a thaw in US-Iran relations
by weakening a key US argument for
viewing Iran as a
The Bill Clinton administration
had accused Iran of wanting nuclear weapons, based
not on intelligence on the nuclear program but on
the assumption that Iran would use enriched
uranium for nuclear weapons rather than for
In a series of interviews
with IPS, Nakhai, an Iranian who came to the
United States after high school, got a PhD in
nuclear engineering from the University of
Tennessee in 1979 and was a research scientist at
Oak Ridge National Laboratory, provided a detailed
account of the episode.
Iran's mission to
the United Nations informed Nakhai in late
February 1998 that President Khatami and the new
head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization,
Gholam-Reza Aghazadeh, wanted him to put together
a group of nuclear scientists to visit Iran to
study the Iranian nuclear programme, Nakhai
The Iranian invitation came in
the wake of President Khatami's January 1998
interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour calling
for a "crack in the wall of distrust" between the
United States and Iran and his appeal to the US
people for "the exchange of professors, writers,
scholars, artists, journalists and tourists".
Although those appeals were followed by a
public rejection by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei of official talks between Iran and the
United States, Khatami appeared determined to
reduce tensions with Washington.
recalled that he asked Iranian officials at the UN
mission how big the delegation could be and was
told, "You decide and we will issue the visas".
Iran would also foot the bill for the trip, they
"Where can I take them?" asked
Nakhai, and the Iranians responded, "You decide.
No restrictions." The Iranians said the US
scientists could meet with whomever they chose,
according to Nakhai's account.
On March 5
that year, Nakhai began to contact prominent
nuclear scientists and engineers.
first call was to Dr Richard T Lahey, chairman of
the department of nuclear engineering at
Renssellaer Polytechnic Institute and one of the
world's most eminent nuclear scientists. Lahey had
headed a group of scientists who went to China
after detente to study the Chinese nuclear
After being assured by Nakhai
that there would be no restrictions on what the
scientists could see and where they could go,
Lahey expressed interest in the proposed
delegation, Nakhai recalled.
In an e-mail
to Lahey that same day, which Nakhai has provided
to IPS, Nakhai wrote, "The seven-to-10 day visit
would entail sessions with government officials,
discussions with University and Laboratory
faculties, and tours of facilities." Nakhai
suggested late spring for the delegation trip.
At Nakhai's request, Lahey offered to
contact other prominent nuclear scientists, and in
a March 24 e-mail to Nakhai, also provided to IPS,
Lahey said, "I have now heard from a number of top
specialists in the field of Nuclear Energy and
Safety who would be interested in going to Iran on
a technology exchange visit."
Professor Theo Theofanous of University of
California Santa Barbara, Professor John J.
Dorning of the University of Virginia and Dr Rusi
Taleyarkhan of Oak Ridge National Laboratory had
expressed their willingness to join Lahey on such
Leahy's e-mail also said
Nakhai would need to contact the State Department
"to make sure that we have formal permission to go
on this trip." Most prominent nuclear scientists
had security clearances from the Department of
Energy, he noted, and could lose their clearances
if they made the trip without official approval.
In mid-March, Nakhai recalls, he called the
State Department's Iran desk officer, J
Christopher Stevens. Stevens went on to become
ambassador to Libya in 2012 but was killed in an
attack on the US consulate in Benghazi on
In their third conversation
that same week, Stevens told the scientist that
the trip was "a good idea", according to Nakhai.
But Stevens said Nakhai would have to "clear it
with the Department of Defense".
gave Nakhai the telephone number for the deputy
assistant secretary of defense for Near East and
South Asia, Alina Romanowski. But when Nakhai
called Romanowski, he got a decidedly negative
response to the proposed trip.
was unequivocally opposed to the idea, according
to Nakhai, arguing that the scientists wouldn't be
able to get the truth in Iran. "They will mislead
you," Nakhai recalled her saying. "They will not
show you everything."
"I told her these
scientists could not be easily fooled," Nakhai
said. He pointed to Lahey's experience in leading
a mission to China during the Richard Nixon
Nakhai then told
Romanowski that the group would ask to go wherever
the Defense Department wanted them to go.
Nakhai asked her to think it over, and
said he would call back later.
called back a week later, Romanowski gave him the
same answer and the same argument, Nakhai said.
In a later conversation with Romanowski,
Nakhai recalled, he offered her assurances that he
would include an expert on nuclear weapons on the
delegation. He also referred to his contacts with
the American Nuclear Society -the premier
professional association of specialists on
civilian nuclear power - and the Nuclear
And in yet another
phone conversation with Romanowski, Nakhai said,
he invited the Pentagon to "send somebody of your
own choosing as part of the delegation". But
Romanowski's opposition remained unchanged.
Nearly two months after he had first
contacted the Defense Department official, Nakhai
pulled the plug on the project in May 1998.
Romanowski is now deputy assistant
administrator in the US Agency for International
Development's Middle East Bureau. Responding to a
query from IPS Thursday, a spokesman for USAID,
Ben Edwards, said, "Ms Romanowski cannot comment
about the DoD in her current capacity at USAID."
Robert Pelletreau, who had been assistant
secretary of state for Near East and South Asia in
1994-97 and had been deputy assistant secretary of
defense for the same region in 1983-85, told IPS
the decision to oppose the delegation trip would
have been made at a higher level at DoD with input
from the Joint Staff and others.
reluctance to see a gesture toward Iran that the
State Department was supporting might have been a
factor, according to Pelletreau, along with
distrust of an initiative coming from an Iranian
scientist with no ties to the Pentagon.
The DoD's rejection of the nuclear
scientists' mission came at a crucial turning
point in Iran's nuclear program. Iran had begun
testing centrifuges secretly and making plans for
the construction of a uranium enrichment facility.
Although the delegation of scientists
would not have uncovered those facts, it probably
would have anticipated the construction of both
uranium conversion and enrichment facilities, and
could have analyzed whether the profile of Iran's
nuclear program indicated that it was indeed for
civilian power or not.
Such a report might
have challenged the Clinton administration's line
on the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons.
Nakhai believes the Pentagon wanted to
protect that line. "They had anticipated that the
nuclear program would be useful for pressure on
Iran," Nakhai said, "and they didn't want any
reduction in that pressure point".
Gareth Porter, an investigative
historian and journalist specializing in US
national security policy, received the UK-based
Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for
articles on the US war in Afghanistan