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Former Weapons Inspector in Iraq Questions Claims that Iran Hiding Nuclear Tests

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We are broadcasting from Vienna, where the six world powers leading nuclear negotiations with Iran have set a November deadline to reach a deal to constrain Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing Western sanctions. Earlier this month, a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency found Iran is meeting its commitments under a temporary deal. But Western diplomats say Iran has refused to provide information about alleged experiments on high explosives intended to produce a nuclear weapon. Information on the experiments is reportedly contained in an intelligence document the IAEA is investigating, but the document itself remains unverified, and at least one member of the IAEA community has raised concerns about its authenticity. Our guest, Robert Kelley, was part of the IAEA’s Iraq Action Team in 2003 and says he is speaking out now because “I learned firsthand how withholding the facts can lead to bloodshed.” Prior to his time in Iraq, Kelley was a nuclear weapons analyst based at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

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StoryApr 08, 2021Ex-Iranian Diplomat: Revived Nuclear Talks Must Start with U.S. Lifting of Crippling Sanctions
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from Vienna, Austria, where the six world powers leading nuclear negotiations with Iran have set a November deadline to reach a deal to constrain Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing Western sanctions. The countries, known as the P5+1, have put forward a number of ideas that recognize, quote, “Tehran’s expressed desire for a viable civilian nuclear program and that take into account that country’s scientific knowhow and economic needs,” unquote. The Obama administration has reportedly begun promoting a possible nuclear agreement with Iran to its allies and U.S. policymakers in an effort to garner support ahead of next month’s deadline. On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that the Obama administration plans to fully consult Congress about ongoing negotiations with Iran.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: We are completely engaged in a regular series of briefings. I’ve been talking, even during the break, to senators about our thoughts with respect to the Iran negotiations, and I personally believe, as does the president, that Congress has an extremely important role to play in this, and Congress will play a role in this.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, held six hours of talks here in Vienna in a bid to break an impasse in the talks. U.S. and Iranian diplomats are reportedly still negotiating the future size of Tehran’s nuclear fuel production capacity as well as the pace of the potential lifting of Western sanctions in the case of an agreement.

According to Reuters, a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, earlier this month makes clear Iran is meeting its commitments under the temporary deal. But Western diplomats say Iran has refused to provide information about alleged experiments on high explosives intended to produce a nuclear weapon. Information on the experiments is reportedly contained in an intelligence document the IAEA is investigating, but the document itself remains unverified, and at least one member of the IAEA community has raised concerns about its authenticity. He’s Robert Kelley. He writes, quote, “I am speaking up about this now because, as a member of the IAEA’s Iraq Action Team in 2003, I learned firsthand how withholding the facts can lead to bloodshed.” Kelley was previously based at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. He’s now an associate senior research fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI. Robert Kelley joins us here in Vienna, Austria.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

ROBERT KELLEY: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. So, talk about what’s being alleged right now. And you’re certainly someone who knows about allegations, having been—well, we use the term loosely—U.N. weapons inspector, but one of those people who, for the United Nations, went into Iraq before the U.S. invaded to investigate whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

ROBERT KELLEY: Well, remember, please, that I was in Iraq in 1991, as well, following up on the first war, when we had some very cooperative activities with the U.S. and with other agencies in Europe. So it goes back a long ways. And what I see is that in 1995 people tried to derail the work IAEA was doing in Iraq by producing forged documents. And they were extremely good forgeries. They spent a lot of time trying to make them look like real Iraqi documents, the problem being that they were forgeries. And at that time, the action team went to Iraq and, with the Iraqis’ help, pointed out what the problems were. When I look at the documents that were being discussed now, both IAEA’s weapons report and the leaks that have come out, they look just the same. It looks like the same pattern of forgeries. Furthermore, in 2002, we were given forgeries on aluminum tubes—well, we were given bad information on aluminum tubes, shoddy analysis, forged documents that supposedly came from Niger. It all proved not to be true. So before we jump off the cliff again, I think we ought to know if this stuff is genuine.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote a piece in 2012 for Bloomberg—


AMY GOODMAN: —headlined “Nuclear Arms Charge Against Iran is No Slam Dunk.” So, are you seeing a pattern here?

ROBERT KELLEY: Yeah. So, there’s certainly a pattern in bad information being provided, and it’s coming from a few sources, though one really thing that bothers me at this point is that in 2002 it was the U.S. that was cheerleading to start a war, and this time around the IAEA has signed on and they’re part of this innuendo and sloppy information that looks like they are also advocating for war.

AMY GOODMAN: Going back to 2002, 2003, how was pressure applied directly to you—what you were seeing on the ground in Iraq and then what was being told to the American people?

ROBERT KELLEY: Well, there was no connection between what we were seeing, because we were told from the U.S. mission, the people that we dealt with, that they really didn’t want to hear what we had to say. And it was clear to us, as we carried out the inspections from November until March, 2002 to 2003, that nobody was listening. We were going around and saying, “We’ve solved the problem with the aluminum tubes: They’re for rockets.” We find these forgeries of Iranian documents. And no one was listening. So, what I saw being presented to the American people by, say, Colin Powell’s speech to the U.N., it was completely at odds with the truth.

AMY GOODMAN: Did Bush administration officials come to the IAEA?

ROBERT KELLEY: Not that I’m aware of. In my position, I wouldn’t have ever dealt with Bush administration officials. But lower-level people came a few times. And, for example, in the area of the aluminum tubes, we had lots of experts who said, “These are not for gas centrifuges, nothing to do with nuclear. These are small rockets.” And the person that they sent said, “Well, if you knew what I knew, then you’d know I’m right.” And we got a lot of that kind of attitude from people who didn’t know what they were taking about.

AMY GOODMAN: So, now it’s, well, more than 10 years later.


AMY GOODMAN: Explain exactly what you see happening here in Vienna, the significance of these talks.


AMY GOODMAN: And what’s being represented.

ROBERT KELLEY: Well, I think there are two things going on. The talks that are going on between Kerry, the P5+1 and Iran primarily concern the enrichment of uranium. And this is a case where the IAEA is on very solid ground. They know exactly what they’re doing. They are monitoring the facilities that are producing uranium. And I think they have an excellent handle on it. It’s what they do well. If you look at the agreement that’s going to be talked about, the weaponization is not even in that agreement. So, when people say that IAEA—I’m sorry, that Iran is not being forthcoming in discussing what they’re doing on weaponization, it’s not part of the agreement. So, those people are very poorly informed. And we see that all the time.

AMY GOODMAN: What would be accomplished by misrepresenting what’s happening in Iran right now around nuclear—development of nuclear weapons?

ROBERT KELLEY: Well, there are people who believe that Iran is a threat to the entire region, and any evidence they can develop against them is for that purpose. But I think if you’re coming back to nuclear weapons, are they actually developing nuclear weapons? It’s hard to say.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Seymour Hersh—


AMY GOODMAN: —the investigative reporter who’s very well known. Seymour Hersh is—has often done reports on what’s happening in Iran. We’re going to turn right now to this Seymour Hersh clip, talking to Democracy Now!

SEYMOUR HERSH: It’s some sort of a fantasy land being built up here, as it was with Iraq, the same sort of—no lessons learned, obviously. Look, I have been reporting about Iran, and I could tell you that since '04, under George Bush, and particularly the vice president, Mr. Cheney, we were—Cheney was particularly concerned there were secret facilities for building a weapon, which are much different than the enrichment. We have enrichment in Iran. They've acknowledged it. They have inspectors there. There are cameras there, etc. This is all—Iran’s a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nobody is accusing them of any cheating. In fact, the latest report that everybody’s so agog about also says that, once again, we find no evidence that Iran has diverted any uranium that it’s enriching. And it’s also enriching essentially at very low levels for peaceful purposes, so they say, 3.8 percent. And so, there is a small percentage being enriched to 20 percent for medical use, but that’s quite small, also under cameras, under inspection.

What you have is, in those days, in '04, ’05, ’06, ’07, even until the end of their term in office, Cheney kept on having the Joint Special Operations force Command, JSOC—they would send teams inside Iran. They would work with various dissident groups—the Azeris, the Kurds, even Jundallah, which is a very fanatic Sunni opposition group—and they would do everything they could to try and find evidence of an undeclared underground facility. We monitored everything. We have incredible surveillance. In those days, what we did then, we can even do better now. And some of the stuff is very technical, very classified, but I can tell you, there's not much you can do in Iran right now without us finding out something about it. They found nothing. Nothing. No evidence of any weaponization. In other words, no evidence of a facility to build the bomb. They have facilities to enrich, but not separate facilities for building a bomb. This is simply a fact.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Seymour Hersh in 2011, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist at The New Yorker magazine, who had just written this blog post for the New Yorker website called “Iran and the I.A.E.A.” laying out his findings. Robert Kelley, your response?

ROBERT KELLEY: Well, Seymour Hersh is great. He finds things that no one else finds. He does great analysis. He has great sources. And as I look at this rather long statement, I think you can boil it down to two things. One is that the IAEA is on top of the enrichment issue. And so, the question that’s really going on in Vienna in the next few weeks is: How much uranium will they be allowed to make? And IAEA is not even at the table, because everybody assumes they can do their job. And they will. They’re very good at that.

But the second part is about finding facilities to build bombs and things like that. IAEA is not capable of that. You need an intelligence network to do that. You need good analysts to do that. And we haven’t seen any sign, at this point, that IAEA’s work is up to snuff. That’s a separate agreement, and it should just be thrown in the trash.

AMY GOODMAN: You are from the United States. What do you see is the politics of the United States, though you live here in Vienna, the politics of the U.S. right now in their interests around Iran? Who is pushing Iran policy? Which countries?

ROBERT KELLEY: Oh, I find that hard. I think, in the case of the U.S., you have this multi-headed Hydra, that maybe the administration wants to do one thing, but the Congress wants to do another. I don’t know who’s pushing the politics, because it’s so opaque. It’s the same thing in Iran itself. Who is on the receiving end of the U.S. overtures? Is it the Rouhani people? Or is it the Khameneis? Who is it? So, I think you’re not really sure in these cases how many people are talking to how many other people and where the connections are.

AMY GOODMAN: And how important are these negotiations right now, what’s known as the P5+1?

ROBERT KELLEY: P5+1 on the uranium is very important, because it will establish what Iran is allowed to do in the view of the rest of the world. If they agree that they’re limited to those things and they say they have the right to peaceful nuclear energy, then I think you’ll have a very important agreement on uranium enrichment and also this reactor that they’re building, that’s not too important. But on the weaponization, the talks don’t concern that. And people who say that the talks include that are wrong, and they’re muddying the waters, probably to try to derail the negotiations.

AMY GOODMAN: What would you say to the U.S. Congress?

ROBERT KELLEY: I would say, “Go and get some good information.” You know, you see many people speaking out—I don’t want to name them, but, you know, they say things like Iran is not cooperating. And Iran is cooperating fully in the area of nuclear materials. When the U.S. asks to go to a military base or to go to a factory that’s producing missiles, Iran says, “Wait a minute. You know, that’s not part of our agreement with you.” And people are misconstruing that to say they’re not cooperating in nuclear. Simply not true.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Robert Kelley, as you look at what’s happening in Iraq today, 10 years—more than 10 years after the invasion—you were there at the beginning. You were there before. You were there on the ground. You now say that if your observations on the ground were heeded, we would have not seen the bloodshed that we did. What are your thoughts today?

ROBERT KELLEY: Oh, I feel very bad about what happened in 2003. It’s extremely embarrassing that the country ignored the people who were in Iraq making the observations and didn’t take us into account. And when the U.S. sent this team in, two months after the war or so, the leader of the team, after two months, quit. And his statement was: “We were all wrong. They had no weapons of mass destruction.” Well, we weren’t all wrong. The people who were in the field were saying there’s nothing there. And then they left it to bureaucrats to twist that around and get it wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Kelley, associate senior research fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, former director at the IAEA for the Iraq Action Team. Prior to that, he was based at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back here in Vienna, Austria, we’re going to look at the issue of privacy, especially raised by the revelations of Edward Snowden. Stay with us.

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