In a rare admission two weeks ago, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Fereydoon Abbasi, was quoted in al-Hayat saying the Iranian government had provided false information in the past to protect its nuclear program. Abbasi accused Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI-6, of spying on Iran to justify the fact that it had decided to lie to the international community. To further confuse analysts in the West, Abbasi said that sometimes the Iranians had presented certain weaknesses that they did not have, and alternatively they presented themselves as having strengths they did not possess.
By admitting that their diplomacy was based on a system of lies, the Iranians further put into question whether any of their statements to the International Atomic Energy Agency could be relied upon in any way. The monitoring of nuclear programs around the world has always been based on their transparency and the confidence that international inspectors could have in the declarations of countries with nuclear technology that had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The result of what Abbasi was saying was that the IAEA should have serious doubts about what Iran was officially reporting.
Abbasi’s admission should not have come as a surprise considering that deception has long played a critical role in Iranian diplomacy. It was Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, who wrote in his book, “Islamic Government,” published in Najaf in 1970, that “the preservation of Islam and the Shi’i school” required that its adherents observe the “principle of taqiya” — a term which means “deception” though it is taken from the Arabic root “to shield.”
Using taqiya, Middle Eastern historians have written that Iranian Shiites facing oppression were able to protect their community from external dangers from the Sunni world. What Khomeini did was to make a virtue out of what had once been a necessity. Thus Abbasi had essentially applied what was part of Khomeini’s ideological legacy for the Islamic republic to protect its nuclear program. He must have known that Iran’s use of lies in its diplomacy in the past had been surprisingly effective. For one of the great problems with Iran’s use of deception as a part of state policy is that many in the West refused to accept that they have been deceived.
Just before Ayatollah Khomeini arrived in Tehran in 1979, he lived outside of Paris and met with Western academics and journalists and told them that he wasn’t interested in exercising personal power and that he would seek to advance the protection of human rights. His deception campaign worked with gullible Westerners. Professor Richard Falk, who today attacks Israel regularly as a U.N. official, at the time wrote an op-ed in The New York Times entitled “Trusting Khomeini.” An analysis in The Washington Post suggested that Khomeini would set up a western parliamentary democracy.
The Iranians have been using the same techniques for years to weaken Western resolve to deal effectively with them. There was the case of a message to the Bush administration through the Swiss ambassador to Iran in 2003, with a supposed roadmap for a “grand bargain” normalizing U.S.-Iranian relations, the authenticity of which was denied by those closest to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Then there was the Iranian claim that Khamenei issued a fatwa saying that nuclear weapons were contrary to Islam. Yet in 2005 when the deputy director-general of the IAEA asked for a copy of Khamenei’s fatwa from the Iranian ambassador, Tehran never supplied anything in writing.
The main reason why the Iranians use diplomatic deceptions of this sort is that they keep getting away with them. In this specific case on Abbasi’s statement to al-Hayat, there may be an additional factor. In the past, Iran has exposed aspects of its nuclear program, like in 2009 when it exposed its enrichment plant in Fordow, when it feared it was in danger of getting caught. Sometimes, the Iranians unilaterally change the rules of inspections, like when they declared in 2007 that they only have to admit to the existence of nuclear facilities once they receive nuclear material, rather than when their construction is started. This way the Iranians try to sneak out of their commitments rather than break out dramatically like the North Koreans.
Because of the use of techniques of this sort, the U.S. and its allies still suspect that Iran has nuclear facilities which it has failed to declare. It cannot be ruled out that Abbasi has tried to set up an excuse for why Iran has not accurately presented to the IAEA aspects of its nuclear program that it is required to open up to inspections. The motivation of the Iranians is ultimately unimportant. What is significant is that any future arrangement between the West and Iran must be based on an ironclad system of inspections, if such understandings are ever reached, given the role that outright deception continues to play in Iran’s diplomatic relations with the West.
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.