Foaad Khosmood: Letâ€™s start with the Iraq war. There is a very popular line in Washington that gets repeated to this day and that was that â€œeveryone thought Saddam had WMDsâ€ and â€œboth Republicans and Democrats were convinced this was true.â€ But you are actually on record prior to the 2003 invasion saying that Iraq did not possess WMDs. So what can we conclude about the claims that were made about WMDs prior to the invasion?
Scott Ritter: First, letâ€™s be absolutely correct. Iâ€™m not on record saying Saddam did not have any WMD. Iâ€™m on the record saying that no one has demonstrated that he has any WMD. The weapons inspectors said clearly that we can account for 95 to 98 percent of the WMD and we could mitigate against the concerns of the unaccounted for portion by knowing that we had then in place, in Iraq, the most intrusive, technologically advanced inspection regime in the history of arms control. Also whatever material that was unaccounted for has a definite shelf-life that has since passed.
We also discussed whether or not unaccounted-for material could possibly constitute a threat. And we need to also understand that just because something is unaccounted for it does not mean that Saddam Hussein has retained it. This is a point I made. We still had a need for inspections to complete the mission of 100% verification of the final disposition of Iraqâ€™s WMD. The point I made is that those who say Iraq retains weapons have failed to put forth anything other than politically motivated rhetoric to back up their assertion. Saying something is not accounted for does not automatically translate into its retention.
Iâ€™m also on the record as saying that the Bush administrations case that had been made was fundamentally flawed because the intelligence did not back up anything that Bush was saying, that it was purely speculative and this is the same argument that can be made against anyone who says â€œyou know everybody believed it.â€
I canâ€™t be accountable for what somebody believes. I can tell you what the Intelligence communities of the world were saying. And there was 100% agreement that Iraq had been fundamentally disarmed by 1998. There was not a single intelligence agency out there saying we have hard data that Saddam retains huge stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction or that he has reconstituted a meaningful WMD program. Not a single agency! And the reason is that because we had weapons inspectors in place and we could bring facts to table to show that Iraq did not had these weapons, that we had accounted for the vast majority of its weapons and there was no evidence of a reconstituted program.
Now where there was some unanimity that there were concerns over unaccounted-for materials. Not that these unaccounted-for materials presented a weapons threat as they were but that they might be part and parcel of an undeclared weapons program that had been dismantled and was in hiding and could be reconstituted at some later date. This is where the world shared some concern. But again the point I make, is that while you can be concerned, concern does not automatically translate to reality.
Not a single Senator, not a single Congressman was presented with viable intelligence that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Iraq retained weapons of mass destruction. Therefore you have to ask yourself: What intelligence did they receive? If youâ€™re talking about going to war â€“ and they voted for war â€“ they need to be shown incontrovertible proof that a situation exists that manifests itself as a threat that warrants the use of military force. What I can tell you is that Senators and Congressmen may have believed Saddam had WMD, but thatâ€™s faith-based analysis not fact-based analysis. And there is a singular failure across the board for anyone who voted in favor of this war void of any hard, irrefutable evidence. I again re-iterate not a single one of them received such a briefing because frankly speaking such a briefing could not have existed.
FKh: However, in the court of public opinion, essentially the fact that some of the material was unaccounted for was sold as proof of WMD existence. The burden was shifted to Saddam Hussein having to â€œshowâ€ where all the material isâ€¦
SR: You have a situation where Saddam was called upon to prove a negative.
FKh: Thatâ€™s right and this became the standard by which you judge weather or not someone has WMD.
SR: That was an argument put forward early on in the stages of the debate. Yet if you advance the debate beyond the real of public opinion in the realm of policy makers, proving the negative might a cute debate trick that was put forward to try to sway public opinion. But at the end of the day prior to taking action, you need to demonstrate that a threat exists. You canâ€™t just speculate that the threat exists, you need to demonstrate it. And this is something that no one was able to do.
FKh: Right. Given all this, and the fact that it would be very irresponsible to go to war with no evidence, what do you believe was the real impetus to attack Iraq?
SR: My belief has nothing to do with it. We can assemble a case based on the statements of the proponents of this war. The framers of this war were people who believed in a dominate American role in global affairs following the collapse of the Soviet Union. These are people who believed that the US had a duty and the obligation to step into the power vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet Union to ensure that no single power or group of power rose up to confront the United States decisively. Itâ€™s basically the dividing of the world into strategic spheres of national interest where the United States could intervene unilaterally, preemptively, militarily, exploiting our economic, diplomatic, military advantages to our benefit.
Iraq was identified as one of these nations that was compatible with the American vision of how the world should operate, dominated by the United States. What we saw is Iraq being taken care of according to this plan which goes well beyond Iraq. This is inclusive of Iran and Syria and North Korea. If you read any of the deeper analytical papers of these ideologues who were formulating policy, you will see that China and Russia are included as failed states, failed regimes that require dramatic change before they can be compatible with America. This is what was happening. This is about the new American Empire.
FKh: Letâ€™s now turn to Iran and your new book Target Iran. Who is the MEK?
SR: MEK is the Mojahedin-e-Khalq . Itâ€™s an Iranian Marxist organization that came into being in the 1970â€™s. It was a force that was opposed to the rule of the Shah of Iran. It was primarily a military opposition group to the Shah and it carried out a number of attacks against the governmental institutions and the military and American military advisors in Iran.
When the Islamic revolution took place in 1979, the MEK initially allied with the Ayatollahs but soon fell out of favor with them. MEK went into exile and they took root first in Europe and later in Iraq where it became a very powerful military wing of the Iraqi Mukhaberat or the intelligence service. Today itâ€™s funded by the CIA in their policy of using this organization to be a stick in the side of Iran. Even now, the MEK continues to be listed by the State department as an international terrorist organization.
FKh: OK, so this is a terrorist organization that is responsible for attacks against American civilians. There are many negative things against this group, especially in this political climate. Yet it has managed to have favorable public relations in Washington. Is this all because of CIA backing or are there other benefactors?
SR: Well, if youâ€™re dealing with a population that is pre-programmed to accept at face value anything that is put forth by the mainstream media or other punditry which opposes the Islamic Republic, as being good, then all these negatives go away.
The MEK also has the support of the state of Israel. It has the support of the powerful pro-Israeli lobby here in the United States. It has the support of many members of congress, whether they have arrived at their position independently or as a result of intensive lobbying. The MEK does have a base of support among the anti-Tehran groups in Washington.
FKh: In your new book, Target Iran you say that Israeli intelligence was the true source of the new information on Iranâ€™s hidden nuclear facilities. You also say that Michael Ledeen and some Washington neocons arranged for MEK to be the conduit of this information. Why was it important for another organization to be the deliverer of this news?
SR: The answer is twofold. One, Israel has a PR problem if it comes out as the lead element in tackling Iranâ€™s nuclear program. Two, if your goal is regime change and one of the organizations that youâ€™re backing is the MEK â€“ you would also like toâ€¦ As you say, there are a number of negatives to this organization, so you would position the MEK as an organization that is capable of getting quality information on Iran. This was the same strategy that was used with the Iraqi National Congress and Ahmad Chalabi.
FKh: You also write that this information was known to George Tenet ahead of time. Does this mean Washington is once again engaged in manipulation of intelligence by withholding and strategically releasing information?
SR: I donâ€™t think this was premeditated by Washington. I have written that the United States was almost 100% focused on the Iraqi problem and barely concerned about this particular issue. Tenet was aware of this information, as were many other people concerned about the Iranian nuclear program, but he did not treat this information as credible.
I donâ€™t think this is part of a conspiracy trying to manipulate data. This was simply the United States putting this information on the back burner and not giving it the attention it needed which is why the Israelis needed to find more dramatic, publicly accessible means of giving this data to the mainstream press. This is one of the reasons they chose the MEK.
FKh: So what happened to these sites? Were there inspections of the specific sites that were revealed by the MEK?
SR: These sites were inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Some of the sites like Natanz have emerges as having been involved in a uranium enrichment program. None of the sites have been found to have been involved in a nuclear weapons program. In fact there has been no evidence found of a nuclear weapons program existing in Iran, just a nuclear enrichment program for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
Some of the information the MEK later put out turned out to be false. Basically the release of this information – which was debunked – was an effort to take control the headlines and interpretation of whatâ€™s going on to take out voices other than those who detest Iran by providing information that is not accurate.
This happened a lot when I was a weapons inspector. We dealt with Israel. Israel provided outstanding information up front. But later on, as the investigation went on, the well dried up. No more information could be provided while the Israeli data turned out to be inaccurate.
FKh: Why was Iran hiding these sites for over 18 years if it is not pursuing any weapons or does not possess a weaponization program?
SR: First of all, itâ€™s true that Iranian have at times not been upfront about their peaceful use of nuclear energy. This goes back to the 1970s to the time of the Shah or Iran, where Iranâ€™s need for nuclear energy was judged to be accurate by American think tanks. Iranians trying to required nuclear energy was something that was just and supportable by the United States. I need to point out also that Donald Rumsfeld was the Secretary of Defense and the White House chief of staff was Dick Cheney.
After the revolution, the United States withdrew technical support for Iranâ€™s nuclear energy program. Then we had the Iran-Iraq war. During that time there was an effort to ensure that much more restrictions were placed on Iran.
The majority of Iranâ€™s refining capacity – located in Abadan and other areas along the Iraqi border – were destroyed in the fighting with Iraq. By the late 80â€™s when they started talking about restarting their nuclear energy program, there was a question as to what it would take to win the war against Iraq. There were three options: Increasing the size of the Iranian fighting force, acquisition of superior military technology and acquisition of nuclear weapons. The Ayatollah Khomeini said that all three were non-starters: The people were not ready to accept a massive increase of the army, there was no money to buy more weapons and nuclear weapons were not in the interest of Iran.
So right from the start we see an admission by Iranian leaders that nuclear weapons were not going to be a part of our future. But they did attempt to restart their nuclear energy program.
Why did they keep it a secret? Because the United States would not accept it. If Iran went out and said, â€œHey we want to acquire this,â€ the United States would shut it down. Case in point is the Bushehr reactor where the Iranian government tried to get the German company Siemens to abide by its pre-revolution contract and Siemens was persuaded by the United States to withdraw. When Iran would look to the Russians and the Chinese, the United States would follow up and put pressure so that these contracts would be withdrawn.
As a result, in order for the Iranians to make any progress they had to continue their program in secret and they did so. At the time the information became public, I point out, that itâ€™s always been a nuclear energy program; it has never been a nuclear weapons program. And this is why when the inspectors went in, even though the program had been secret for 18 years, they could find no evidence of a weapons program. There is none.
FKh: What is the normal reaction or punishment toward a concealment violation? What does IAEA normally do in a situation like this?
SR: First of all, everything is governed by the Nonproliferation treaty. Iran is a signatory to the NPT. Normally, if a situation like this occurs, the IAEA will go in and do a series of inspections to prove or disprove weather or not a violation had taken place. A lot of activities that Iran is accused of doing, are activities that actually fall outside the scope of the IAEA. For example you can engage in research and development of nuclear technologies and donâ€™t need to report this to the IAEA unless you introduce controlled nuclear material. Also, itâ€™s not illegal to buy nuclear material as long as you clear the material through the IAEA and place it under safeguards so the IAEA can account for this material.
With Iran, there were certain violations of this because the program had been secret and material had been procured which had only later been declared to the IAEA. In some of the testing of the centrifuges, nuclear material was introduced. There were certain items that were separated in research and development experiments. [These are] all very minor in scale. Some of the polonium separation was on the order of micrograms, miniscule amounts that are meaningless. This is blown way out of proportion by people who are saying â€œaha, this is proof that Iran was engaged in illicit activities.â€ But my point is that normally the IAEA comes in and establishes a safeguard regime and embarks on inspections.
What happened here is that this program became politicized. There was pressure on Iran to sign onto whatâ€™s called the â€œAdditional Protocolâ€ inspections. This is a series of safeguard inspections that began after the first Gulf War and pushed again in 1993 when it became clear that Iraq had successfully evaded safeguard inspections. Most nations in the world signed on to the Additional Protocols, Iran did not. Itâ€™s not a violation of the law, itâ€™s voluntary action and canâ€™t be imposed. In dealing with the IAEA Iran indicated its willingness to sign up to Additional Protocol inspections. Indeed Iran voluntarily submitted for Additional Protocol site inspections without making these part of the Iranian law. It was voluntary and not mandatory.
FKh: But it was the same inspections?
SR: It was the same inspections. Indeed it was more as the IAEA put in even more stringent inspections which the Iranians agreed to under the premise that they would be permitted to continue enriching uranium as is their right under the article IV of the Nonproliferation treaty. What occurred here is that there was pressure on Iran to suspend its program until the time when the Additional protocols could be brought into force. Iran agreed to do that. But once it suspended, the United States tried to make that suspension permanent.
This is the crux of the problem between Iran and the international community today. It has been demanded that Iran suspend its nuclear enrichment program. Iran has refused saying it has the legal right under the NPT to do this.
What occurred is that the IAEA has created an extra-legal Iran-only stance on this which says â€œIt doesnâ€™t matter what the NPT says, Iran must suspend enrichment.â€ Then, it decided to transfer to the Security Council. The Security Council resolution formalized this position, that Iran suspend its nuclear enrichment indefinitely, that Iran does not have the right to enrich uranium even though article IV of the NPT clearly states that it does have that right.
FKh: What about other nations that are enriching Uranium despite similar reporting violations. Why havenâ€™t countries like Brazil and South Korea been dealt with this harshly?
SR: The big difference with these nations is that they are not Iran and they donâ€™t have Israel.
FKh: How was the US able to orchestrate a unanimous Security Council vote on this?
SR: The big thing to understand is that Iraq has changed everything. The international community did not do a very good job of standing up to the administration on Iraq. So there is a misplaced desire to reduce American unilateralism by keeping America â€œcontainedâ€ â€“ so to speak â€“ within the framework of international engagement context.
By giving into American desires, within the framework of international institutions, they believe that this reduces American unilateralism. This is whatâ€™s happening here: Nobody wants to take a hard line against the United States, because to do so would drive the United States outside of this framework. And this framework is the only thing that gives Europeans any status. To be frank, what does Europe bring to bear on this? Nothing. Nothing whatsoever. Itâ€™s all in this framework of negotiating that gives it any status.
What theyâ€™re finding is that now that Europe is facilitating Americaâ€™s goals and desires in terms of pushing for this Security Council resolution, America is acting unilaterally anyways.
FKh: To what extend it there a genuine fear of another Holocaust upon the Israeli people? In the book youâ€™re saying that this is a motivating factor for Israel. But how much of it is politics, how much of it is genuine?
SR: Iâ€™d say itâ€™s a combination of the two. Politics can be an extension of genuine fear. When youâ€™re a nation the size of Israel and have five million people and a nuclear device goes off over your territory, you cease to exist.
They are very concerned about recent history in Europe. The Holocaust was an effort to eradicate the Jews of Europe. That is one of the main facts behind the creation of the modern Israeli stateâ€¦ that there be a Jewish homeland so that never again they could be placed in this position.
So it is psychological. And it has even more weight, when one considers some of the posturing that has taken place by the Iranian president when he questions the Holocaust, when he invokes the imagery of driving the Israeli state into the sea. Whether or not heâ€™s uttered the exact words heâ€™s been accused of or not, it invokes the imagery of driving Israel to the sea.
I would also say though that the Israeli government is smart enough to know the difference between irresponsible rhetoric and the rhetoric of the people who truly have their fingers on the pulse of power. There is a whole lot of politics at play here because the Israelis know that power is held by the supreme leader the Ayatollah Khamenei not by President Ahmadinejad, and at the end of the day, Iran poses absolutely no threat to Israel. It is a hyped up reality.
FKh: To what extend does Israelâ€™s own nuclear program come into this picture? Recently Israel shockingly broke with its long-held policy of nuclear ambiguity. Is there any possibility of Israel coming to international terms with its own nuclear program and perhaps joining the NPT at some point in the future?
SR: I donâ€™t know what the future holds, but for the short term, absolutely not. Israel is a unilateral nuclear power. Its nuclear deterrence is a cornerstone of its national security policy. It has a long held a position of nuclear ambiguity. Olmert apparently broke with that policy by alluding to the nuclear forces in Israel. This nuclear ambiguity policy is something that has always played well with people. People know that Israel has nuclear weapons but they just donâ€™t admit to it.
Itâ€™s a very dangerous situation for Israel. Thereâ€™s a huge amount of hypocrisy at play here. Unless the Israeli government can close the gap between its condemnation of irresponsible behavior and its embarkation on irresponsible behaviorâ€¦ I mean there is such a huge amount of hypocrisy and this is much more commented-on in Europe than the United States but itâ€™s hypocrisy that exists nonetheless.
FKh: Thinking of positive and realistic solutions to the current standoff, one canâ€™t help but ponder the idea of a region wide nuclear free zone as a bargaining chip which could be something that would save face for Iran and at the same time could neutralize its nuclear ambitions. What do you think of this possibility?
SR: This would require Israel to feel a lot more secure. I think right now Israel is a very insecure nation.
FKh: What steps can be taken in that direction?
SR: Well, the simplistic step is for Israel to accept the nuclear free Middle-East and all this stuff. But first we have to get there. A key element to this is to create a condition of sound security psychology in Israel and that can only come with the resolution of the Palestinian problem.
Until such time as Israel can peacefully coexist with a legitimate Palestinian state, weâ€™re always going to have a siege mentality inside of Israel that will manifest itself in the embrace of irresponsible, destabilizing policies such as a unilateral nuclear capability.
If you canâ€™t create a stable Palestinian situationâ€¦ and the process for that has to be an inclusive process that will have to bring in players like Syria and Iran. And that process can create confidence building that will lead to a reduction of insecurity and maybe down the road, willingness by Israel to trade its unilateral nuclear advantage for a situation that brings about a regional peace in the Middle East.
FKh: The outcome of last Novemberâ€™s elections has been widely interpreted as a rejection of the Iraq policy by Americans. Thereâ€™s even more public resistance to the idea of escalating the war. The majority of congress is now against the escalation. George Bushâ€™s popularity is in record lows. Yet, today I would say weâ€™ve never actually been closer to a strike against Iran. This is puzzling. Why is there such a big disconnect? Why are we still going in this direction?
SR: Well, Bush can take us in this direction because he is a single-faceted individual. Thereâ€™s nothing else to the man. These are not complex policies. In terms of the roots of this war, these are really simplistic policies around the need and desire for global domination by the United States. Youâ€™re not going to see Bush walking away from the embrace of this political direction.
There are a lot of people who are taking a look at the November elections and are saying this is proof positive that the people of the United States have taken an anti war leaning. Weâ€™re not anti war. This was just a reaction to the Iraq fiasco.
When it comes to Iran, this population is still susceptible to the same misrepresentation of facts, falsification of data and playing upon the popular themes such as â€œWe Americans canâ€™t stand still in the face of such a threat as Iran.â€
Iran is a state that has been subject to extreme demonization. The American people are pre-programmed to be negative toward Iran. Thatâ€™s why you can see a disconnect between this supposed anti-war posturing vis-Ã -vis Iraq and this very real probability of military action against Iran.
I try to point out that America isnâ€™t so much anti war as its anti losing. Weâ€™re just against getting beat in Iraq. What happens when somebody who hates to lose is losing? Theyâ€™re looking for victory. There is a real risk that the Bush administration might exploit this by pushing a policy that says victory in Iraq can only be achieved by victory in Tehran.
FKh: What is your personal political affiliation? Is it true that you voted for George W. Bush?
SR: I declare my affiliation to be American first and foremost. Iâ€™m a registered Republican and I did vote for George Bush in 2000 primarily because the Clinton administration had betrayed my ability to support it through its Iraq policies. George Bush was the only alternative to it. Thereâ€™s no way I couldâ€™ve voted for Al Gore as an extension of Clinton policies that I condemned.
FKh: Youâ€™ve been touring the country with Jeff Cohen of FAIR and have been speaking mainly to anti war audiences. As someone who is a conservative, do you ever feel like you are outside your element appearing in front of these liberal and maybe leftist crowds?
SR: Well, itâ€™s different. This kind of speaking in the first place is not what I prepared to do or trained to do.
FKh: I have to say your style of speaking is very different. You sound like a wrestling coach while a lot of peace oriented speakers tend to sound a lot mellower and less strategic.
SR: I do have a strategic focus and my approach to articulating it is more â€œin your faceâ€ than people are accustomed to. But I have to say despite the social and cultural difference between myself and those who are in attendance. Weâ€™re pretty much talking the same language and are on the same side. Itâ€™s about doing whatâ€™s best for America. I think thereâ€™s agreement that policies that have been undertaken by the Bush administration are not good for America, that there is a need to come up with a new direction.
Itâ€™s been frustrating, interesting and rewarding to travel around the country and to meet with a different strata of American society that I might not have otherwise interfaced with. But I think one of the more interesting things is that at the end of the day we can all agree that we are Americans who love our country and we want to do the best thing for out country.
I think itâ€™s pretty cool that you can bring together people of different politics and beliefs who can come together and struggle for the same cause.
FKh: Let me end by asking about your prescription of what the ordinary citizen can do at this point to prevent a war with Iran, or to curb this war or to curb the general militaristic policies that have gotten us where we are.
SR: Itâ€™s tough to talk about a prescription that gives the average American citizen the kind of discernable influence that they might desire. Meaning â€œHey, Iâ€™ve got to go out and do something and hereâ€™s the result I will see.â€ Thereâ€™s not going to be too many examples of instant gratification.
If you read the constitution â€“ and thatâ€™s one of the first thing I request that people do â€“ youâ€™d see that we have a system of governance that has the transfer of authority from the people to their elected representatives. The bulk of the genuine power lies with the legislative branch, the executive branch and the judiciary.
The American people, per se donâ€™t have that much power. We have rights, and maybe thatâ€™s where a lot of our power inherently lies, with these rights that weâ€™ve been given. But when it comes to the ability to change policies, basically it boils down our ability to elect good representatives.
So thatâ€™s a long term process. I think the first thing, though, is for Americans to empower themselves with a sense of citizenship. And you can only do that if you know who we are and what we are as a nation. And the only document that defines that is the constitution. Americans need to develop their own individual sense of American citizenship and you start off by reading the constitution. Once you recognize the absolute requirement of the representative democracy of an involved citizenry, and you understand the limitations of that involvement – not only what you can achieve, but what you canâ€™t achieve â€“ then you can put forward your strategies and tactics that seek to accomplish your goals.
Scott Ritter was one of the UN’s top weapons inspectors in Iraq between 1991 and 1998. Before working for the UN, he served as an officer in the US Marines and as a ballistic missile adviser to General H. Norman Schwartzkopf in the first Gulf War. His latest book is Target Iran: The Truth About the White House’s Plans for Regime Change.