WASHINGTON, Oct 28 2012 (IPS) -- In 1998, the Defence Department vetoed a delegation of prominent U.S. nuclear specialists to go to Iran to investigate its nuclear program at the invitation of the government of newly-elected Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, according to the nuclear scientist who was organizing 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, the nuclear scientist who was organising it.
The Pentagon veto of the nuclear scientists' delegation eliminated the Khatami government's most promising initiative to promote a thaw in U.S.-Iran relations by weakening a key U.S. argument for viewing Iran as a threat.
The Bill Clinton administration had been accusing 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 civilian power.
In a series of interviews with IPS, Nakhai, an Iranian who had come 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 U.N. 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 program, Nakhai recalled.
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 U.S. people for "the exchange of professors, writers, scholars, artists, journalists and tourists."
Although those appeals had been 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.
Nakhai recalled that he asked Iranian officials at the U.N. 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 said.
"Where can I take them?" asked Nakhai, and the Iranians responded, "You decide. No restrictions." The Iranians said the U.S. scientists could meet with whomever they chose, according to Nakhai's account.
On Mar. 5, Nakhai began to contact prominent nuclear scientists and engineers.
His 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 programme.
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 7-10 days visit will 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 Mar. 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."