Iran: how far from the bomb? That was one of the key questions asked of newly confirmed Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell yesterday at a Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing. McConnell had avoided this front-burner issue in his prepared remarks. But when asked, he repeated the hazy forecast given by his predecessor, John Negroponte [and in the process demonstrated that he has mastered the stilted jargon introduced into national intelligence estimates (NIEs) in recent years]. McConnell had these two sentences committed to memory:
"We assess that Iran seeks to develop a nuclear weapon. The information is incomplete, but we assess that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon early-to-mid-next decade."
At that point McConnell received gratuitous reinforcement from Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. With something of a flourish, Maples emphasized that it was “with high confidence” that DIA “assesses that Iran remains determined to develop nuclear weapons.”
After the judgments in the Oct. 1, 2002 estimate assessing weapons-of-mass-destruction in Iraq judgments stated with “high confidence” turned out to be wrong, the National Intelligence Council saw a need to define what is meant by “assess.” The council included a glossary in its recent NIE on Iraq:
"When we use words such as ‘we assess,’ we are trying to convey an analytical assessment or judgment. These assessments, which are based on incomplete or at times fragmentary information are not a fact, proof, or knowledge. Some analytical judgments are based directly on collected information; others rest on previous judgments, which serve as building blocks. In either type of judgment, we do not have ‘evidence’ that shows something to be a fact."
So caveat emptor. Beware the verisimilitude conveyed by “we assess.” It can have a lemming effect, as evidenced yesterday by the automatic head bobbing that greeted Sen. Lindsay Graham’s, R-S.C., clever courtroom-style summary argument at the hearing, “We all agree, then, that the Iranians are trying to get nuclear weapons.”
Quick, someone, please give Sen. Graham the National Intelligence Council’s definition of “we assess.”
Shoddy Record on Iran
Iran is a difficult intelligence target. Understood. Even so, U.S. intelligence performance “assessing” Iran’s progress toward a nuclear capability does not inspire confidence. The only virtue readily observable is the foolish consistency described by Emerson as “the hobgoblin of little minds.” In 1995, U.S. Intelligence started consistently “assessing” that Iran was “within five years” of reaching a nuclear weapons capability. In 2005, however, when the most recent NIE was issued (and then leaked to the Washington Post), the timeline was extended and given still more margin for error. Basically, the timeline was moved 10 years out to 2015, but a fit of caution yielded the words “early-to-mid next decade.”
Small wonder that the commission picked by President George W. Bush to investigate the intelligence community’s performance on weapons of mass destruction complained that U.S. Intelligence knows “disturbingly little” about Iran. Shortly after the most recent estimate was completed in June 2005, Robert G. Joseph, the neoconservative who succeeded John Bolton as undersecretary of state for arms control, was asked whether Iran had a nuclear effort under way. He replied:
"I don’t know quite how to answer that because we don’t have perfect information or perfect understanding. But the Iranian record, plus what the Iranian leaders have said…lead us to conclude that we have to be highly skeptical."
A fresh national intelligence estimate on Iran has been in preparation for several months far too leisurely a pace in the circumstances, in my opinion. One would have thought that President Bush would await those intelligence findings before sending two aircraft carrier strike groups to the Persian Gulf area and dispatching Vice President Dick Cheney to throw a scare into folks in Asia. But it is not at all uncommon in this administration for the intelligence to lag critical decisions. After all, the decision to attack Iraq was made many months before “intelligence” was ginned up to support it. And the decision to send 21,500 additional troops into Iraq predated the latest NIE on Iraq by two months.
And so, yesterday’s Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing and all the puzzling over intelligence on Iran almost seemed divorced from the reality from the “new history” that Bush’s neocon advisers may be preparing to create. Yet, the hearing was extremely well conducted and homed in on some key issues, should any policymakers wish to listen.
The Good News: There’s Time
If anything leaps out of all this, it is that there is time to address, in a sensible way, whatever concerns may be driving Iran to seek nuclear weapons Cheney’s claim of a “fairly robust new nuclear program” in Iran, his blustering, and his itchy trigger finger notwithstanding. A year and a half after the 2005 estimate that Iran was five to 10 years away from building a nuclear weapon, NPR’s Robert Siegel did the math and asked former national intelligence director Negroponte, “Sometime between four and 10 years from now you would assume they could achieve a nuclear weapon?”
“Five to 10 years from now,” Negroponte answered. He then gingerly raised the possibility avoided like the plague by neocons in good standing that diplomacy might help. A former diplomat, he may have thought he would be forgiven, but he was relieved and sent back to the State Department a few months later. This is what he dared to say: :I think that the pace of Iran’s program gives us time, and international diplomacy can work.”
Asked by Siegel to explain why the Israelis have suggested a much shorter timeline for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, Negroponte stated the obvious with bluntness uncommon for a diplomat. “I think that sometimes what the Israelis will do [is] give you the worst-case assessment.” At yesterday’s hearing, Sen. Graham asked McConnell the same question; did he know why the Israelis had a different view? McConnell appeared puzzled, noting that U.S. Intelligence discusses these things with the Israelis.
Why Would Tehran Want Nukes?
In his introductory remarks Armed Forces Committee Chair, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., expressed a desire to “assess the circumstances in which Iran might give up its nuclear [weapons] plans.” Assuming Iran has such plans, or at least intends to leave that option open for later decision when it has mastered the enrichment process, it makes sense to try to figure out what drives Tehran to that course.
McConnell yesterday chose to adopt Negroponte’s refreshingly candid approach and reject the cry-wolf rhetoric of Cheney and the neocons that Iran’s ultimate aim must be to destroy Israel. McConnell noted that Iran would like to dominate the Gulf region and deter potential adversaries. An integral part of Iran’s strategy is to deter and, if necessary, retaliate against forces in the region including U.S. forces. Similarly, he indicated that Tehran considers its ability to conduct terrorist operations abroad as a key element of its determination to protect Iran by deterring U.S. or Israeli attacks. These sentiments dovetail with those offered by Defense Secretary Robert Gates at his confirmation hearing in December. Gates put it this way:
"While they [the Iranians] are certainly pressing, in my opinion, for a nuclear capability, I think they would see it in the first instance as a deterrent. They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west, and us in the Persian Gulf."
Deterrence? Both Sen. Levin and ranking member John Warner, R-Va., picked up on this, to the dismay of Sen. Graham, who sounded as if he had just come from a briefing by the Israeli extreme right who, with Cheney, are pushing hard for a U.S. strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Graham said he thought economic sanctions could work and that they were “the only thing left short of military action.” For Graham it was very simple. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has denied the Holocaust and, if Iran got nuclear weapons, it could use them against Israel. The clear implication was that we should bomb the Iranians if sanctions don’t bring them to heel.
Seldom have I heard an American senator so openly press the U.S. to mount an attack on a major country simply because it could be perceived as a threat to Israel. There was no mention of Israel’s own arsenal of some 200 to 300 nuclear weapons and multiple delivery systems. Nor did anyone allude to French President Jacques Chirac’s recent comment that, with one or two nuclear weapons Iran would pose no big danger, because launching a nuclear weapon against Israel would inevitably lay waste Tehran.
John Warner objected strongly to the notion that, if sanctions against Iran failed, the next step had to be military action. With support from Levin, Warner alluded time and again to the effectiveness of mutual deterrence after WWII, stressing that deterrence is a far better course than to let slip the dogs of war. He referred to his own role in ensuring that the Soviet Union was deterred. It seemed as though he was about to cry out from exasperation, “Why don’t we talk to the Iranians! … like I talked to the Russians,” but then he thought better of it and decided to hew to the party line and not even think of negotiating with “bad guys.”
Better To Jaw-Jaw Than War-War
Did you notice? While Cheney was abroad, others persuaded the president to send representatives next month to a conference in Baghdad, in which representatives of Syria and Iran also are expected to participate to discuss the situation in Iraq. In addition, foreign ministers of the same countries plan to meet in early April.
If Cheney does not sabotage such talks when he gets home, they could lead to direct negotiations with Iran on the nuclear question. It makes no sense at all to refuse to talk with Iran, which has as many historical grievances against the U.S. as vice versa. (Someone please tell the president.) With Cheney playing the heavy, it has not been possible to penetrate the praetorian guard for candid discussions with the president. The sooner that can be done the better. Hurry! Before Cheney gets home.
The ultimate aim, in my view, should be a Middle East free of nuclear weapons. That, I am confident, would stop whatever plans the Iranians have to develop nuclear weapons. And please do not tell me that, because Israel would not agree, we cannot move in this direction. The U.S. and others can provide the necessary guarantees of the security of Israel. And Israeli intransigence on this issue is not a viable middle- or long-term strategy that serves Israel’s interest or the interest of justice and peace.