Bush’s Surreal Iran Policy

According to the recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) "Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities," [.pdf] a key judgment of the 16 members of the U.S. intelligence community is that they "judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program." Given that President Bush first demonized Iran in his January 2002 State of the Union Address – then proclaiming, "States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger" – one might think the NIE judgment would be at least cause for some relief.

Au contraire.

Not surprisingly, John Bolton – former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Bush administration – believes the NIE is "politics disguised as intelligence." And neoconservative godfather Norman Podhoretz has "dark suspicions" that the intelligence community – "which has for some years now been leaking material calculated to undermine George W. Bush" – is purposely trying "to head off the possibility that the president may order air strikes on the Iranian nuclear installations." (Podhoretz is on record that he hope and prays President Bush will bomb Iran.) The implication of both these criticisms is that the conclusions of the October 2002 Iraq NIE which were the basis for convincing the American public of the necessity to invade Iraq – that Iraq had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and might be able to make a nuclear weapon within a few months – were either (a) not politicized or (b) not wrong. And in an Orwellian twist, Podhoretz argues that the conclusions about Iran’s nuclear program should be suspect because the Iraq NIE turned out not to be right (even though he has previously made a vigorous case for the credibility of such intelligence about WMD in Iraq).

Acknowledging that Iran has halted its nuclear weapons program (but still has a nuclear power program), President Bush still argues that "if Iran were to develop the knowledge that they could transfer to a clandestine program it would create a danger for the world" (the same argument he made about the threat posed by Iraq) and that "Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous, and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon." The logic is simply astounding: even though Iran does not have an active nuclear weapons program – which we do not want them to have – they are still a threat. How so? Because Iran could have covert nuclear weapons program. (Of course, a covert program – by definition – means that we would not know about it, so we would not have to prove such a program exists to argue that Iran is a threat, which is unbeliever Michael Ledeen’s "you can’t prove a negative" argument.) But even without any kind of program, Iran will continue to be a threat as long as they have knowledge that could be used to build a nuclear weapon. Taken to its logical extreme, that means as long as there are nuclear physicists in Iran, that country somehow represents a grave and mortal threat to the security and survival of the United States.

Not surprisingly, absurd logic leads to absurd policy. Hence, President Bush argues that the United States and the international community should continue to isolate Iran. In other words, a non-nuclear Iran should be punished even more for not having a nuclear weapons program. Moreover, the military option remains on the table as one possible form of punishment for the Iranians not having a nuclear weapons program that we don’t want them to have. Why? Because Iran is still engaged in a nuclear power program that includes uranium enrichment (which is within the bounds of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that Iran is a party to) and the administration is unwilling to believe that what Iran claims is a peaceful nuclear power program will not be converted into a nuclear weapons program (any more than it was willing to believe that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction).

But even if armed with a handful of nuclear weapons (which would certainly not be a welcome situation), Iran would not be an existential threat to the United States (as was the former Soviet Union during the Cold War). The vastly superior U.S. nuclear arsenal (both in numbers and military sophistication) would still be a powerful deterrent – unless, of course, the mullahs in Tehran have suicidal tendencies, which they have not exhibited. (It is also worth noting that while the president rightly points out that Iran is testing ballistic missiles, none of those missiles – like North Korea’s – have the ability to reach the United States.) And although President Bush still intones that the Iranians could give nukes to terrorists (the proverbial smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud argument used as a scare tactic in the run-up to the Iraq war), there are compelling reasons why they would not (and why they have not given chemical or biological weapons to terrorist groups).

Thus, President Bush’s persistence in characterizing the fact that Iran does not have an active nuclear weapons program as a threat is surreal. But this should come as no surprise given what a Bush aide said in the summer of 2002 about the so-called reality-based community, those who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." Reality doesn’t matter. According to the aide, "That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." Just as it did with Iraq, the administration is creating its own surreality with regard to Iran. The results are likely to be just as disastrous and dangerous.

Read more by Charles V. Peña

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.