Any intervention by the U.S. government on behalf of the Iranian opposition is destined to backfire given the role it played in overthrowing Iran’s last truly democratically elected prime minister and its subsequent support for the brutal dictatorial reign of the shah, a reality President Obama appears to be mercifully aware of in rejecting self-righteous calls from the likes of John McCain for him to show greater "solidarity" with the Twitter-savvy protesters. Still, while Obama’s generally calm and considered response to the Iranian election is appreciated, it would be nice if he could refrain from repeating unsubstantiated accusations about an active Iranian nuclear weapons program his own Director of National Intelligence says doesn’t exist.
Case in point: On CNBC this week, Obama commented on the "amazing ferment taking place in Iran", but noted the difference between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his challenger, former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi "in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised." This much is undoubtedly true. It’s what follows that’s not:
Either way, we were going to be dealing with an Iranian regime that has historically been hostile to the United States, that has caused some problems in the neighborhood and is pursuing nuclear weapons. And so we’ve got long-term interests in having them not weaponize nuclear power and stop funding organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas. And that would be true whoever came out on top in this election.
Likewise, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters earlier in the week that the president "is committed to direct engagement with the Iranian government on issues of our national interest, including their pursuit of a nuclear weapon and their sponsorship of terror."
While one is entitled to suspicions about Iran’s ultimate intent, it remains the consensus opinion of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies that Iran does not have an active nuclear weapons program, and indeed suspended whatever program it may have had more than five years ago. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, an Obama appointee, stands by that assessment, and recently told Congress that it remains the intelligence community’s opinion that Iran’s leadership has not made the decision to pursue nukes. And as highlighted in a recent piece by Jeremy Hammond, editor of Foreign Policy Journal, a recent unclassified report prepared by Blair’s office for lawmakers similarly declares: "We do not know whether Iran currently intends to develop nuclear weapons." A report from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (pdf) released in early May likewise states: "There is no sign that Iran’s leaders have ordered up a bomb."
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), meanwhile, which inspects Iran’s nuclear facilities, declares in its most recent report (pdf) that, "As has been reported in previous reports, the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran." And outside of the credulous Washington Times, no one appears to be suggesting Iran is covertly enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels – neither the IAEA nor U.S. intelligence agencies.
All these facts seem highly relevant to claims Iran has a nuclear weapons program. Perhaps some intrepid reporter should mention them next time a high-ranking U.S. official ignores them? To his credit, George Stephanopoulous, host of ABC’s This Week, during a recent interview with Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did just that, noting "the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate" — the formal opinion of the U.S. intelligence community — "concluded with a high degree of confidence that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programs."
Mullen, however, showed how irrelevant facts are with regard to U.S. foreign policy, offering this stunning, Rumsfeldian defense of his belief Iran is pursuing nukes: "I remain concerned that while intelligence estimates focus on what we know, I’m concerned about what Iran might be doing that we don’t know."
That is, as the great philosopher-poet Donald Rumsfeld once declared, "the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, or vice versa." Just as with Iraq, the onus will be on the Iranian regime to prove it is not developing weapons of mass destruction, while U.S. officials – freed from the burden of basing their statements on anything as outdated and silly as "evidence" – can continue to fearmonger about the Persian Menace while ramping up the ongoing economic warfare against Iran. And just as Hans Blix’s failure to find evidence of WMDs in Iraq was spun as clear evidence of Iraqi deception rather than its compliance with the UN weapons inspectors, Iran’s submission to intrusive IAEA inspections of its declared nuclear sites is cast at best as a delaying technique if not simply ignored.
To its credit, the Obama administration has shifted the rhetoric on Iran from the Bush era, downplaying – though not taking off the table – the military option while emphasizing its desire to pursue diplomacy. But as former National Security Council officials Flynt and Hillary Mann Everett noted in a recent New York Times op-ed, the Obama administration "has done nothing to cancel or repudiate an ostensibly covert but well-publicized program, begun in President George W. Bush’s second term, to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to destabilize the Islamic Republic."
In other words, the Obama administration may be engaged in a low-level war with Iran, with Secretary of State Clinton warning of "crippling sanctions" to come. For the average Iranian, it doesn’t matter if Obama seems more reasonable than Bush or appears less likely to annihilate the Middle East in some crazed messianic quest. What matters is that his administration — in terms of actual policy, not rhetoric — has embraced the key tenets of the Bush Iran policy: overt economic warfare and covert "destablization" programs, including possible support for anti-Iranian terrorist groups.
The real test of Obama’s commitment to resolve the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program diplomatically will come when actual negotiations commence, where it should be quickly evident whether the pursuit of diplomacy is sincere, or whether — as Iran "special envoy" Dennis Ross suggests in his new book — it is simply a means to making economic sanctions and possible military action more palatable to the international community. That Ross is reportedly moving up from the State Department to the White House is not reassuring.
If U.S. policymakers are truly interested in seeing Iran "unclench its fist," they should start by ceasing to pursue policies average Americans would rightly see as acts of war if perpetrated against them. Despite the fearmongering, there is plenty of time for sincere negotiations with the Iranian government over the nuclear issue to succeed. Here’s hoping the Obama administration extends its hand.