The Annual Threat Assessment overview was released by the office of the Director of National Intelligence on February 2nd. A forty-seven page unclassified version includes a page and a half on Iran’s proliferation threat. It raises legitimate concerns about Iran’s doubling of its number of operating centrifuges (while conceding that as many as half might not be working) and regarding what it describes as the secret nuclear facility near Qom. Apart from that, it supports the conclusions of the December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) which concluded that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program and had not made the political decision to start it up again.
One would think it would be good news that the Iranian nuclear program has not really advanced since 2007, but something strange is happening. The Obama Administration has intensified pressure on Iran with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denouncing what she sees as the Iranian government’s increased militarization. The mainstream media, meanwhile, has not reported the conclusions of the Annual Threat Assessment while there has been instead considerable commentary about how Iran is moving closer to having a nuclear weapon together with calls for harsh sanctions. The Washington Times and Newsweek are also reporting that the US intelligence community will soon finish a second NIE on Iran that will revise the conclusions of the December 2007 document. If their information is correct, the forthcoming NIE will emphasize that Iran is moving towards the point where it will have all the technical requirements in place to put together a nuclear weapon if the country’s political leadership decides to proceed. This is a spin that is somewhat different than the Annual Threat Assessment, which is presumably written by the same analysts using the same information. Admittedly, as the political go-ahead might never be given, all the intelligence really suggests is that Iran could soon join a large number of other countries that have the technical capability to make a nuclear weapon. Of those countries there are some – mostly in Europe — that clearly have no interest in nuclear weapons development while others could move rapidly into a weapon program if their circumstances seem to demand it. Iran is far from unique. Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia all have the technological resources to develop nuclear weapons on an expedited basis if they found themselves threatened.
So the Annual Threat Assessment and the possibly forthcoming NIE would really only confirm the 2007 NIE’s judgment that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, does not appear to have an in-place weapons program, and is still several years away from having a nuclear device even if the political decision is made to proceed. If there is a new NIE it will not really change anything, but there is clearly a political agenda playing out that is driving the process. One might even suggest that the timing is somewhat reminiscent of the infamous 2002 “slam dunk” Iraq NIE that falsely made the case for war by hyping phony evidence of weapons of mass destruction. In this case, the conclusions are not as important as the report’s appearance at a crucial time when negotiations between Tehran and the West have broken down and Washington is pushing hard to pressure Iran. The surfacing of a new assessment that is already being spun to heighten the threat will inevitably increase concerns about a possible Iranian weapons program and provide ammunition to those who are seeking a more assertive US policy. By its very existence, the new NIE will also provide a measure of credibility for the Obama administration, which has relentlessly been making the case that Iran is intent on acquiring a nuclear weapon, a conclusion that is not supported by the available intelligence.
That the drive to punish Iran has been supported in Congress and the media is perhaps no coincidence, suggesting that the effort is being coordinated by those who want war. At the end of January, by an overwhelming voice vote, the US Senate joined the House of Representatives in passing a resolution demanding sanctions on Iran’s energy imports. A joint resolution that will go to President Obama is currently being crafted and is expected soon. The resolution could well give Obama the political cover he needs to advocate even more draconian measures against Iran and its rulers. From the Iranian viewpoint, it is pretty much a declaration of war.
Why is Iran the target of so much rage even though it has not threatened the United States or any vital American interest? Influence over Congress and the media from Israel and its friends is surely a large part of the answer. How else can one explain the different treatment afforded Iran and North Korea given Pyongyang’s open development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles? Unlike North Korea, Iran continues to be a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its nuclear sites are inspected by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran is a developing country with a small economy and tiny defense budget and it has not invaded a neighbor since the eighteenth century. It does not even have the resources to refine its own oil for home consumption and must import the gasoline it uses. If the proposed Congressional sanctions are fully implemented the country’s economy will grind to a halt, but the damage does not stop there. Iran deals with many European and Asian companies in its energy industry, all of which would be sanctioned by the US if they do not break off relations. They might not like that and might well take commensurate steps against the United States. Ultimately, the United States Navy might have to enforce the sanctions. What would happen when a Chinese or Russian ship is stopped on the high seas? Did the US Congress really think about what it was doing and what the consequences of sanctions might be?
And the irony is that the United States has a problem with Iran that has largely been manufactured in Washington and in Tel Aviv. Even though Tehran does not actually threaten the US, Washington has been supporting terrorists and separatists who have killed hundreds of people inside Iran. Israel, which has its own secret nuclear arsenal, claims to be threatened if Iran develops even the ability to concentrate its uranium referred to as “mastering the enrichment cycle,” a point of view that has also been adopted by Washington. The White House has made repeated threats that the military option for dealing with Tehran is “on the table” while Israel has been even more explicit in its threats to attack. Meanwhile, the US mainstream media is united in its desire to come to grips with the Mullahs.
It is no wonder that Iran feels threatened, because it is. To be sure, Iran is no role model for good governance but a desire to deal with the country fairly and realistically is not an endorsement of the regime in power. Iran is engaged diplomatically and through surrogates in the entire Persian Gulf region and central Asia, supporting its friends and seeking to undermine its enemies. But that does not make it different than any of its neighbors and the United States, all of which play the same game. The bottom line is that the US has been interfering in Iran since 1978 and even before if one goes back to the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadeq by the CIA in 1953. The interference has accomplished nothing and has only created a poisonous relationship that Barack Obama has done little to improve. Indeed, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s harsh rhetoric suggests that when it comes to Iran the Democrats are more hardline than George W. Bush.
Imagine for a moment what might happen if Washington were to adopt a serious foreign policy based on the US national interest. That would mean strict non-interventionism in troubled regions like the Middle East where the US has everything to lose and little to gain. It would be the real change promised by Obama if Washington were to admit that it is not threatened by Tehran and were to declare that it will not interfere in Iran’s politics. It could further announce that it no longer has a military option on the table, and that it will not permit Israeli overflight of Iraq to attack Iran. Iran’s leaders just might decide that they don’t really need their own “option on the table” which has been the threat that they might seek to develop a nuclear weapon. And an Iran that feels more secure might well be willing to take some risks itself to defuse tension with its neighbors and Washington. In 2003 Iran offered to negotiate all outstanding differences with the United States, an offer that was turned down by the Bush White House.
So the big question about Iran is not whether or not it has the knowledge and resources to build an atom bomb. It does or will soon. The real issue is whether the United States is actually threatened by that knowledge and what should be done in terms of positive policies to discourage an expanded nuclear program. The United States should first of all recognize that, as the world’s only superpower, it controls the playing field. It is up to Washington to take the first steps to defuse the crisis that is building by offering Tehran the security guarantees that might undercut the influence of those in its government who seek a nuclear weapon deterrent. Punishing Iran is no solution. It will not work, closes the door to diplomacy, and will only make the worst case scenario that much more likely. Opening the door to a rapprochement by eliminating the threatening language coming out of Washington and creating incentives for cooperation is a far better course of action.