In the struggle over U.S. policy toward Iran, neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration spoiling for an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites have been seeking to convince the public that the United States must strike before an Iranian nuclear weapons capability becomes inevitable.
In order to do so, they must discredit the intelligence community’s conclusions that Iran is still as many as 10 years away from being able to build a nuclear weapon and that such a weapon is not an inevitable consequence of its present uranium enrichment program.
Those findings were first circulated in a top-secret National Intelligence Estimate on Iran completed in May or June 2005, and could be a rallying point for Democrats and dissident Republicans inclined to oppose an attack on Iran. It has also inhibited the neoconservatives from being able to launch the kind of propaganda campaign against Iran they would prefer.
Before the 2005 estimate, neoconservatives in the administration had been free to issue alarmist warnings about impending Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons. John R. Bolton, now Washington’s ambassador to the UN and then the administration’s point man on weapons of mass destruction, declared in April 2004, "If we permit Iran’s deception to go on much longer, it will be too late. Iran will have nuclear weapons."
The pro-war camp quickly tried to cast doubt on the new estimate, which made it more difficult for them to make such lurid claims. Asked about the estimate soon after it was issued, Robert G. Joseph, Bolton’s successor as undersecretary of state for arms control, cleverly dismissed it by saying: "I don’t know quite how to answer that because we don’t have perfect information or perfect understanding."
That theme was to become a propaganda leitmotif for the neoconservatives on Iran. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld picked up the same theme in a major assault on the Iran estimate on April 18, 2006. Asked by conservative radio talk show host Laura Ingraham if he had confidence in the current U.S. intelligence assessment that Iran is five to 10 years away from producing a nuclear weapon, Rumsfeld replied, "No, I’m not confident."
Referring condescendingly to the intelligence analysts, Rumsfeld said "They work hard at it and they’re fine people, but it’s a difficult thing to do. Our visibility into their circumstance is imperfect."
The neoconservatives returned to that theme again, using the staff report of the House Intelligence Committee’s Subcommittee on Intelligence Policy, issued Aug. 23, as a launching vehicle. A key message of the report is that "American intelligence agencies do not know nearly enough about Iran’s nuclear weapons program."
The intelligence community has not been passive in the face of this subtle campaign to dismiss its analysis on Iran’s nuclear program. On April 20, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, answering questions after a speech at the National Press Club, reaffirmed the 2005 estimate. He said the intelligence community believes it is "still a number of years off before they are likely to have enough fissile material to assemble into or to put into a nuclear weapon, perhaps into the next decade."
Equally important, in an interview with NBC News the same day, Negroponte repeated that same formula and then added, "According to the experts that I consult getting 164 centrifuges to work is still a long way from having the capacity to manufacture fissile material for a nuclear weapon." That implied that uranium enrichment alone should not be seized on as evidence that time is running out.
The day after Negroponte’s remarks, the neoconservative Joseph launched a direct attack on that point in a briefing for reporters at the State Department.
Ostensibly the briefing was about Joseph’s trip to the Gulf States to discuss the Iranian nuclear program. But he zeroed in on what he called "the question of the point of no return" in regard to Iranian nuclear weapons, meaning the point at which a nuclear weapons capability becomes inevitable.
Joseph suggested that there were different views on the point of no return, such as when Iran as produced enough fissile material, or the point of successful weaponization.
But he said there was "an earlier point of no return," which is when Iran "has acquired the confidence and capability of running centrifuges over a sustained period of time, allowing it to produce enrichment uranium." The "key point," he asserted, "has always been the 164-cascade centrifuge."
The idea of successful uranium enrichment as equivalent to the "point of no return" came from the Israeli government. As early as Jan. 26, 2005, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz warned that Iran would reach "the point of no return" within 12 months.
The Israeli argument is a clever formulation of the claim that Iran has already made the decision to manufacture nuclear weapons. By invoking the Israeli concept, Joseph was really suggesting that efforts to offer incentives for Iran to eschew nuclear weapons would be futile.
The intelligence estimate on Iran, however, explicitly takes the view that there is nothing inevitable about an Iranian decision to weaponize. Paul Pillar, who was the national intelligence officer for the Iran NIE, and is now teaching at Georgetown University, declared in an interview with Newsweek published Aug. 28 that the "point of no return" is "a ridiculous concept." Pillar explained why: "There’s no reason any country Iran or anyone else who has such a program can’t turn back or won’t turn back with the right incentives."
Pillar told this writer last February that the "dominant view" among intelligence analysts had been that a willingness on the part of the United States to provide security assurances could cause Iran to change course on the issue of nuclear weapons.
Significantly, the chief of Israel’s intelligence organization, Meir Dagan, has sided with the U.S. intelligence community rather than the neoconservatives on this point. Dagan refused to use the concept of "point of no return" last December in testimony before the Knesset. Instead, he said Iran was six months away from gaining "technical independence" in regard to a nuclear capability.
As the Jerusalem Post observed on Dec. 27 in reporting the testimony, Dagan’s choice of wording implied that even after Iran had acquired the capability to make a nuclear weapon, it might still be persuaded not to do so by an international agreement.
The intelligence judgment on this is also supported by independent analysts of the Iranian program. Ray Takeyh, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last March that it was "neither inevitable nor absolute" that Iran would turn to nuclear weapons, because "its course of action is still unsettled."
The intelligence community’s conclusion that Iran may still turn away from nuclear weapons if the United States offers real incentives, including security guarantees and normalization of relations, is crucial to the possibility of a bipartisan resistance to war against Iran.
The neoconservatives can be expected to work assiduously in the coming weeks and months to discredit the current intelligence analysis and substitute their own alternative as they position themselves for the attack on Iran they have long wanted.
(Inter Press Service)