Nukes, Neo-Cons, and the Bush Who Cried Wolf
Part II: And Now a Word from the Wolf
By Steve Weissman
Thursday 02 December 2004
What are Iran's nuclear aims? Do the oil-rich Ayatollahs simply want to use atomic energy to generate electricity, as they insist? Or do they seek to join Pakistan, India, and Israel as a regional nuclear power?
As far as anyone on the outside can tell, the intelligence looks iffy, as it usually does when the questions count. If Bush, the CIA, or the Neo-Con Michael Ledeen and his amen corner had a smoking gun, they would hardly shy away from letting the rest of us know.
Even worse, the spooks are sending mixed messages. The CIA has just warned Congress that Tehran is "vigorously" pursuing a secret nuclear weapons program, while intelligence officers, past and present, tell reporters at the Los Angeles Times that "the U.S. intelligence community has few sources of reliable information on any illicit arms activities by the Islamic republic."
The best the CIA can do is to recycle "intelligence reports" from an Iraqi opposition group - the Mujihadeen Khalq - which has a vested interested in sucking the United States into war with Iran, much as Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress did in Iraq. The MK's reports could be true or complete rubbish. We have no way to know, and every reason to disbelieve them.
Once bit, twice shy.
A similar caution applies to journalistic reports like the recent story in Germany's leading weekly Der Spiegel, which claimed that Iran was digging a tunnel near the historic city of Isfahan to house a secret uranium enrichment facility. The magazine, which is something like Time, cited secret intelligence files, which could be either authentic or what the KGB liked to call disinformatzya.
Good journalists, which Der Spiegel has, know the dilemma, and generally seek outside sources to confirm whatever they get from their intelligence contacts, who often speak with forked tongues. I am still waiting for a complete translation of the article before making any judgment.
At this point, however, the intelligence debate goes beyond the evidence at hand. Everyone from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) down now knows that Tehran has built facilities to produce enriched uranium, which it could use for either nuclear fuel or atomic weapons. What do the Iranians intend? Do different factions within their theocratic leadership have different intentions? And, if so, which group seems likely to prevail?
Such questions don't lend themselves to certainty. Whether from satellite photos, high-tech sensors, and electronic intercepts or human spies, U.N. inspectors, and savvy observers, the ancient art of espionage remains in the end more art than science. Someone has to figure out what the raw data means. How do we interpret the fragments and fill in the gaps? How do we connect the dots? And how do we see the big picture?
Far less pricey than all Washington's whiz-bang technology and far less exciting than the cloak and dagger, this is the work of professional intelligence analysts. Without them, all the rest is rarely worth the cost in time, lives, and money.
Sadly, the Bush Administration and its Neo-Con advisers have repeatedly shown their contempt for this kind of independent judgment, as when the president dismissed a National Intelligence Estimate as "just guessing." He did that in January 2003, just before he sent Americans troops into harm's way in Iraq, because he preferred to tell us what "a cakewalk" the invasion would be. The Estimate, which he dissed, suggested instead that American troops might as easily create a widespread Iraqi backlash that could tear Iraq apart.
Nearly two years and over 100,000 deaths later, it's clear who "guessed" wrong.
Now, with Iran joining Iraq on the national agenda, Mr. Bush's new CIA director Porter Goss is further politicizing U.S. intelligence and gutting whatever independent judgment remained. For all the billions the nation spends to gather raw intelligence and all the suspected terrorists we torture to get information, the administration is now flying blind on the most important questions we face.
What then should the rest of us think about Iran's nuclear ambitions?
The best I can do is to try to understand the complex reality in which the Iranians now find themselves.
Leaving aside questions of what they will do with their nuclear waste, the Iranians have understandable economic reasons to switch to nuclear power to meet their growing energy needs. The switch frees them to sell more of their black gold to needy nations like China, which has now agreed to help develop the Yadavaran oil field, near the Iraqi border, and to buy over $100 billion worth of Iran's oil, gas, and liquefied natural gas over a period of at least 25 years.
The agreements give China a longterm source of supply beyond American control, which is precisely the kind of energy independence the Neo-Cons wanted to prevent. It also gives Iran a hefty profit and a strong friend to give any bully second thoughts.
Iran has, as well, sound economic and political reasons to control their own production of enriched uranium. If they don't, they will be dependent on often-hostile Western nations, who could cut them off at any moment. This could explain in part why Iran has only agreed with the Europeans to a temporary freeze on their enrichment program.
But whatever their economic motives, the more the Iranians develop a well-rounded nuclear industry, the closer they will come to having nuclear weapons. This Faustian bargain has lurked in the wings ever since the Americans first tried to convince the world to embrace "the peaceful uses of atomic energy."
As for the IAEA, it can at best monitor whether a country has diverted nuclear materials that it could use in making weapons. It cannot prevent a country from doing it.
Will the Iranians cross the line and build a bomb? The presumption has to be that in time they will. The Israelis, Indians, and Pakistanis all have their nukes. Why wouldn't nationalistic Iranians, who want to be a major player in their neighborhood, seek theirs as well?
But even more convincing to Iranians is this: President Bush has declared Iran part of the Axis of Evil. He has asserted, and Congress has accepted, America's right to wage pre-emptive war against those he considers enemies. He has shown in neighboring Iraq that he means business. And the only thing likely to stop him - or an even more hell-bent successor - is a bit of nuclear deterrence.
If you were an Iranian leader, what would you do?
Next time Part III: The Perils of a Pentagon or Israeli Response