Obscuring the truth on Iran’s nuclear program

 In Iran

I’ve already written about the hyping of the threat from Iran’s nuclear program that has reached a fever pitch again after the release of the latest IAEA report. The messages around Iran’s nuclear program have continued to be muddled by misinterpretations of the IAEA’s conclusions.  A prime example of this was when Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chair of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Michael Mullen gave contradicting assessments of Iran’s nuclear program on the same day, on different talk shows:

The United States now believes that Iran has amassed enough uranium that with further purification could be used to build an atomic bomb, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff declared Sunday…

…“We think they do, quite frankly,” Admiral Mullen said on “State of the Union” on CNN. “And Iran having a nuclear weapon, I’ve believed for a long time, is a very, very bad outcome for the region and for the world”…

…Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, also appearing on a Sunday television talk show, emphasized that Iran still lacked the ability to build a nuclear arsenal rapidly.

“They’re not close to a stockpile,” Mr. Gates said on “Meet the Press” on NBC. “They’re not close to a weapon at this point. And so, there is some time.”

The phrase “with further purification” feels like a throw away line, when it really is the heart of the issue—what Iran currently has in its possession is not weapons grade uranium, and they don’t currently have the capability to enrich it to weapons grade.

In a recent hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) acknowledged the confusion caused by varying reports and asked the Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair for clarification:

LEVIN: In 2007, the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran said that “the intelligence community judges with high confidence that in the fall of 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” Is the position of the intelligence community the same as it was back in October of ‘07? Has that changed?

BLAIR: Mr. Chairman, the nuclear weapons program is one of the three components required for deliverable system, including the delivery system and the uranium. But as for the nuclear weapons program, the current position is the same, that Iran has stopped its nuclear weapons design and weaponization activities in 2003 and did not — has not started them again, at least as of mid-2007.

It’s reassuring to hear the Director of National Intelligence giving a realistic view of Iran’s nuclear program and confirming the conclusions of the NIE.  But that doesn’t discourage the fear-mongers who are pushing the vision of a ticking clock counting down to a nuclear-armed Iran.

Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, chief of military intelligence in Israel, said this about Iran’s nuclear ambitions: "Iran continues to stockpile hundreds of kilograms of low-level enriched uranium and hopes to use the dialogue with the West to buy the time it requires in order to move towards an ability to manufacture a nuclear bomb."

Playing off these concerns, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy released a report this month entitled, “Preventing a Cascade of Instability,” which warns that Israel is likely considering a unilateral military strike on Iran’s nuclear program.  Not content to hype the threat of ONE Iranian nuclear weapon during the unveiling of the report, signatory William Schneider claimed Iran has enough yellowcake sitting around for “perhaps” fifty nuclear weapons, and called for enacting “crippling sanctions.” Schneider criticized the “prolonged dithering” of the international community in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, but what does WINEP propose? Sections of the report sound rather innocuous, and they are at least proposing engagement with Iran as a way to deal with its nuclear ambitions. However, they offer some ridiculous and downright dangerous suggestions, from moving forward with missile defense to providing Israel with capabilities to “threaten high-value Iranian targets” to counter Russia’s potential transfer of an air-defense system to Iran. They also advocate formalizing the so-called “nuclear umbrella” for the US’s friends in the region:

Any consideration of moving U.S. nuclear weapons to the region would raise complex issues. Therefore, further thought and consultations will be needed to see how to make extended deterrence credible in a way that satisfied other U.S. interests. Any nuclear deterrence will require reliable, safe and effective U.S. nuclear weapons.

While they don’t explicitly advocate moving nuclear weapons to the region, the fact that it would even be considered is frightening.  And the last sentence sounds eerily reminiscent of language use to promote modernizing the US arsenal through programs like the Reliable Replacement Warhead.

It would be nice to be able to dismiss these ideas as the ranting of a bunch of crazies, but the signatories to the report including Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) (infamous in the peace community for his bill H. Con. Res. 362 that essentially would have required a naval blockade on Iran), Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN), and Dennis Ross, State Department adviser on Iran (who signed an early draft but withdrew from the task force after joining the transition team), among others.  These are people who will undoubtedly have the ears of people in the administration in Congress, and we will need to work hard to counteract their influence.

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