Don’t let John McCain pull the trigger: no Iranian nuke any time soon

 In Iran

A lot of the rush to enact sanctions on Iran is based on the idea that the clock is quickly ticking down to nuclear catastrophe.  Reporting on the state of Iran’s nuclear program is most often rather shoddy, and highlights the scariest parts of intelligence reports while downplaying the many factors that demonstrate that an Iranian nuclear weapon in not imminent. Laicie Olson at Nukes of Hazard has a good rundown of this dynamic on display in a recent Senate hearing:

During his testimony, Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess reported that Iran could potentially produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb within one year. This led a number of SASC committee members to assume that Iran could have a deliverable weapon within one year. Were it not for Committee Chair Sen. Carl Levin, they may have held on to that assumption. Apparently wise to the fact that there are a few more steps involved in the process, Levin asked for further clarification…

In terms of the highly enriched uranium, your answer is clear… it would take a year or more… Now, you indicated in terms of putting together a weapon, of assembling a weapon, that’s a different issue. We need in open session to learn something about that since intelligence officials apparently are indicating that’s something more than a year… Otherwise, the headline tomorrow is, ‘Iran could get a weapon in a year’… Should they make a decision today to put together a weapon, we know the uranium piece of it; tell us about the other piece what you can in open session.

Gen. Cartwright responded that it would take “another two to three, potentially out to five years to move from the idea of having the material to… something that can actually create a detonation, an explosion that would be considered a nuclear weapon.” Cartwright went on to clarify for Levin that, should the enrichment of uranium and the development of a weapon take place simultaneously, “experience says that it’s gonna take you three to five years.”

Levin isn’t too far off as far as the headlines.  Just as one example, the New York Times piece today is entitled, “Officials Say Iran Could Make Bomb Fuel in a Year.” Now this headline is correct. And someone with some knowledge of the process of making and delivering a nuclear weapon reading that headline might think, “OK, no reason to panic, that doesn’t mean they have a delivery vehicle and a workable warhead. I’ll read more and find out.” Of course, that’s not most people. Many who glance at that headline and don’t read the rest of the article will get the impression, too often reinforced by the media and hawkish politicians, that an Iranian weapon is one year away. And if they’re listening to these same pundits and politicians, they are going to assume that Iran has made a decision to create a nuclear weapon, when in fact there’s no clear evidence that they are committed to that path. Now, if I were a headline writer, I might think the most important thing for people to know in this story is “Iranian nuclear weapon possible in 3-5 years at the earliest.” But I don’t have an interest in scaring people.

The Los Angeles Times demonstrated an even more egregious example of this dynamic last year when writing the headline, “Iran has enough nuclear fuel for a bomb, report says.” Only when you delve into the article do you realize that they do not in fact have weapons grade nuclear fuel, which—obviously—is what you would need if you were to make a weapon. On page two, the article informs you that the stockpile represents “’a capability, not a decision.’ And even if Iran made that decision it would face major hurdles to building a bomb.” These articles aren’t factually incorrect; however the emphasis leads to factually incorrect interpretations that fuel a dangerous hunger in the media and government to go after Iran.

John McCain might be one of the hungriest (he still hasn’t been satiated after his “Bomb, Bomb, Iran” fiasco). In their Twitter feed, the National Iranian American Council described McCain as sounding “almost disappointed” when confronted with the fact that Iran is not closer to a bomb:

You’re saying – to this committee – that before the Iranians would have a deliverable (also wrong in the context, but let’s not nitpick, yet) nuclear weapon it could be as long as five years? … That is obviously a very critical point in this entire situation. If it’s two to three to five years, then that’s one thing. If it’s one year, then that’s another… Every report I’ve seen is a year to eighteen months, that’s why I’m somewhat astonished to hear you say it could be two to three to five years. Now [getting flustered] this doesn’t clarify it to me.

Supposedly this is because he thinks the US has been engaged in the empty gesture of waving a loaded gun at Iran, and McCain wants to “pull the trigger.”

John McCain, and many of his cohorts in Congress, need to watch their itchy trigger fingers. It’s not that no one should be concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But we should be just as concerned about getting swept into a belligerent approach with another country on the basis of flimsy facts about WMD—belligerence that could lead to a military confrontation that would make the Iraq war look easy in comparison.

The truth is, there’s only one viable way to slowly build trust with Iran and resolve tensions around its nuclear weapons. It’s one that for all the talk we’ve been hearing, this administration hasn’t really tried: serious, good faith, broad negotiations. As author Hooman Majd points out in a piece for Politico, the US has a way to go before it can be seen as sincerely engaging:

So Obama is looking to address what U.S. options are with respect to Iran. With hawks on his left and right — and in Israel — the pressure is on to do something to prevent Iran from acquiring the ability to develop nuclear weapons.

But the question remains: What?

The Iranians see Obama’s offer of talks as just that, for there have been no direct negotiations beyond one meeting in October.

There, Washington and its allies presented Iran with a plan: They would remove most of Iran’s stock of enriched uranium in exchange for, sometime later, fuel rods that Iran needs to run its medical reactor in Tehran.

Much has been made of Iran’s rejection. But relatively little notice of Tehran’s many counteroffers — including the most recent, last week, from Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki.

Mottaki said Iran would put most of its enriched uranium stockpile under 24-hour International Atomic Energy Agency supervision until it was removed from the country simultaneously with the West’s delivery of fuel rods with higher-enriched uranium.

For the problem between Tehran and Washington has always been about trust. It has dominated U.S.-Iranian relations since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Today, the West doesn’t trust that Iran won’t build weapons with its uranium. Iran, if it first gives up its stockpile, doesn’t trust the West to deliver the fuel rods it needs. It is likely, Iran implies, that other Western demands will be added later.

But trust cannot be built if Washington threatens Iran with everything from sanctions “that bite” to nuclear annihilation — as it does in the latest Nuclear Posture Review — unless Tehran agrees to the West’s one offer.

Not even if those threats are accompanied — in strong contrast to the Bush administration — with offers to open negotiations.

There is a dangerous theme emerging in rhetoric coming from members of Congress like Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Howard Berman—the idea that we have tried diplomacy and it hasn’t worked, hence we must move on to a “pressure track.” Once we consider diplomacy a failure, we are left with unpalatable options. Sanctions are highly unlikely to have the desired effect, and will likely just harm the Iranian population and increase tension with the West. Military action would be truly disastrous, and would provide motivation for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, not discouragement. These members of Congress should be held accountable for their dangerous rhetoric at such a sensitive time.

Almost a year after I traveled to Iran in a grassroots diplomacy delegation to build peaceful relationships between our countries, it is disappointing to see that so little progress has been made. The US and Iran must stay at the negotiating table, and we as a society must grasp a different version of diplomacy than “take our offer as is or face crippling sanctions and threats.” That’s not how you engage. Diplomacy should involve give and take, incentives and concessions. If we want an Iran without a nuclear weapon, and less tension between our countries, we need to get serious about negotiations before John McCain gets his chance to pull the trigger.

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