During the lead up to the 2003 invasion, the Bush administration infamously bypassed what they deemed insufficiently frightening intelligence about Iraqi WMDs coming from the CIA by creating their own unit staffed with political appointees, the Office of Special Plans, to deliver “raw intelligence” (think “Taxi Cab Confessions: Baghdad”) to the White House and the president’s speechwriters. The Obama administration, it appears, is now more or less doing the same thing, preferring the analysis of its political appointees to that of its intelligence services.
According to The New York Times, “Mr. Obama’s top advisers say they no longer believe the key finding of a much disputed National Intelligence Estimate about Iran, published a year before President George W. Bush left office, which said that Iranian scientists ended all work on designing a nuclear warhead in late 2003.” As a candidate, Obama praised the NIE as a sober reality check on the Bush administrations heated fearmongering on Iran. As president, however, he is relying not on that 2007 NIE -- the consensus view of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies -- but on his politically appointed advisers, people like United Against Nuclear Iran co-founder and National Security Council member Dennis Ross, who after “reviewing new documents that have leaked out of Iran and debriefing defectors lured to the West,” say “they believe the work on weapons design is continuing on a smaller scale.” As the official stenographers at the Times note, this review “did not amount to a new formal intelligence assessment” -- an oddity, for sure -- but was based rather “on intelligence reports, information from allies, and their own analysis”. In light of the Iraq war and the well-observed penchant government officials have for lying, it’s not asking too much to request that said officials cite something more verifiable then “their own analysis” when making a claim that will be used to justify further measures of economic warfare against another country, and make it that much more easy for Israel to claim justification should the Netanyahu government decide to launch air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. It was too much for the Times reporters, though.
The article instead dutifully fulfills its role as an amplifier for the administration’s alarmist reading of Iran’s nuclear program, stating that claims it is civilian in nature are “roundly rejected by Western officials and, in internal reports, by international nuclear inspectors.” This, apparently, despite the fact that both the incoming and outgoing chiefs of the IAEA say they have not seen any evidence Iran is developing nukes, while the agency declares in its official reports that its inspectors have verified the non-diversion of nuclear material to such a purpose. No doubt the IAEA continues to raise questions about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but that’s not to say it has accused it have being in outright violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty either, rather saying Iran’s actions have at times been “inconsistent” with the accord.
The Obama administration’s assessment also differs from what its own top intelligence official, Admiral Dennis Blair, testified to Congress earlier this year. It likewise contradicts a recent report from the Congressional Research Service on Iran’s nuclear program, which noted that the CIA and other intelligence agencies stand by the 2007 intelligence assessment finding Iran halted whatever nuclear weapons work it may have engaged in. Part of the problem lies in the ambiguities of the language the administration employs. While dimmer bulbs might make assertions liable to be challenged and proven wrong by events in the near future, like “Iran is building a nuke that will be completed in six months,” for instance, suaver propagandists like those employed in the Obama administration are more likely to accuse Iran, like they do in the Times article, of continuing to engage in work on a “weapons design” on “a smaller scale,” a claim that could conceivably apply to Googling “how to build a nuclear bomb”. It’s therefore exceedingly difficult to prove such a statement is a lie, even though the average reader is likely to interpret such an assertion as meaning Iran is actively building a suitcase nuke for delivery in Manhattan -- not an unintended effect, mind you.
The ultimate problem lies in the whole premise of seeking to block Iran not only from having a nuclear weapon, but from achieving the “breakout capacity” to build one should it so desire or continuing the undefined “smaller scale” work on a weapons design. At the heart of this endeavor, beside a desire to punish a country that refuses to accept Western hegemony (it certainly isn’t about human rights when Israel and Egypt are raking in the U.S. foreign aid), is a doomed attempt to suppress the spread of knowledge. The very medium that lets all those urban Iranians express their distaste for the ruling regime on Twitter is the one that pipes in their LOLcats, porn and, yes Virginia, designs for an atom bomb, courtesy the U.S. government. So long as Iran maintains a domestic capability to enrich uranium, a half-decent military capability and an internet connection, it could probably build a nuclear weapon at some point in the future -- but not without the whole world knowing about it, as it would need to withdraw from the non-proliferation treaty and kick out international inspectors. A policy based on thwarting the inevitable -- the spread of knowledge, in this case of how to make a nuclear weapons -- is not one likely to be met with much success. But perhaps that’s the point.