Monday, July 06, 2009

New IAEA chief: no evidence Iran developing nukes

While most Americans were preoccupied lighting sparklers and inhaling hot dogs with more carcinogens than a pack of unfiltered cigarettes, Yukiya Amano, the new head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was busy throwing cold water on the oft-repeated claim that Iran has an active nuclear weapons program, an assertion made so often by the Obama and Bush administrations that it has been accepted as something of an undisputed fact by much of the media, despite the lack of actual evidence (so much for journalists learning from the Iraq debacle).

Asked in an interview with Reuters whether he believes Tehran is "seeking nuclear weapons capability", Amano, whose election was favored by Western governments including the U.S., replied, "I don't see any evidence in IAEA official documents" suggesting that's the case. Likewise, the most recent IAEA report filed in June states that "the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran"; that is, there is no evidence Iran is developing anything other than a civilian nuclear energy program, in accordance with its right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

President Barack Obama, however, at a July 6th press conference in Moscow, indicated that he rejects the view of the IAEA -- and his own Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair -- that Iran's nuclear program is civilian in nature, telling reporters:
In the Middle East, there is deep concern about Iran's pursuit of nuclear-weapons capability -- not simply because of one country wanting nuclear weapons, but the fact that if Iran obtained nuclear weapons, it is an almost -- it is almost certain that other countries in the region would then decide to pursue their own programs.
Strangely, Obama made no mention of Israel's covert nuclear weapons program and its possession of several hundred nukes and how that may fuel a nuclear arms race in the region, choosing instead to single out a country which is a signatory to the NPT and is entitled to enrich uranium for a civilian nuclear energy program. Israel is one of a handful of countries -- India and Pakistan among them; all U.S. allies -- that has not signed on to the NPT.

Obama also didn't mention that, in order to develop nukes, as Reuters notes, "Iran would have to adjust its enrichment plant to yield bomb-ready nuclear fuel and miniaturize the material to fit into a warhead -- steps that could take from six months to a year or more, analysts say. It would also have to kick out IAEA inspectors and leave the NPT."

But facts long ago ceased to be relevant in any discussions about Iran's nuclear program, taking a backseat to gut feelings and fear-inducing speculation. In an admiral display of honesty, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen, for instance, recently admitted to ABC News' George Stephanopoulos that while, yes, the U.S. intelligence community has no evidence Iran is developing nukes and actually believes any such program to do so ended years ago, such intelligence estimates "focus on what we know, [and] I’m concerned about what Iran might be doing that we don’t know."

It wasn't so long ago that Obama was singing a different tune about Iran, though. As a presidential candidate, he campaigned on engaging Iran diplomatically, even citing the view of the U.S. intelligence community that Iran isn't developing nukes back when it served a useful purpose: bashing President Bush. Indeed, after the release of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, the consensus view of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, Obama argued that the estimate's finding that "Iran halted its nuclear weapon development program four years ago" completely undercut Bush's doomsday talk of a third world war and "makes a compelling case for less saber-rattling and more direct diplomacy."

Obama added that the juxtaposition of the National Intelligence Estimate with the Bush administration's talk of an imminent Persian nuclear threat "serves as an important reminder of what we learned with the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq: members of Congress must carefully read the intelligence before giving the President any justification to use military force."

Since he made the statement as a candidate and took office this past January, nothing has changed with respect to the U.S. intelligence community's view that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons, as Obama's top intelligence official made clear at a congressional hearing in March. The IAEA also continues to inspect Iran's nuclear facilities and verify the non-diversion of nuclear material. What has changed is power and who holds it.

As a president, Obama has every reason to play up the threat posed by external enemies; it not only allows him to deflect claims from the domestic jingo set that he is "weak" on defense, but it's also incredibly useful for an administration that shows every sign of seeking to centralize and expand its own power -- warning of the specter of swarthy foreigners hell-bent on nuking freedom being a rather effective means of convincing most people that they Need To Be Protected. That's all the more reason for members of Congress and the media to heed the advice of Obama the candidate and view the president's claims of Iranian development of weapons of mass destruction with at least a modicum of skepticism, especially given the way breathless allegations concerning a certain neighboring country's development of WMDs panned out.

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