from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Iranian Nuclear Program: Rhetoric and Reality

February 17, 2012

Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attending an unveiling ceremony of new nuclear projects in Tehran (Courtesy Reuters/Handout).
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Reading the professional punditry in Washington or the rhetorical nuclear and military pronouncements from Tehran, one would assume that Iran is very close to acquiring a nuclear weapon—and that the United States and Iran are on the brink of war.

In the United States, serious thinkers have offered articles that make “The Case for Military Action in Iran,” advocate for “Why Obama Should Take Out Iran’s Nuclear Program,” and assert it is “Time to Attack Iran.” Earlier this week, a more extreme version of the Iran-war-determinism meme was penned by Thomas P.M. Barnett, chief analyst at Wikistrat, an organization that refers to itself as “the world’s first Massively Multiplayer Online Consultancy.” In an op-ed entitled, “The New Rules: The Coming War with Iran,” Barnett wrote:

“Israel and America will soon go to war with Iran—for as many times as it takes. In each instance, our proximate goal will be to kick the nuclear ‘can’ as far down the road as possible, but our ultimate goal will be regime change…Nothing is going to stop this war dynamic from unfolding…nothing. So get ready for war with Iran. Because once Assad is gone, that is what comes next.”

In Tehran, meanwhile, claims are made weekly about the supposed indigenous development of nuclear fuel rods, killer drones, next-generation centrifuges, and long-range missiles. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dons a white lab coat, points at some new technological innovation, or walks amidst a uranium-enrichment centrifuge cascade (which itself is under IAEA comprehensive safeguards). Elsewhere, ballistic missiles are rolled through Tehran like a homecoming parade for threat projections. Or, the possible mock-up of the downed U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel drone is prominently displayed next to uniformed men who run their hands over its radar-reflective skin.

These supposedly groundbreaking “threats” from Tehran are then elevated by the Western media, rewarding the Iranian regime with the strategic communications coup that it so desperately seeks.

Outside of the threat industries in Washington and Tehran, however, are the professional analysts of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), who provide assessments of foreign policy and national security issues for policymakers. Yesterday, two senior members of the IC testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Over the course of two-plus hours, the officials made four statements that provided a much-needed clarifying perspective amidst all the hyperventilating by the media.

  • Clapper: “We believe the decision [to pursue a nuclear weapon] would be made by the supreme leader himself, and he would base that on a cost-benefit analysis.” Iran does not want “a nuclear weapon at any price.”
  • Sen. Carl Levin: "Is it your implication that it will take more than a year for Iran to build a bomb?" Clapper: "Yes, sir."
  • Burgess: "The [DIA] assesses Iran is unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke a conflict.’’
  • Burgess: "To the best of our knowledge, Israel has not decided to attack Iran."

In other words, according to the heads of the IC and DIA: 1) against all odds, the supposedly “mad Mullahs” of Tehran are endowed with the capacity for rational human thought, and thus there might be diplomatic or economic inducements that could compel an agreement on outstanding questions regarding the nuclear program; 2) the United States has at least a year; 3) Iran is not looking to start a war with the United States; and 4) Israel has not yet decided to undertake a preemptive war with Iran.

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