On Iran: More Policy, Less Politics

by Daniel Halper
JINSA Visiting Fellow

by Daniel Halper
JINSA Visiting Fellow

Last Saturday, a front-page story in America’s newspaper of record, the New York Times, reported that “American intelligence analysts continue to believe that there is no hard evidence that Iran has decided to build a nuclear bomb.” Apparently, the Times’s reporters-as it would otherwise be a betrayal of their objectivity and fairness-must first witness Iran exploding a nuclear bomb to have enough “hard evidence” to conclude Iran’s (partial) objective is to obtain one.

Why does this matter? “At the center of the debate is the murky question of the ultimate ambitions of the leaders in Tehran,” the paper read. That is true. But when the center of a crucial foreign policy debate is the “ultimate ambitions of the leaders in Tehran”-rather than a concrete solution or direction to move in-the debate itself would seem not to reflect any sort of policy.

What’s also at the center of the debate is this: If Iran is determined to seek nuclear weapons, and if it can be credibly determined that Iran might use those weapons against its adversaries, then the United States-as well as its allies-has a strategic and moral duty to disarm the rogue regime.

In the New York Times’s defense, however, the story is at least half true: Obama administration officials are saying these things. There is an apparently conscious attempt to play down the threat that Iran poses to Israel’s existence, as well as the threat a nuclear Iran would pose to the United States and the rest of the world. It has become a political consideration as to how those in the intelligence community-those charged with analyzing and assessing Iran’s nuclear capability and ambitions-are assessing the rogue state.

Consider what Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress on February 16. “We assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons,” Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee, relying heavily on the fact that all worldly events are on some level unknown.

Clapper had something similar to say in testimony just a couple weeks prior, January 31, in front of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “We assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so,” Clapper said. “We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.” So if it walks like a duck and quacks like duck, Clapper would have you believe that we do not know whether it’s a duck.

Now consider, for another example, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Gen. Ron Burgess, who said this in Capitol Hill testimony on February 16: “Iran can close the Straits of Hormuz, at least temporarily and may launch missiles against United States forces and our allies in the region if it is attacked. Iran could also attempt to employ terrorists surrogates worldwide. However, the agency assesses Iran is unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke a conflict.”

Now, in Burgess’s case, one can see the clear shift from playing up the unknowns to willful ignorance. It was just last October that the U.S. “accused Iranian officials of plotting to murder Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States in a bizarre scheme involving an Iranian-American used-car salesman who believed he was hiring assassins from a Mexican drug cartel for $1.5 million,” the paper of record reported at the time. Attorney General Eric Holder asserted it had been “directed and approved by elements of the Iranian government and, specifically, senior members of the Quds Force… [and that] high-up officials in those agencies, which is an integral part of the Iranian government, were responsible for this plot.”

Former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams points to some of the examples above and to other parts of the hearing with Burgess and Clapper, and concludes, “It is difficult to read the transcript of the hearing without concluding that there was an effort to downplay the threat posed by Iran.” And Abrams delivered that assessment before the latest news from report from the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“Iran dramatically boosted its production of a purer form of nuclear fuel in recent months, with much of the increased output coming from a newly opened plant built inside a mountain bunker, U.N. officials said Friday, further exacerbating worries about Iran’s march toward nuclear-weapons capability,” the Washington Post reported on Saturday, the same day the Times played down the nuclear threat. “The finding, in a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, showed a nearly 50 percent jump since the fall in Iran’s stockpile of a kind of highly enriched uranium that is closer to weapons-grade than the type normally used in nuclear power plants.”

And that is only the information the IAEA was able to learn with limited, incomplete access to Iran’s nuclear sites.

The argument is not over whether Iran is trying to achieve a nuclear capability. That’s accepted-and has been acknowledged by the Iranians in the past. The argument is over whether Iran is trying to build a weapon that would be able to deliver that nuclear capability in a lethal manner.

This week we learned that a major component of American’s Iran policy is “buying time.” Consider what Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser recently admitted, according to Haaretz:

U.S. policy on Iran is aimed at “buying time and continuing to move this problem into the future, and if you can do that – strange things can happen in the interim,” Anthony Blinken, National Security Adviser to Vice President Biden and Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, said on Monday.

“Buying time.” Now, finally, there is an explanation for why the intelligence community focuses on the unknowns, instead of the knowns. Now, finally, there is an explanation why the intelligence community is willing to look past the stated intentions of the Iranian regime. (“Iran’s warriors are ready and willing to wipe Israel off the map,” Deputy Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi warned last Friday, the day before Saturday’s New York Times piece.)

But one cannot buy time if one knows a catastrophe is coming-you can only buy time if everything is, more or less, OK.

What might be most odd about the intelligence community’s willful downplaying of the Iranian regime’s actions is what President Obama himself recently said. “I don’t think that Israel has made a decision on what they need to do,” Obama told NBC’s Matt Lauer in response to a question about whether Israel would strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. “I think they, like us, believe that Iran has to stand down on its nuclear weapons program. Until they do, I think Israel rightly is going to be very concerned, and we are as well.”

Even the president will call Iran’s program what it is: a nuclear weapons program.

Daniel Halper, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is deputy online editor at The Weekly Standard.