Democrats across the land had a major "I told you so" moment this week when a new National Intelligence Estimate reported that Iran stopped their clandestine nuclear weapons program back in 2003. Democrat candidates for president in 2008 renewed their calls for diplomacy with no preconditions, with Edwards taking the opportunity to attack Clinton for her record on hawkishness regarding Iran, and Obama chastising the choice by the Bush Administration to ever rattle the saber. Hillary at least acknowledged the reality that diplomacy requires both carrots and sticks, which gives her even more credibility in my book (but still not enough to bring me to vote for her).
The Tehran Times was quick to point out that the "NIE report [was] a complete fiasco for the US" and the San Francisco Chronicle asked whether "Bush [is] out of touch on Iran? Or willfully ignorant?"
I'm sure some people at Blogcritics felt vindicated by this news as well, especially after the "healthy" debate that followed my September article on Why We Can't Live With A Nuclear Iran. Surely this new NIE is proof positive that the nation of Iran is really a misunderstood, complex sort of fellow who is just another victim of Bush's salacious neocon imperialistic tendencies.
I'd prefer a world where we didn't have to worry about an Iranian nuclear threat (or any nuclear threat for that matter). However, the new NIE report, despite mainstream media gullibility, doesn't really change the issues with Iran's nuclear program, nor should it materially change the way the US and the international community deals with Iran. While the NIE has been portrayed as a huge blow to the credibility of the US and its intelligence community, the reality isn't nearly as straightforward. Any lowering of our guard as a result of this information is at our own peril.
First, it's worth pointing out that the NIE confirms that Iran was indeed pursuing a nuclear weapons program as recently as four years ago. This illegal program was under the radar of the IAEA and flouted the law of the international community. That Iran stopped this program in 2003 is curious – while we can never truly know what's in the heart of man, I have a feeling that the U.S. response to Saddam Hussein's (lack of) WMD's may have been a factor in Tehran's decision to abandon, or at least pack away for the moment, their quest for nukes. One thing is clear; the mullarchy didn't halt the program out of the goodness of their hearts.
More importantly, Iran has not stopped their quest for so-called peaceful nuclear energy. Worse, they are not willing to participate in a situation where this "peaceful" effort is monitored and it's fuel and waste managed by international entities.
Why does that matter? It's important to understand what's at play here. One of the by-products of even peaceful nuclear reactors is the manmade element Plutonium. While the massive "city killer" nuclear bombs that were manufactured by the super powers during the cold war were made out of a highly weaponized version of Plutonium (as well as other elements), the Plutonium that is generated as a by-product in nuclear reactors is sufficient by itself to make a substantial nuclear bomb. According to the Nuclear Energy Information Service, "Each year a typical 1000 mega-watt commercial power reactor will produce 300 to 500 pounds of plutonium — enough to build between 25 – 40 Nagasaki-sized atomic bombs." To be clear, even peaceful nuclear technology in the wrong hands can be easily exploited to make full scale nuclear bombs.