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.
Bear in mind, Iran's program has always been clandestine and in violation of U.N. rule, and the NIE doesn't change that reality. And while the NIE says the weapons program has been halted, our intelligence capability, as well as that of the international community, is not what we once thought it was. It's possible that the NIE missed something. It's probable that the IAEA, under the bumbling management of Mohammad El Baradei, missed something.
Yesterday's Wall Street Journal offered an opinion piece ("High Confidence Games", WSJ, 12/5/07) calling into question the political motivation of some of the authors of this NIE, suggesting that they have a strong left wing, anti-Bush bias.
Equally compelling is the fact that U.S. allies such as Britain and even France came out in support of President Bush's comments following the release of the NIE. France is hardly a U.S. lackey, and Gordon Brown took office under the "anti Bush" mandate. One has to wonder what they are concerned about.
But I am willing to give the NIE the benefit of the doubt that Iran has halted an explicit effort to weaponize. Still, an Iranian government with Nuclear power of any kind can easily resume a weapons program at a time of their choice as nuclear energy generation and weaponization share many of the same disciplines. It's like outlawing guns but allowing people to have black powder, pellets and steel tubing.
Many will chastise me as they did before, for questioning Iran's sovereign right to explore whatever technologies they choose, including nuclear ones. This point is magnified in the face of a nuclear Pakistan, Israel, and most (supposedly) hypocritical of all, the United States. While it may be fun to indulge in theory, I'd be a lot more comfortable if no one had nukes at all. But I'll settle for at least ensuring any tyrannical regimes who support terrorism, who's military is recognized as a terrorist group and actively kills American troops, and whose leader speaks of genocide, never gets their hands on a nuke.
But I don't want this to become a second round of that same old discussion we had last time because I think sane people recognize at least that less nukes is a good thing, and at best, that Iran should not have nukes. This isn't about waiting for an imminent threat – nuclear power is a responsibility not a right. It can devastate human life on a grand scale.
Now consider these realities: Iran has designs to be the super power of the Middle East (to the consternation of many of their neighbors – not just Israel). Iran has long range nuclear warhead delivery systems that they continue to work on to this day. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has been working on the types of detonators needed specifically to start a nuclear explosion – this work wasn't halted in 2003 as far as we know. Iran has a growing nuclear technology that is by definition dual use, as well as the technologists to exploit. And we now know that Iran has engaged in an effort to weaponize their nuclear technology in the past. As they say in Hip Hop, "Don't Sleep."
In the face of growing doubt about the West's ability to gauge the situation on the ground in Iran, and the real nature of any threat, how do we proceed? Bush was quick to call for Iran to "Come Clean" about their program. While I think the guy's heart is in the right place, this was not the best way to kick off the discussion. Meanwhile much of the rest of the world took the NIE as license to lower their guards, or as an excuse to continue to do nothing, as well as to turn Bush's comments into caricature. Neither approach is the right one, and while it's welcome news that Iran has halted their quest for nukes for now, the world must remain vigilant.
While Bush's message following the NIE was brusque, it was also right; the International Community needs to keep its eye on the ball and must continue to apply pressure on Iran. But we also do need to engage Iran. In fact, we should become their best buddy, sidle up real close and build some ties that bind. It's time to recognize that the International Community simply won't be single minded enough to make any real progress via sanctions or isolationism. Talking to Tehran may cede them a certain amount of prestige, but I think we are way past the point where that matters. And let's be clear, talking to Tehran does not mean agreeing with them.
Any discussion needs the backing of possible military action. I'll say it again, assuming Iran did halt their program in 2003, U.S. military force and the desire to not become the next Iraq was clearly a factor in their decision. I am not a proponent of striking Iran militarily right now; I think there are other options still open to us. But the military option can't be taken off the table, ever.
While the path forward should be fairly clear, I have no belief that any of what I have suggested will actually take place. What's far more likely is that Bush will continue his hard headed approach, will continue to be ignored, and his concerns will be assigned to the heap of neocon aspirations. The U.N. Security Counsel, whose members have much more to gain financially from Iran by not making a big fuss (China and Russia have already signaled that they won't support new efforts at sanctions as a result of the new NIE), and who are appeasers at their very heart (when it suits them), will ignore the part of the NIE that confirms Iran has indulged in clandestine desires for nuclear weapons, and will instead selectively remember the part that says they halted the program in 2003.
The U.S., eager to put Bush and any ugly matters of war behind them, will focus on much more noble endeavors such as Global Warming and universal healthcare. The world will go to sleep on this issue, only to wake up years later to find evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapon test (within the borders of Iran one hopes), similar to what happened with North Korea. What will we do then?