Hats off to journalist Dafna Linzer and Sunday's
Washington Post for exposing
a familiar but fallacious syllogism favored by senior Bush administration officials:
Iran has a lot of oil.
Ergo, Iran does not need nuclear energy for civil purposes.
Ergo, Iran's nuclear development program must be for weapons.
Linzer and her researcher, Robert Thomason, remind us that in 1975 – with
Gerald Ford president, Dick Cheney his chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld secretary
of defense, Paul Wolfowitz responsible for nonproliferation at the Arms Control
and Disarmament Agency, and Henry Kissinger secretary of state and national
security adviser – the Ford administration bought the shah's argument that
Iran needed a nuclear program to meet its future energy requirements.
This is precisely what Iranian officials claim today. There is legitimacy to
that claim. Energy experts note that oil extraction in Iran is already at or
near peak and confirm that the country will need alternatives to oil in the
coming decades. At the same time, it seems altogether likely that the Iranian
leaders also believe they need a nuclear weapons capability and are preparing
to produce one.
Here's to the Shah… and Westinghouse
Ford's advisers eventually persuaded the hesitant
president to sign a directive in 1976 offering Iran a deal that would have meant
at least $6.4 billion for U.S. corporations like Westinghouse and General Electric,
had not the shah been unceremoniously ousted three years later. The offer included
a reprocessing facility for a complete nuclear-fuels cycle – essentially
the same capability that the United States, Israel, and other countries now
insist Iran cannot be allowed to acquire.
Not surprisingly, given Vice President Dick Cheney's success in orchestrating
the overture and accompaniment for the invasion of Iraq, he is now choreographer/director
of this year's campaign against Iran. Last week, Cheney told reporters
that he was uncertain as to whether the Iranians already have nuclear weapons,
but, as he put it, "We have made the judgment that they are seeking to
acquire" such weapons. (In the intelligence business, a source is evaluated
largely on his/her past reporting record. And one does well to recall that it
was Cheney who assured us before the invasion that Iraq had "reconstituted"
its nuclear weapons program.)
To the degree that Cheney's reasoning is based on the supposition that
Iran has no civil use for its nuclear development program, his new "judgment"
requires a 180-degree turnabout regarding the future energy needs of the Iranians.
But White House PR guidance apparently suggests that when there is a disconnect,
no problem; ignore it. Following that dictum, Cheney recently said: "They're
already sitting on an awful lot of oil and gas. Nobody can figure why they need
nuclear as well to generate energy."
With the cat out of the bag on the advice given
President Ford by these same officials, one might conclude they would be embarrassed
into abandoning that argument. Think again. The White House embarrassment threshold
is quite high. And the simplistic syllogism – like the "weapons-of-mass-destruction-in-Iraq"
canard of recent memory – has the distinct advantage of simplicity.
The American people prefer something they can understand – true or not.
It's simple: Iran has so much oil that it does not need nuclear power –
just nuclear weapons. There are canards for all seasons, and the administration
is unlikely to jettison the latest one until it can be proved to have outlived
its usefulness. Better to wait to see if Linzer's story elicits more resonance
than can be expected from the relative few who made it to the bottom of page
A15 of the Washington Post on Easter Sunday. The story is hardly likely
to end up on cable TV news.
In any case, the White House is armed with a familiar set of default rationales
to explain why Iran's nuclear program must be stopped cold – by military
means, if necessary. These rationales bear a striking similarity to those used
by the same administration officials to "justify" war on Iraq. Now,
as then, they do not bear close scrutiny.
The Scariest One
Let's look briefly at the scariest rationale –
if Iran is allowed to produce fissile material, it may transfer it to terrorists
bent on exploding a nuclear device in an American city.
This seems to be the main bogeyman, whether real or contrived, in U.S. policymaking
councils. Its unexamined premise – the flimsily supported but strongly
held view that Iran's leaders would give terrorists a nuclear device or the
wherewithal to make one – is being promoted as revealed truth. Serious
analysts who voice skepticism about this and who list the strong disincentives
to such a step by Iran are regarded as apostates.
For those of you with a sense of deja vu, we have indeed been here before –
just a few years ago. And the experience should have been instructive. In the
case of Iraq, CIA and other analysts strongly resisted the notion that Saddam
Hussein would risk providing nuclear, chemical, or biological materials to al-Qaeda
or other terrorists – except as a desperate gesture if and when he had
his back to the wall. Similarly, it strains credulity beyond the breaking point
to posit that the Iranian leaders would give up control of such material to
Yes, but Didn't the President Say…
Many remember President George W. Bush's frightening
words in his Cincinnati speech of Oct. 7, 2002, just three days before Congress
voted for war: "We've learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in
bomb-making and poisons and gasses." What few recall is that this information
was unconfirmed. It came only from Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, an al-Qaeda commander
captured in Pakistan just two months after 9/11, and al-Libi later recanted.
Typically, his about-face never really caught up with the story. The episode
is significant for a number of reasons:
Al-Libi was the sole source of that information not only in Bush's remarks
on Oct. 7, 2002, but also for the corresponding passage in Colin Powell's
now-infamous UN speech of Feb. 5, 2003;
Al-Libi's statement was relied upon heavily to buttress administration pre-war
claims that Osama bin Laden had a collaborative relationship with Iraq (claims
refuted by the 9/11 Commission); and
The capture of al-Libi, a relatively high-level al-Qaeda commander, sparked
the first debate on how roughly such detainees could be interrogated. The
C.I.A. was authorized to use "enhanced interrogation methods." No
one will say whether the juicy misinformation used by Bush and Powell was
extracted using "enhanced" techniques, and whether al-Libi, in an
effort to spare himself, was "persuaded" to tell his interrogators
what they clearly wanted to hear. Small wonder that such interrogations continue
to this day. It is no time for squeamishness. "Enhanced interrogation
methods" can produce just what the doctor ordered.
Needed: An Honest Intelligence Estimate
According to recent press reports, a new National
Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran and its nuclear plans is to be finished
soon. Such an estimate will be of little value if it does not include an objective
The likelihood that Iran would transfer nuclear materials to terrorists.
The degree to which recent history may be driving any Iranian plans to acquire
nuclear weapons. Iraq, after all, did not have them, and the United States
invaded it; North Korea probably has a few, and the United States has done
What it would take in the way of security guarantees, as well as economic
incentives, to get Iran to agree to drop any plans it has for developing nuclear
What is known about the strength of Iranian "democratic forces?"
The aftershocks to be expected in the wake of a U.S. or U.S./Israeli attack
on Iran. How, for instance, do Pentagon planners expect the U.S. Navy to contend
with Iran's formidable array of supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, which
already pose a threat to U.S. ships providing logistical support to American
forces in Iraq?
The wider international implications as Iran builds alliances on the energy
front with key players like China, India, Russia, and even Venezuela.
The long-awaited NIE may not address all these questions. And with quintessential
politician Porter Goss as CIA director and malleable functionary John Negroponte
as National Intelligence Director, there is no guarantee that the intelligence
community will be encouraged to stand up to the vice president – in other
words, no guarantee that the estimate on Iran will be any less politicized than
the one on Iraq's putative "weapons of mass destruction" six months
before the war. As we await the estimate, the following can already be said
of the setting.
Some Things Already Clear
What seems clear is that all but the most incorrigible
ideologues and the criminally insane realize that an attack on Iran would make
the debacle in Iraq seem like child's play. And yet chances appear good that
the ever narrowing circle of advisers around President Bush will persuade him
to do just that, and for the same underlying reasons – oil, Israel, and
a strategic presence in the region.
But, you say, such an attack would not conform to international norms of behavior.
Neither, of course, did the attack on Iraq. And a truly remarkable document,
"National Defense Strategy of the United States of America," just
issued by the Pentagon asserts a U.S. right to go after regimes that do not
"exercise their sovereignty responsibly."
It will be the height of irony if the United States attempts to "justify"
an attack on Iran by a need to prevent it from transferring nuclear material
to terrorists. For such an attack would be a tremendous fillip to widespread
terrorism. Recruiting pool? The 1.3 billion Muslims in this world. And this
time, many more would be strongly motivated to wage jihad , adding to the thousands
that signed up after the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
But where, you ask, could terrorists get fissile material? Did you not receive
the mail-order catalogue? The North Koreans are offering such nuclear materials
at a discount this month – and can arrange free and secure smuggling/shipping – to
any terrorist or group of terrorists with enough cash. This may sound macabre,
but it approximates the actual situation, and it is not in any real sense funny.
There are a few positives. The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency has
completed an inventory of North Korean isotopes, so the North Koreans know that
any "loose" material would be traceable back to them, inviting their
demise. In ordinary circumstances, this should act as a powerful disincentive
to providing such material to others. And North Korea has no history of selling
nuclear material to terrorists or nation-states.
Much will depend on whether the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran deals
forthrightly with these key issues, or whether intelligence analysts are again
persuaded to take the course of least resistance and tell the vice president
and president what will please – as they did in the NIE, "Iraq's
Continuing Program for Weapons of Mass Destruction" of Oct. 1, 2002. That
was the worst NIE on record – so far.