Iran: how far from the bomb? That was one of the
key questions asked of newly confirmed Director of National Intelligence Michael
McConnell yesterday at a Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing. McConnell had
avoided this front-burner issue in his prepared remarks. But when asked, he
repeated the hazy forecast given by his predecessor, John Negroponte [and in
the process demonstrated that he has mastered the stilted jargon introduced
into national intelligence estimates (NIEs) in recent years]. McConnell had
these two sentences committed to memory:
"We assess that Iran seeks to develop a nuclear weapon. The information
is incomplete, but we assess that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon early-to-mid-next
At that point McConnell received gratuitous reinforcement from Lt. Gen.
Michael Maples, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. With something
of a flourish, Maples emphasized that it was "with high confidence"
that DIA "assesses that Iran remains determined to develop nuclear
After the judgments in the Oct. 1, 2002 estimate assessing weapons-of-mass-destruction
in Iraq – judgments stated with "high confidence" – turned
out to be wrong, the National Intelligence Council saw a need to define
what is meant by "assess." The council included a glossary
in its recent NIE on Iraq:
"When we use words such as 'we assess,' we are trying to convey an
analytical assessment or judgment. These assessments, which are based on incomplete
or at times fragmentary information are not a fact, proof, or knowledge. Some
analytical judgments are based directly on collected information; others rest
on previous judgments, which serve as building blocks. In either type of judgment,
we do not have ‘evidence' that shows something to be a fact."
So caveat emptor. Beware the verisimilitude conveyed by "we
assess." It can have a lemming effect, as evidenced yesterday by
the automatic head bobbing that greeted Sen. Lindsay Graham's, R-S.C.,
clever courtroom-style summary argument at the hearing, "We all
agree, then, that the Iranians are trying to get nuclear weapons."
Quick, someone, please give Sen. Graham the National Intelligence Council's
definition of "we assess."
Shoddy Record on Iran
Iran is a difficult intelligence target. Understood.
Even so, U.S. intelligence performance "assessing" Iran's progress toward a
nuclear capability does not inspire confidence. The only virtue readily observable
is the foolish consistency described by Emerson as "the hobgoblin of little
minds." In 1995, U.S. Intelligence started consistently "assessing" that Iran
was "within five years" of reaching a nuclear weapons capability. In 2005, however,
when the most recent NIE was issued (and then leaked to the Washington Post),
the timeline was extended and given still more margin for error. Basically,
the timeline was moved 10 years out to 2015, but a fit of caution yielded the
words "early-to-mid next decade."
Small wonder that the commission picked by President George W. Bush to investigate
the intelligence community's performance on weapons of mass destruction complained
that U.S. Intelligence knows "disturbingly little" about Iran. Shortly after
the most recent estimate was completed in June 2005, Robert G. Joseph, the neoconservative
who succeeded John Bolton as undersecretary of state for arms control, was asked
whether Iran had a nuclear effort under way. He replied:
"I don't know quite how to answer that because we don't
have perfect information or perfect understanding. But the Iranian record,
plus what the Iranian leaders have said...lead us to conclude that we have
to be highly skeptical."
A fresh national intelligence estimate on Iran has been in preparation
for several months – far too leisurely a pace in the circumstances,
in my opinion. One would have thought that President Bush would await
those intelligence findings before sending two aircraft carrier strike
groups to the Persian Gulf area and dispatching Vice President Dick Cheney
to throw a scare into folks in Asia. But it is not at all uncommon in
this administration for the intelligence to lag critical decisions. After
all, the decision to attack Iraq was made many months before "intelligence"
was ginned up to support it. And the decision to send 21,500 additional
troops into Iraq predated the latest NIE on Iraq by two months.
And so, yesterday's Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing and all
the puzzling over intelligence on Iran almost seemed divorced from the
reality – from the "new history" that Bush's neocon
advisers may be preparing to create. Yet, the hearing was extremely well
conducted and homed in on some key issues, should any policymakers wish
The Good News: There's Time
If anything leaps out of all this, it is that
there is time to address, in a sensible way, whatever concerns may be driving
Iran to seek nuclear weapons – Cheney's claim of a "fairly robust
new nuclear program" in Iran, his blustering, and his itchy trigger finger
notwithstanding. A year and a half after the 2005 estimate that Iran was five
to 10 years away from building a nuclear weapon, NPR's Robert Siegel did
the math and asked former national intelligence director Negroponte, "Sometime
between four and 10 years from now you would assume they could achieve a nuclear
"Five to 10 years from now," Negroponte answered. He then gingerly
raised the possibility – avoided like the plague by neocons in good
standing – that diplomacy might help. A former diplomat, he may have
thought he would be forgiven, but he was relieved and sent back to the
State Department a few months later. This is what he dared to say: :I
think that the pace of Iran's program gives us time, and international
diplomacy can work."
Asked by Siegel to explain why the Israelis have suggested a much shorter timeline
for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, Negroponte stated the obvious with bluntness
uncommon for a diplomat. "I think that sometimes what the Israelis will do [is]
give you the worst-case assessment." At yesterday's hearing, Sen. Graham asked
McConnell the same question; did he know why the Israelis had a different view?
McConnell appeared puzzled, noting that U.S. Intelligence discusses these things
with the Israelis.
Why Would Tehran Want Nukes?
In his introductory remarks Armed Forces Committee
Chair, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., expressed a desire to "assess the circumstances
in which Iran might give up its nuclear [weapons] plans." Assuming Iran
has such plans, or at least intends to leave that option open for later decision
when it has mastered the enrichment process, it makes sense to try to figure
out what drives Tehran to that course.
McConnell yesterday chose to adopt Negroponte's refreshingly candid
approach and reject the cry-wolf rhetoric of Cheney and the neocons that
Iran's ultimate aim must be to destroy Israel. McConnell noted that
Iran would like to dominate the Gulf region and deter potential adversaries.
An integral part of Iran's strategy is to deter and, if necessary,
retaliate against forces in the region – including U.S. forces. Similarly,
he indicated that Tehran considers its ability to conduct terrorist operations
abroad as a key element of its determination to protect Iran by deterring
U.S. or Israeli attacks. These sentiments dovetail with those offered
by Defense Secretary Robert Gates at his confirmation hearing in December.
Gates put it this way:
"While they [the Iranians] are certainly pressing, in my opinion,
for a nuclear capability, I think they would see it in the first instance
as a deterrent. They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons – Pakistan
to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west, and us
in the Persian Gulf."
Deterrence? Both Sen. Levin and ranking member John Warner, R-Va., picked
up on this, to the dismay of Sen. Graham, who sounded as if he had just
come from a briefing by the Israeli extreme right who, with Cheney, are
pushing hard for a U.S. strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. Graham
said he thought economic sanctions could work and that they were "the
only thing left short of military action." For Graham it was very
simple. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has denied the Holocaust
and, if Iran got nuclear weapons, it could use them against Israel. The
clear implication was that we should bomb the Iranians if sanctions don't
bring them to heel.
Seldom have I heard an American senator so openly press the U.S. to mount
an attack on a major country simply because it could be perceived as a
threat to Israel. There was no mention of Israel's own arsenal of
some 200 to 300 nuclear weapons and multiple delivery systems. Nor did
anyone allude to French President Jacques Chirac's recent comment
that, with one or two nuclear weapons Iran would pose no big danger, because
launching a nuclear weapon against Israel would inevitably lay waste Tehran.
John Warner objected strongly to the notion that, if sanctions against
Iran failed, the next step had to be military action. With support from
Levin, Warner alluded time and again to the effectiveness of mutual deterrence
after WWII, stressing that deterrence is a far better course than to let
slip the dogs of war. He referred to his own role in ensuring that the
Soviet Union was deterred. It seemed as though he was about to cry out
from exasperation, "Why don't we talk to the Iranians! ... like
I talked to the Russians," but then he thought better of it and decided
to hew to the party line and not even think of negotiating with "bad
Better To Jaw-Jaw Than War-War
Did you notice? While Cheney was abroad, others
persuaded the president to send representatives next month to a conference in
Baghdad, in which representatives of Syria and Iran also are expected to participate
to discuss the situation in Iraq. In addition, foreign ministers of the same
countries plan to meet in early April.
If Cheney does not sabotage such talks when he gets home, they could
lead to direct negotiations with Iran on the nuclear question. It makes
no sense at all to refuse to talk with Iran, which has as many historical
grievances against the U.S. as vice versa. (Someone please tell the president.)
With Cheney playing the heavy, it has not been possible to penetrate the
praetorian guard for candid discussions with the president. The sooner
that can be done the better. Hurry! Before Cheney gets home.
The ultimate aim, in my view, should be a Middle East free of nuclear weapons.
That, I am confident, would stop whatever plans the Iranians have to develop
nuclear weapons. And please do not tell me that, because Israel would not agree,
we cannot move in this direction. The U.S. and others can provide the necessary
guarantees of the security of Israel. And Israeli intransigence on this issue
is not a viable middle- or long-term strategy that serves Israel's interest
or the interest of justice and peace.