In the struggle over U.S. policy toward Iran,
neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration spoiling for an attack
on Iran's nuclear sites have been seeking to convince the public that the United
States must strike before an Iranian nuclear weapons capability becomes inevitable.
In order to do so, they must discredit the intelligence community's conclusions
that Iran is still as many as 10 years away from being able to build a nuclear
weapon and that such a weapon is not an inevitable consequence of its present
uranium enrichment program.
Those findings were first circulated in a top-secret National Intelligence
Estimate on Iran completed in May or June 2005, and could be a rallying point
for Democrats and dissident Republicans inclined to oppose an attack on Iran.
It has also inhibited the neoconservatives from being able to launch the kind
of propaganda campaign against Iran they would prefer.
Before the 2005 estimate, neoconservatives in the administration had been free
to issue alarmist warnings about impending Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons.
John R. Bolton, now Washington's ambassador to the UN and then the administration's
point man on weapons of mass destruction, declared in April 2004, "If we
permit Iran's deception to go on much longer, it will be too late. Iran will
have nuclear weapons."
The pro-war camp quickly tried to cast doubt on the new estimate, which made
it more difficult for them to make such lurid claims. Asked about the estimate
soon after it was issued, Robert G. Joseph, Bolton's successor as undersecretary
of state for arms control, cleverly dismissed it by saying: "I don't know
quite how to answer that because we don't have perfect information or perfect
That theme was to become a propaganda leitmotif for the neoconservatives on
Iran. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld picked up the same theme in a major
assault on the Iran estimate on April 18, 2006. Asked by conservative radio
talk show host Laura Ingraham if he had confidence in the current U.S. intelligence
assessment that Iran is five to 10 years away from producing a nuclear weapon,
Rumsfeld replied, "No, I'm not confident."
Referring condescendingly to the intelligence analysts, Rumsfeld said "They
work hard at it and they're fine people, but it's a difficult thing to do. Our
visibility into their circumstance is imperfect."
The neoconservatives returned to that theme again, using the staff report of
the House Intelligence Committee's Subcommittee on Intelligence Policy, issued
Aug. 23, as a launching vehicle. A key message of the report is that "American
intelligence agencies do not know nearly enough about Iran's nuclear weapons
The intelligence community has not been passive in the face of this subtle
campaign to dismiss its analysis on Iran's nuclear program. On April 20, Director
of National Intelligence John Negroponte, answering questions after a speech
at the National Press Club, reaffirmed the 2005 estimate. He said the intelligence
community believes it is "still a number of years off before they are likely
to have enough fissile material to assemble into or to put into a nuclear weapon,
perhaps into the next decade."
Equally important, in an interview with NBC News the same day, Negroponte repeated
that same formula and then added, "According to the experts that I consult
getting 164 centrifuges to work is still a long way from having the capacity
to manufacture fissile material for a nuclear weapon." That implied that
uranium enrichment alone should not be seized on as evidence that time is running
The day after Negroponte's remarks, the neoconservative Joseph launched a direct
attack on that point in a briefing for reporters at the State Department.
Ostensibly the briefing was about Joseph's trip to the Gulf States to discuss
the Iranian nuclear program. But he zeroed in on what he called "the question
of the point of no return" in regard to Iranian nuclear weapons, meaning
the point at which a nuclear weapons capability becomes inevitable.
Joseph suggested that there were different views on the point of no return,
such as when Iran as produced enough fissile material, or the point of successful
But he said there was "an earlier point of no return," which is when
Iran "has acquired the confidence and capability of running centrifuges
over a sustained period of time, allowing it to produce enrichment uranium."
The "key point," he asserted, "has always been the 164-cascade
The idea of successful uranium enrichment as equivalent to the "point
of no return" came from the Israeli government. As early as Jan. 26, 2005,
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz warned that Iran would reach "the
point of no return" within 12 months.
The Israeli argument is a clever formulation of the claim that Iran has already
made the decision to manufacture nuclear weapons. By invoking the Israeli concept,
Joseph was really suggesting that efforts to offer incentives for Iran to eschew
nuclear weapons would be futile.
The intelligence estimate on Iran, however, explicitly takes the view that
there is nothing inevitable about an Iranian decision to weaponize. Paul Pillar,
who was the national intelligence officer for the Iran NIE, and is now teaching
at Georgetown University, declared in an interview with Newsweek published
Aug. 28 that the "point of no return" is "a ridiculous concept."
Pillar explained why: "There's no reason any country Iran or anyone
else who has such a program can't turn back or won't turn back with the
Pillar told this writer last February that the "dominant view" among
intelligence analysts had been that a willingness on the part of the United
States to provide security assurances could cause Iran to change course on the
issue of nuclear weapons.
Significantly, the chief of Israel's intelligence organization, Meir Dagan,
has sided with the U.S. intelligence community rather than the neoconservatives
on this point. Dagan refused to use the concept of "point of no return"
last December in testimony before the Knesset. Instead, he said Iran was six
months away from gaining "technical independence" in regard to a nuclear
As the Jerusalem Post observed on Dec. 27 in reporting the testimony,
Dagan's choice of wording implied that even after Iran had acquired the capability
to make a nuclear weapon, it might still be persuaded not to do so by an international
The intelligence judgment on this is also supported by independent analysts
of the Iranian program. Ray Takeyh, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign
Relations, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last March that it was
"neither inevitable nor absolute" that Iran would turn to nuclear
weapons, because "its course of action is still unsettled."
The intelligence community's conclusion that Iran may still turn away from
nuclear weapons if the United States offers real incentives, including security
guarantees and normalization of relations, is crucial to the possibility of
a bipartisan resistance to war against Iran.
The neoconservatives can be expected to work assiduously in the coming weeks
and months to discredit the current intelligence analysis and substitute their
own alternative as they position themselves for the attack on Iran they have
(Inter Press Service)