When I’ve spoken at public gatherings, one of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked has been about Iran and its nuclear program. I’ve followed this issue very closely since the early 1990s and since 2001, my answer has been the same, and everything that’s happened since has bolstered my view of this issue.
In my view, Iran certainly has worked to develop a nuclear weapons capacity. It is almost unfathomable that they wouldn’t do so.
The incentives are massive. It starts with the hostility the country faces, justified or not, from two major nuclear powers, the United States and Israel. An Iranian nuke would also change the regional balance of power, breaking Israel’s Middle Eastern monopoly on nuclear weapons.
But it doesn’t end there. The Iranian neighborhood outside of the Mideast is a heavily nuclear one, including Pakistan, which borders Iran, India, which has an unsteady standoff with Pakistan, as well as Russia and China. There’s no immediate threat to Iran there, but there has been in the past, particularly from the USSR, and could be again someday. Things change.
And what are the disincentives? Well, they’re significant enough that Iran pursued its nuclear program clandestinely. It includes tension with Europe, which Iran desperately needs as a trading partner, and in the past it included the potential for a nuclear race with Iraq.
But the disincentives do not include an American or Israeli attack. This I have maintained for a decade and nothing has dissuaded me from that view.
True enough, there are significant forces in both the US and Israel that want to launch an attack on Iran. But they have largely been reduced to saber-rattling by the logistical difficulties and the regional ramifications of such an attack. Cooler heads, even among those who would like to attack Iran if the risks and consequences were not so dire, have prevailed.
It is also the case that anyone familiar with Iran knows that, despite its repressive theocracy and its deliberately provocative and offensive President, the country is not an irrational actor. They’ve never launched an aggressive war, and their very real support for radical Islamic groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, though often exaggerated, is based on a clear political calculus.
Those well-versed in Iran know they are not seeking a weapon which, once they have it, will be launched against Israel. Indeed, Israel knows this very well, as Ehud Barak himself recently confirmed. But the fear mongering, in both the US and Israel, is politically useful and Israel is indeed very worried that their nuclear monopoly will be broken. So are the Saudis, who, like Israel, would have a much more serious opponent to deal with in a nuclear Iran.
The issue remains alive, however, despite the fact that successive National Intelligence Estimates in the US, as well as other reports from international bodies have consistently stated that, despite Iran’s less than total cooperation with inspections, the conclusion is that Iran halted its active development of a nuclear weapons program in 2003 and has not resumed it since.
It remains alive because Iran will not allow the full access to its nuclear facilities that would be necessary to prove they are not developing a weapons program. Why do they do this?
One can only speculate, but I believe it is because Iran very much wants to leave the weapons option open. In my view, in 2003, they decided the actual pursuit was too costly on numerous levels and too risky as well. But having the option to resume the program quickly is something they very much want in the event that calculus changes. The potential gains for Iran are significant, as I explained.
Moreover, the ambiguity serves to enhance Iran’s perceived strength and they are seen as standing up to American pressure on the issue.
I bring this up now because the outstanding investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has put together a new article on this issue which once again reinforces my view of this issue. The article is in the latest issue of the New Yorker. I have pasted the abstract below, as the full article is only available to subscribers.
Iran is likely not developing a nuclear weapon at this time, though they have done some significant work in that direction, and I believe they could resume at a virtual
moment’s notice. But a nuclear Iran is not, as leading Israeli expert on military history, Martin Van Creveld has pointed out, something the world cannot live with, though it is most certainly undesirable. And despite the foaming at the mouth of many neo-conservatives, there will be no American or Israeli attack on Iran. They couldn’t make it happen when the neo-cons actually held office, because virtually the entire American military establishment believed the very notion was absolutely insane and a potential disaster for the US. They can’t get it done now.
That doesn’t mean activists should stop putting their effort into preventing such a war. You never know when the real loons like Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, Doug Feith, Paul Wolfowitz and their ilk might come back into power, and, even if they are still balked, the war and fear rhetoric is very dangerous, to peace, to stability and to the US and Israel political scenes.
This is what I’ve been saying for decade, and I don’t see any reason to believe it’s at all inaccurate.
Here is the abstract of Hersh’s article. You can buy the article online, and with it the entire issue of the New Yorker it is contained in, for $5.99 by clicking here.
ANNALS OF NATIONAL SECURITY
IRAN AND THE BOMB
How real is the nuclear threat?
by Seymour M. Hersh JUNE 6, 2011
ABSTRACT: ANNALS OF NATIONAL SECURITY about whether Iran’s nuclear program is being exaggerated. Is Iran actively trying to develop nuclear weapons? Members of the Obama Administration often talk as if this were a foregone conclusion, as did their predecessors under George W. Bush. There’s a large body of evidence, however, including some of America’s most highly classified intelligence assessments, suggesting that the U.S. could be in danger of repeating a mistake similar to the one made with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq eight years ago—allowing anxieties about the policies of a tyrannical regime to distort our estimates of the state’s military capacities and intentions. The two most recent National Intelligence Estimates (N.I.E.s) on Iranian nuclear progress have stated that there is no conclusive evidence that Iran has made any effort to build the bomb since 2003. Yet Iran is heavily invested in nuclear technology. In the past four years, it has tripled the number of centrifuges in operation at its main enrichment facility at Natanz, which is buried deep underground. International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) inspectors have expressed frustration with Iran’s level of coöperation, but have been unable to find any evidence suggesting that enriched uranium has been diverted to an illicit weapons program. In mid-February, Lieutenant General James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, provided the House and Senate intelligence committees with an updated N.I.E. on the Iranian nuclear-weapons program. A previous assessment, issued in 2007, created consternation and anger inside the Bush Administration and in Congress by concluding, “with high confidence,” that Iran had halted its nascent nuclear-weapons program in 2003. Mentions the Defense Intelligence Agency (D.I.A.), W. Patrick Lang, and Lieutenant General Ronald L. Burgess, Jr. Thomas E. Donilon, Obama’s national-security adviser, said in a speech on May 12th that the U.S. would continue its aggressive sanction policy until Iran proves that its enrichment intentions are peaceful and meets all its obligations under the nonproliferation treaty. Obama has been prudent in his public warnings about the consequences of an Iranian bomb, but he and others in his Administration have often overstated the available intelligence about Iranian intentions. Mentions Robert Einhorn. Israel views Iran as an existential threat. Nevertheless, most Israeli experts on nonproliferation agree that Iran does not now have a nuclear weapon. A round of negotiations five months ago between Iran and the West, first in Geneva and then in Istanbul, yielded little progress. Mentions Benjamin Netanyahu. The unending political stress between Washington and Tehran has promoted some unconventional thinking. One approach, championed by retired ambassador Thomas Pickering and others, is to accept Iran’s nuclear-power program, but to try to internationalize it, and offer Iran various incentives. Pickering and his associates are convinced that the solution to the nuclear impasse is to turn Iran’s nuclear-enrichment programs into a multinational effort. Mentions a 2008 essay Pickering, Jim Walsh, and William Luers published in The New York Review of Books. Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient who is now a candidate for the Presidency of Egypt, spent twelve years as the director-general of the I.A.E.A., retiring two years ago. In his recent interview, he said, “I don’t believe Iran is a clear and present danger. All I see is the hype about the threat posed by Iran.”