During an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer shortly before the Super Bowl on February 5, President Obama was asked about Iran’s nuclear weapons program and the possibility of an Israeli airstrike. “I don’t think that Israel has made a decision on what they need to do,” Obama said. “I think they, like us, believe that Iran has to stand down on its nuclear weapons program. Until they do, I think Israel rightly is going to be very concerned, and we are as well.”
At least the president spoke candidly of Iran’s “nuclear weapons program,” even if there is no evidence the mullahs are willing to “stand down.” This is something the U.S. intelligence community has a difficult time doing. America’s top spooks prefer to obfuscate the issue.
Here is how Director of National Intelligence James Clapper described Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons in written testimony given to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on January 31 – less than one week prior to President Obama’s interview:
“We assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”
So while the president openly discusses Iran’s “nuclear weapons program,” his spy chief isn’t sure if Iran has even decided to build the world’s most deadly weapons.
Imagine you see your neighbor purchase or build all of the parts for a motorcycle (e.g., engine, frame, etc.), like the choppers built on various cable television shows. You can see that he has arranged all of these components in his garage, but then he shuts the garage door. Would you assume that he hasn’t made the decision to build the chopper yet? Or, isn’t it more realistic to assume that he would not have spent all of the time and money necessary to acquire the components for a chopper if he had not already made his mind up to build it?
Clapper and the analysts who helped craft his testimony are relying on an illogical premise: that Iran would do everything in its power to pursue the components necessary to build nukes without having decided to actually put those pieces together. This makes no sense.
Iran would not go out of its way to enrich uranium beyond what is necessary for civilian purposes, construct covert uranium enrichment facilities (as it did at Qom), continue to pursue various means of constructing a warhead (as confirmed by the IAEA, and contrary to the intelligence community’s 2007 National Intelligence Estimate), and engage in sundry other nuclear weapons efforts without making a political decision to build nuclear weapons.
The purpose of Clapper’s testimony was not to provide a clear-eyed intelligence assessment, however, but to advance a specific policy agenda.
Clapper insists (emphasis added): “We judge Iran’s nuclear decision making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran. Iranian leaders undoubtedly consider Iran’s security, prestige, and influence, as well as the international political and security environment, when making decisions about its nuclear program.”
The intelligence community’s message is clear: We’d prefer for policymakers to continue to try everything short of a military strike.
But it is not Clapper or the intelligence community’s place to advocate such an approach. That is a political decision (with all sorts of costs and benefits to the U.S., Israel, Arab nations, and others) that is best left to debate in the public arena – whatever one thinks is the right course.
More importantly, what evidence is there that Iran can be dissuaded from pursuing nuclear weapons?
The Obama administration’s outreach to the mullahs failed. The Europeans’ efforts failed before that. The Obama administration’s sanctions regime, as valuable as it is, has not convinced the mullahs to foreswear nukes. And various other American efforts at rapprochement on a range of issues dating back decades (i.e., terrorism), including during the Clinton administration, have similarly fallen short.
There is simply no evidence that the international community has discovered any diplomatic, financial, or other means for bringing an end to what President Obama accurately calls Iran’s “nuclear weapons program.”
Even taking Clapper’s argument about Iran’s “cost-benefit approach” on its own terms it is far from convincing. Iran has already suffered substantial costs in terms of international “prestige” and “influence” – economic and otherwise – and has unquestionably decided that the benefits of acquiring nuclear weapons are worth it. We know this because Iran has borne these costs even while making significant strides toward building nuclear weapons.
Clapper himself writes: “Iran’s technical advancement, particularly in uranium enrichment, strengthens our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons, making the central issue its political will to do so. These advancements contribute to our judgment that Iran is technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon, if it so chooses.”
Iran’s rulers, therefore, have acquired the “capacity” to make nuclear weapons. The U.S. intelligence community is simply hoping that there is one last imaginary line for them to cross before they do so.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.