Think About Iran Again

As the media continues to run lurid stories about perfidious Persians in what Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress describes as a “coercive public diplomacy campaign”, it’s worth examining our basic assumptions again. Does Iran want a nuke in the first place, is there the political backing for a strike to prevent it doing so, how easy would such an attack be to execute and what would be the blowback?

Congressman Kucinich writes at the HuffPo today:

During an interview last month on CBS’ Face the Nation, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta set the record straight on Iran: “Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No.” But if you read recent news reports lately, you’d think otherwise.

The media coverage on Iran is mirroring the coverage in the lead-up to the Iraq war: grand claims about a smoking gun that doesn’t exist. For example, The New York Times incorrectly reported last month that the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran concluded that their nuclear program had a military objective. The paper’s public editor, Arthur Brisbane, was forced to acknowledge their mistake and wrote: “Some readers, mindful of the faulty intelligence and reporting about Saddam Hussein’s weapons program, are watching the Iran nuclear coverage very closely.”

Glenn Greenwald today illustrates succinctly the shocking similiarity in coverage of Iran now and Iraq in the run-up to the 2003 invasion – right down to the headline wordings. But if Kucinich is skeptical of cries that Iran is about to become a nuke-owning state any minute now, what about the experts?

Well, the Khaleej Times talked to former department director at the IAEA, Robert Kelly. Kelly was Chief Inspector for the IAEA in Iraq, in the evaluation of South Africa’s nuclear weapons in 1993, and the inspections of the vestiges of Libya’s nuclear weapons program in 2004.

in the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, US agencies concluded ”˜with high confidence’ that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons’ programme in late 2003. Similarly, until this year, the IAEA had consistently reported that it had no information suggesting Iran had a nuclear weapons’ programme after 2004.

The question, says Kelley, is whether there is evidence that [Iran’s nuclear weapons program] was restarted after it was shut down in 2003. In the 24-page document all but three of the items that were offered as proof of a possible nuclear weapons’ programme are either undated or refer to events before 2003.

What of the three pieces of dated recent evidence that Iran’s nuclear weapons’ programme may have been reactivated?

Two relate to alleged modelling studies on nuclear warhead design in 2008 and 2009, and alleged ”˜experimental research’ on scaling down and optimising a nuclear weapons-relevant high-explosives package. They are attributed only to ”˜two member states’ so the sourcing is impossible to evaluate. In addition, their validity is called into question by the report’s handling of the third piece of evidence.

That evidence, according to the report, tells us that Iran embarked on a four-year programme, starting around 2006, to validate the design of a device to produce a burst of neutrons that could initiate a fission chain reaction. Though it is not clear what source the report is relying on it is certain that this project was at the centre of what appeared to be a disinformation campaign.

In 2009, the IAEA received a two-page document purporting to come from Iran describing the same alleged work. Mohamed ElBaradei, then the agency’s Director General, rejected the information because there was no chain of custody for the paper, no clear source and no document markings, date of issue or anything else that could establish its authenticity. It appeared to be a hoax.

kelly regrets that his old boss, el-Baradei, was not more vocal about forged evidence in the lead-up to the Iraq War, and feels that the current Director general of the IAEA is likewise failing to point up the dodgy provenance of key pieces of the argument that Iran has a current weapons program.

There has been plenty of speculation about the true origins of the infamous “Laptop of Death” from which most of the alleged evidence for Iran’s weapons program has come. German officials say they originally received the laptop from a walk-in informer who was a member of the MeK, the Iranian opposition group beloved of neocons and designated a terrorist group by the U.S. State Deptartment, but the U.S. has changed its story on the laptop’s provenance, and even nature, several times now.

Still perhaps we can believe the iranians themselves. They say they have a program with a point. Mehr News, February 2010:

Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani has stated that Iran will follow the Japanese model in its nuclear program. Japan has nuclear technology but does not possess any nuclear weapons and Iran will follow the same path in its nuclear program, Larijani said in a meeting with Japanese House of Councilors President Satsuki Eda in Tokyo on Wednesday.

So Iran says it wants a “Japan Option” -the capacity to create a weapon without actually ever doing so, an essentially defensive stance and one entirely legal within the NPT’s framework. The IAEA’s former chief says Iran wants the Japan Option. The consensus of 16 US intelligence agencies is that Iran wants the Japan Option. Can we please consider what Iran wants a settled question?

However, if what Iran wants is a settled question really, and everyone involved knows it no matter what they may be saying publicly, then what’s with the agitprop campaign? Why, in particular, is Israel so concerned that it has mobilized its supporters to shill for ever higher tension with stories that sometimes don’t even pass the smell test?

Peter Hart notes that Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, one of those contributing to the current “shill swarm”, had some enlightening comments on that recently in an interview with NPR.

NEAL CONAN: Chris, thanks very much for the call. Israel itself possesses, what, 300 nuclear weapons we believe, maybe more? Why does not deterrence work? Israel, of course, would retaliate if Iran were to use a nuclear weapon.

BERGMAN: I would assume that–oh, I know that most of Israel’s leaders do not believe that Iran is going to use nuclear weapons against Israel. The problem is not the nuclear threat. The Iranians are not stupid. They want to live…. And I think that most leaders, and me personally as well, see that there are only a few people who believe that Iran would be hesitant enough to–sorry, brutal enough and stupid enough to use nuclear weapon against Israel.

The problem is that once Iran acquires this ability, it would change the balance of power in the Middle East. And a country that possesses nuclear weapon is a different country when it comes to support proxy jihadist movement. And these Israeli leaders afraid would significantly narrow down the variety of options from the point of view of Israel, just to quote one example coming from Minister of Defense Barak, when he said, just imagine–he told me in a meeting we had on the 13th of January in his house–said, just imagine, Ronen, that tomorrow we go into another war with Hezbollah in Lebanon like we did in 2006, and this time we are determined to take them out. But Iran comes forward and say, to attack Hezbollah is like attacking Iran, and we threaten you with nuclear weaponry.

Now, Minister of Defense Barak says it’s not necessarily that we would be threatened not to attack, and we would decide to cancel the war, but it would certainly make us think twice.

Hart writes: “In other words, Israel’s position might be that an nuclear-armed Iran could make it harder to have future wars. That’s a very different discussion from the one we’re having now.”

Given current opinion polls, we can see why Israel would want to recast the discussion in a way that means it doesn’t have to talk about its own belligerence. But even so, the shill-swarm has its work cut out swinging America behind a call for war, even after over a decade of perennial fearmongering Below is the current state of the WaPo’s informal poll, which is running alongisde David Ignatius’ latest contribution to the swarm.

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That’s in line with past polling, which indicates that at most 35% of Americans would favor a pre-emptive attack on Iran and at most just under half would support coming to Israel’s aid if Israel launched a pre-emptive attack.

And even if an attack was launched anyway, there’s no indication it would be a cakewalk. Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control association calls it “Opening Pandora’s Box“. It would be a complex, costly operation at best – almost certainly involving US or Israeli aircraft transitting Iraqi airspace and an eventual ground invasion – and wouldn’t work in any case unless there was also a ground presence.

Experts differ on how long an aerial assault would set Iran back-from a couple of years to as much as five years-but most agree the setback would not be permanent. This reality helps explain why Vice JCS Chairman Gen. James Cartwright agreed with Sen. Jack Reed’s statement in 2010 Senate testimony that: ”œ(T)he only absolutely dispositive way to end any (Iranian nuclear weapons) potential would be to physically occupy their country and to disestablish their nuclear facilities.”

…Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is not limited to one well-defined facility that could be damaged with a quick, surgical strike. Because Iran’s nuclear facilities and support network is extensive and geographically dispersed, any military operation against it would probably require a ”œmajor air campaign,” lasting days or weeks, according to Jeffrey White, Defense Fellow at the Washington Institute and former career analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, speaking at an Arms Control Association briefing on June 7.

White added that the target list would likely extend far beyond Iran’s 25 declared nuclear facilities and related sites to include air defense sites, command-and-control nodes, and ballistic and cruise missile launchers. Beyond the strike assets, additional resources would be required for personnel recovery and post-strike battle damage assessments. A campaign of this magnitude would necessarily involve phases, allowing some Iranian assets not initially hit to be removed and hidden before being struck. The United States would soon confront difficult decisions concerning the need to go back in and re-attack surviving facilities or to disrupt the reconstruction of those that had been destroyed.

Which is partly why no US military leader and fwe other nations support the notion. The other reason being the tremendous knock-on effects. Iraq would explode, as would Afghanistan. Hezboullah, Hamas and other Iranian-backed proxies would wreak havoc around the Gulf. The Strait of Hormuz, the world’s main oil aorta, would be closed. Thiesmann again:

even a military attack on Iran with the narrowly defined objective of incapacitating Tehran’s nuclear weapons capability would run a serious risk of mission creep. Once engaged militarily, there could be pressures for incursions of U.S. ground forces to deny territory for missile launches against shipping, to rescue captured pilots, to aid anti-regime uprisings, or to secure nuclear materials. For the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, already stressed from a decade of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, such additional commitments would raise serious questions about long-term sustainability and personnel retention.

It’s hard to argue with Thiesmann’s conclusion that:

If using military force cannot foreclose Iranian nuclear weapons potential and the consequences of a preventive attack are so onerous that security officials have already taken this option off the table, it makes no sense to pretend otherwise.

Perhaps other journalists can begin asking the members of the pro-attack shill-swarm why they continue to pretend otherwise?

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Steve Hynd

Most recently I was Editor in Chief of The Agonist from Feb 2012 to Feb 2013. My blogging began at Newshoggers and I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with some great writers there and around the web ever since, including at Crooks & Liars. I'm a late 40′s, Scottish ex-pat, now married to a wonderful Texan, with Honours in Philosophy from Univ. of Stirling, UK 1986. I worked most of life in business insurance industry (fire, accident, liability) including 12 years as a broker/underwriter/correspondent at Lloyd’s of London. Being from the other side of the pond, my political interests tend to focus on how US foreign policy affects the rest of the planet. Other interests include early and dark-ages British history, literature and cognitive philosophy/science.

11 CommentsLeave a comment

  • They all but said Israel plans to attack Iran before July, this year.

    For what it’s worth.

    PS. They also showed footage of a speech Iran’s “supreme leader” gave and an excerpt (whether it’s what he actually said, I don’t know), that went something like this.

    If Israel attacks Iran it will go ten time worse on the US than it will Iran.

    Those are ABC’s words. Not mine.

    I did inhale.

  • There is zero chance of the Maliki govt. or Iran’s Shiites in general providing permission to access their airspace for an attack on Iran, so it would have to be done against their wishes. Even if Maliki didn’t declare immediate war against the US, the Sadrists and SCIRI militias would explode in anger, all directed at the remaining US personnel there.

  • 1. The reason the Japan option works is that Japanese nonproliferation compliance is pretty squeaky clean. Iran’s isn’t even close. If this was their option all the way along, they’ve fucked up big.

    2. The bottom line on the alleged studies is that, if true, there’s a high probability that Iran has at some point engaged in nuclear weaponization studies. Unfortunately, the IAEA can’t validate the documents. That said, given the media that have been variously described as containing the studies (i.e., electronic storage media), there’s a lot that can be done to assess the likely authenticity of the processes that produced the record.

    3. The attack profile that White discusses is what an American attack would look like. An Israeli one wouldn’t even come close to this. They have the assets for “one pass, haul ass”, and that’s it. Even more downsides than the larger strike package, and almost none of the upsides.

    In combat one should be very suspicious of painless moral choices. When you are confronted with a seemingly painless moral choice, the odds are that you haven’t looked deeply enough.” ~ Karl Marlantes

  • Crying wolf about an Iranian nuclear bomb“, J. Hymans, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 17 Jan 2012.

    As strategic analysts Anthony Cordesman and Khalil al-Rodhan remind us, in the 1990s, high-level American and Israeli policymakers repeatedly warned of an Iranian bomb by the year 2000. When that did not come to pass, policymakers warned of an Iranian bomb by the year 2005. Then they said it would happen by 2010. Now the talk puts Iran’s nuclear debut in the 2013-2015 time frame, if not sooner.

    The story of the boy who cried wolf comes to mind.

    …The problem with the virtual nuclear weapon state designation is that there is a major difference between a stockpile of fissile material and an actual, reliable, deliverable nuclear weapon. By way of comparison, recall that starting in the early 1990s, the United States credited North Korea for having one or two bombs, based simply on the country’s estimated plutonium stockpile. That assumption had a major impact on Washington’s policy toward Pyongyang. But Kim Jong Il’s miserable little fizzle of a nuclear test in 2006 set the record straight. It was only with its second nuclear test, in 2009, that North Korea finally limped across the finish line, and even now it is doubtful whether Pyongyang can detonate a nuclear device anywhere other than at a fixed position on its own territory. Iran’s nuclear home stretch run is likely to be just as long and winding as North Korea’s has been.

    This just as grist to the discussion mill. Hymans thinks there’s no reason to believe we’re suddenly in an urgent scenario after 20 years of Iranian poor workmanship and limping progress.

  • U.N. Nuclear Inspectors’ Visit to Iran Is a Failure, West Says (NYT)

    While the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, who returned to Vienna after a three-day mission in Tehran, said nothing substantive about their trip and were planning to return to Iran later this month, diplomats briefed on the trip said that Iranian officials had not answered the questions raised in an incriminating report issued by the agency in November.

    That report cited documents and evidence of experiments with detonators that strongly suggested Iran might have worked on technologies to turn its nuclear fuel into working weapons and warheads. Tehran has insisted its uranium enrichment activities are peaceful and has dismissed the evidence suggesting otherwise as fabricated or taken out of context, and has refused to engage in substantive discussions or inspections.

    Members of the I.A.E.A. delegation were told that they could not have access to Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an academic who is widely believed to be in charge of important elements of the suspected weaponization program, and that they could not visit a military site where the agency’s report suggested key experiments on weapons technology might have been carried out.

    Note too that one of the reporters on this piece is David “Judy In Drag” Sanger, who’s been shilling for war with iran since at least 2005.

  • …is that it’s about having a virtual weapons capability that is both a) affordable and b) internationally tolerated. Iran has failed catastrophically at this.

    I would agree that we are some years from weaponization, but the disturbing thing is that we are unlikely to have a terribly accurate means of detecting things should the program transition to an active footing and even a “peaceful nuclear explosion” gambit along the lines of India (which could occur a very great deal earlier than full scale weaponization) would have quite far reaching consequences.

    In combat one should be very suspicious of painless moral choices. When you are confronted with a seemingly painless moral choice, the odds are that you haven’t looked deeply enough.” ~ Karl Marlantes

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