An Update on the NIE Spin in Washington and Tehran
I just saw this piece by Dennis Ross about the incompetent way the NIE was framed and presented to the American public and was stunned to read the following:
"...in 2005, former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani told a visiting group of American experts, including George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment, that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons research. According to Perkovich, Rafsanjani said: "Look, as long as we can enrich uranium and master the fuel cycle, we don't need anything else. Our neighbors will be able to draw the proper conclusions."
I could not believe it. The content of the 2007 NIE was already in the public domain, only not yet culled by the intelligence community?! In 2005, the head of Iran's Expediency Council, and one of Iran's most powerful politicians, admitted to an American non-proliferation advocate the existence of a nuclear weapons program that it had halted and this was not made news at the time! I do not mean only the halting part of it but also the admittance to a weapons program.
So I had to check and of course while what George Perkovich actually heard or said he heard was not made up, all inferences about a weapons program were clearly made up. Perkovich's quote is from a piece in Washington Post by Peter Baker and Dafna Linzer framed in the following way:
"There had been clues for those willing to see them. …. And during a dinner in Tehran with visiting American experts in 2005, Iranian leaders Hashemi Rafsanjani and Hassan Rowhani flatly declared that the country's nuclear weapons research had been halted because Iran felt it did not need the actual bombs, only the ability to show the world it could. "Look, as long as we can enrich uranium and master the [nuclear] fuel cycle, we don't need anything else," Rafsanjani said at the dinner, according to George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Our neighbors will be able to draw the proper conclusions.""
How exactly the assertion that "as long can we can enrich uranium and master the fuel cycle, we don't need anything else," was turned into admittance that Iran had a nuclear weapons program that was halted is beyond me, but I guess this is the way "intelligence gathering" in the media and among pundits works. Factual leaps are made in order to suit the argument in the hope that no one checks.
So the leap makes sense in terms of the spin that is being placed on the NIE: Iran had intentions to build the weapons; it will continue to aspire for it through means that are allowed within the terms of its NPT obligations; and that is dangerous enough even if Iran actually doesn't go for the bomb. Dennis Ross states the argument succinctly:
"Maybe, as Rafsanjani was suggesting, the Iranians will be satisfied only to foster the appearance of having nuclear weapons without actually producing them; for Rafsanjani, so long as Iran's neighbors assume it has nuclear weapons, they'll become responsive to Iran's wishes. But can we count on Iran's maintaining such a posture indefinitely? And even if we could, what would the Middle East look like if Iran gained far greater coercive leverage over all its neighbors? Wouldn't oil production policies be used to separate us from our allies or further manipulate the world's economy? Wouldn't we face a region increasingly hostile to our interests? Wouldn't we see the prospect of Arab-Israeli peace diminish as Iran worked to weaken, isolate, and demoralize the Jewish state? And to avoid being at the mercy of Iran, wouldn't the Saudis decide to go nuclear--and wouldn't that impel the Egyptians to do the same? The point is that even the image of Iran as a nuclear power carries with it very dangerous consequences, including that the Middle East might become a nuclear-armed region."
Get it? Even if the "appearance" of Iran getting nuclear weapons is Tehran's intent, Iran is still dangerous (even if we are the ones that have kept and keep making Iran appear as though it is getting nuclear weapons). Hence, Iran should be stopped from getting that appearance even if, Ross bemoans, the Bush Administration's handling of the NIE release has made stopping Iran's "virtual" weapon difficult if not impossible.
In some ways, despite the mendacity in reporting what Hashemi Rafsanjani said, Ross' statement of what the Iran concern is all about is refreshingly honest. It is not about a nuclear weapons program that poses a physical threat to others but the strength Iran gains by appearing to have the bomb, which to Ross is still unacceptable and against American interests in the region. So the issue is not the oft-repeated and tired assertion that Iran is a "country whose leader wants to destroy Israel," but Iran's ability to "weaken, isolate, and demoralize the Jewish state." Just how Iran's "virtual" endowment of nuclear weapons will do this, Ross never explains.
Just in case, you are wondering what the man who supposedly claimed that Iran has abandoned its nuclear weapons program because a mere appearance of a weapons program is enough thinks about the NIE release and commotion, here is what Hashemi Rafsanjani said yesterday:
"In my view, there has been so much exaggeration about this report. It is certain that this report has no benefits for the U.S. Rather, it hurts the White House. To think that there is a conspiracy or scenario involved does not correspond to logical standards, except that the main point of this report is that Iran has stopped its policy of pursuing nuclear weapons in 2003. This report emphasizes that there was intent but was set aside. This is not a new statement. American officials have repeated this position many times. There is nothing in the report that can be used to harm us except the claim that they have always repeated and we have always denied. The United States wanted to hide this report but if it was revealed that such report existed and the White House prevented its publication, that would have been another blow against the hawks. This report along with ElBaradei's report has created a new atmosphere and has made the works of hawks in the United States difficult, both for increased pressure and military aggression. But the depth of their hostility has intensified and their efforts against Iran have increased. Today American and Europeans efforts for implementation of sanctions and sanctions have increased. This doesn't mean that we should put our head under the snow and say everything has passed. We have to act with caution and deliberation.
The last sentence is obviously a dig at Ahmadinejad's proclamation of victory after the release of the NIE. But to me what is most interesting is Hashemi Rafsanjani public rejection of the conspiratorial outlook. Given the number of phone calls I have received from family and friends in Iran regarding the NIE, I understand what Hashemi Rafsanjani is talking about. There really are many people in Iran who think the Bush and Ahmadinejad Administrations are in cahoots and whatever George Bush does is planned and intended to help strengthen Iran's hardliners. The way the NIE was released has fed those suspicions.
It is really hard to convince folks in Iran otherwise, given the reality that Bush Administration's policies have indeed strengthened the hardliners.