America’s On-Again, Off-Again Love Affair with Iran’s Nuclear Program

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Seymour Hersh, the acclaimed journalist who, in 1970, won a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and has subsequently broken many other important stories dealing with America’s foreign and national security policies (e.g., prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib), has published his most recent article, on U.S. intelligence assessments of Iran’s nuclear activities, in The New Yorker.  The piece focuses, in particular, on the 2011 updated National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the Iranian nuclear program.

The story merits reading in its entirety, but we will highlight the bottom line here.   According to Hersh’s sources — who include current and former U.S. government officials with access to the updated NIE in various stages of its preparation — the document, “representing the best judgment of the senior officers from all the major American intelligence agencies,” comes to the same conclusion as its 2007 predecessor does — namely, that “there is no conclusive evidence that Iran has made any effort to build the bomb since 2003.”

As Hersh elaborates on this fundamental point:

Despite years of covert operations inside Iran, extensive satellite imagery, and the recruitment of many Iranian intelligence assets, the United States and its allies, including Israel, have been unable to find irrefutable evidence of an ongoing hidden nuclear-weapons program in Iran, according to intelligence and diplomatic officials here and abroad. . . .  The NIE makes it clear that U.S. intelligence has been unable to find decisive evidence that Iran has been moving enriched uranium to an underground weapon-making center.  In the past six years, soldiers from the Joint Special Operations Force, working with Iranian intelligence assets, put in place cutting-edge surveillance techniques, according to two former intelligence officers.  Street signs were surreptitiously removed in heavily populated areas of Tehran — say, near a university suspected of conducting nuclear enrichment — and replaced with similar-looking signs implanted with radiation sensors.  American operatives, working undercover, also removed bricks from a building or two in central Tehran that they thought housed nuclear-enrichment activities and replaced them with bricks embedded with radiation-monitoring devices.

High-powered sensors disguised as stones were spread randomly along roadways in a mountainous area where a suspected underground weapon site was under construction.  The stones were capable of transmitting electronic data on the weight of the vehicles going in and out of the site; a truck going in light and coming out heavy could be hauling dirt — crucial evidence of excavation work.  There is also constant satellite coverage of major suspect areas in Iran, and some American analysts were assigned the difficult task of examining footage in the hope of finding air vents — signs, perhaps, of an underground facility in lightly populated areas.

So, after all of this effort, recounted by Hersh in well-sourced reporting, the U.S. Intelligence Community has once again collectively concluded that there is still no evidence the Islamic Republic is trying to build nuclear weapons.

You might think, as we did, that this is, to use the term of art, a “policy-relevant” conclusion.  But, then, with an attitude like that, you are not likely to be working for the Obama Administration anytime soon.  For, once Hersh’s story was released, two senior Administration officials dished to POLITICO‘s Jennifer Epstein in an effort to discredit it.  One of these officials said that Hersh’s article prompted “a collective eye roll” at the White House.  A senior intelligence official — who, we would wager, was speaking to POLITICO at the White House’s instigation — dismissed it as “a slanted book report on a long narrative that’s already been told many times over.”

None of this, of course, directly challenges the substance of Hersh’s reporting.  The senior intelligence official seems unwilling to let himself or herself be completely politicized by the White House, noting that “we’ve been clear with the world about what we know about the Iranian nuclear program: Tehran is keeping its options open despite the fact that the community of nations demands otherwise.”  Exactly.  Tehran may well be “keeping its options open.”  But there is no evidence it is actually working to build nuclear weapons, or that it is doing anything it is proscribed from doing as a non-weapons-state party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  That has been the case for years.  And as long as this is the case, it does not really matter what “the international community” demands.

But one need not have the kind of access to senior U.S. officials with high-level security clearances and access to sensitive intelligence documents as Hersh does to figure this out.  The International Atomic Energy Agency has never found any evidence that the Islamic Republic is diverting nuclear material or trying to fabricate nuclear weapons.  And, recently, a former senior Iranian nuclear negotiator during the Khatami presidency publicly described the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program as not aimed at weaponization.

Seyed Hossein Mousavian is currently in the United States as a visiting scholar at Princeton University and gave a public lecture at Princeton, reviewing the Iranian nuclear issue and offering his thoughts on how the current impasse might be resolved.  While Hersh’s article received considerable attention in the United States and elsewhere (and deservedly so), Ambassador Mousavian’s lecture is also an important contribution to public discussion; we post it here.

As is noted in Ambassador Mousavian’s introduction and presentation, he is hardly an apologist for the Ahmadinejad government.  In his lecture, Mousavian noted a critical bit of history: Iran’s nuclear program started under the Shah, with considerable U.S. assistance and input — even though the Shah said openly that he was out to acquire nuclear weapons.  As he put it, “if the Shah had not been overthrown by the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and were in power today, Iran would have a large nuclear arsenal.  The West thus owes a debt of gratitude to the Islamic Republic because Iran has neither produced a nuclear bomb nor diverted its nuclear program toward military purposes.”

That is — and should be — the real bottom line where Iran’s nuclear program is concerned.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  She is also Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 8 June 2011 under a Creative Commons license. 

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