Listening to What Iranians Say about Their Nuclear Program Instead of Relying on “Intelligence” and Agenda-driven “Analysis”

As part of the current and ongoing effort to demonize further the Islamic Republic, there has been an uptick in media stories, drawing on conveniently leaked Western intelligence assessments, highlighting Tehran’s allegedly looming acquisition of nuclear weapons.  One of these stories, from the Associated Press, seems particularly emblematic, so we want to look at it more closely.

The story opens by citing an “intelligence assessment shared with The Associated Press” from “a nation with traditionally reliable intelligence from the region,” which depicts Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as wanting “to shed the nation’s secrecy and forge ahead openly with developing nuclear weapons” but also as “opposed by the clerical leadership, which is worried about international reaction to such a move.”  The story notes that this particular assessment “cannot be confirmed and contrasts with assessments by other countries that view Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as relatively moderate on the nuclear issue compared to the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.”

Now, obviously, the first and second assessments cannot both be true, which should prompt some very hard questions about how good any of these services’ sources are.  (Does any nation, in fact, have “traditionally reliable intelligence from the region,” particularly with regard to high-level decision-making?  We would not apply that description to the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, France, or Germany.  Who else is out there?)  But that does not seem to matter.

The main point, according to the Associated Press, is that “as Iran’s capacity to build nuclear weapons grows, intelligence assessments from nations that follow Tehran’s atomic progress discern increasing indecision and squabbling by its leadership on whether to make such arms — and, if so, how overtly.”  OK, but even if this is true, does it not mean that senior officials in Tehran, including Ayatollah Khamenei, have not actually taken a decision to proceed with weaponization?

But whether authoritative decision-makers in Tehran have in fact opted to build nuclear weapons does not seem to factor into current discussions in Washington and other Western capitals, either.  Ray Takeyh recently published an Op Ed in the Washington Post arguing that the Islamic Republic is moving inexorably toward fabricating weapons and it is just a matter of time before it gets there.  At that point, Takeyh opines, neither the Middle East’s balance of power nor Washington’s partisan political struggle will be able to tolerate the new reality.  He foresees fallout in Washington comparable to the “Who Lost China?” debate of the early 1950s.  (As we have sometimes been compared to the “China hands” of that period, we must admit that we were momentarily taken aback by that prediction.)  But all of this skips over the prior question — what is the evidence that the Islamic Republic wants to build nuclear weapons?

Against this, we want to juxtapose a portion of an interview that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave to Euronews this week, where he discusses the nuclear issue.   To see the interview or read a full transcript, click here; in the interview, Ahmadinejad also offers interesting observations about the Arab spring, the Islamic Republic’s 2009 presidential election, and Iran’s relations with the West.  Ahmadinejad’s points on the nuclear issue are not new; he is not making them in response to some specific new set of international pressures.  Ahmadinejad, the current Foreign Minister, Dr. Salehi, and his predecessor, and other senior Iranian officials have been saying these things literally for years.  But, in the current climate, they warrant careful attention.

Euronews: With respect, Mr President, with regard to the nuclear issue, which worries not only the United States, when you say one thing and appear to do something different it doesn’t engender the conditions for anybody to become more friendly and extend that hand of peace.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: Why?  What have we done wrong?

Euronews: Well specifically in terms of the nuclear program, you say — and I have no reason to disbelieve you. . . .

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: Is nuclear activity forbidden?

Euronews: I’m not even saying they’re prohibited.  Let me explain.  Your stated aim is that your nuclear program is for peaceful means, to produce electricity and energy, and I challenge anybody to argue with that as a peaceful goal.  However, there is the belief among scientists in the West, outside Iran, that you are in fact enriching uranium to such a level — 20 percent specifically — that there’s no connection at all with peaceful production of energy for the use of a peaceful people.  So what we have is that, on one hand, you are saying something in public, that you want to use it for peaceful means.  On the other hand, you appear to be doing something that only has one objective, and that is to work towards a bomb.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: You ask a very good question.  I just felt you were very sincere in your question.  Allow me to explain.  Firstly, those who claim that we are moving towards military activities are not Western scientists, they are Western politicians.  So if you put this into the context of the western hostility towards Iran. . .

Euronews: Is Iran enriching uranium to 20 percent?

President Ahmadinejad: Yes.

Euronews: And do you have plans to triple that production of uranium at 20 percent?

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: The production of uranium at 20 per cent is just for peaceful purposes.  This is for a reactor that produces active radio drops.  It just produces drops.  The 20 percent is not good for anything else, it’s only good for drugs and agricultural purposes.  The countries that are capable of enriching uranium can produce uranium at any percentage.  This is the capability that we have.  At the same time, we’re among the limited number of countries whose activities are under the control of the IAEA cameras.  When we say we don’t have any intention to build a bomb, we’re honest and sincere.  We believe that today if someone wants to build a bomb he’s crazy and insane.  This is for two reasons.

One is that those who have bombs are in graver danger than those who don’t.  The bombs that exist in Germany, in Belgium and other European countries cause a great threat to all European countries.  An atomic bomb is against all humans.

Second, the nuclear bomb is useless and ineffective.  The Zionist regime has nuclear bombs.  At the same time, did it succeed in its war against the Gazans?  Did its nuclear bomb give it victory in the 33 Day War against Lebanon?  Allow me to ask another question — were the former Soviet Union’s nuclear bombs able to save the Soviet Union from collapse?  Nuclear bombs were used 60 years ago in order to provide an upper hand in political equations, but today they have no value.  Thought has value, public opinion has value, human beings have value.  We believe that in the future no one will ever be able to use nuclear bombs.  We believe that’s the end of the story.

This is getting ever more reminiscent of the fraudulent case for war that was laid in the run-up to America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.  And, as in that episode, the mainstream media are, to a great extent, failing to do minimal due diligence on the intelligence assessments and other official views that are so conveniently made available for them.

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 5 August 2011 under a Creative Commons license. 

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