The Kabuki Dancing Over Iran's Nuclear AmbitionsS

Last week, Barack Obama stood before the world with the prime ministers of Britain and France and accused Iran of secretly pursuing a nuclear weapon. Today, nameless spooks are telling the New York Times not so much. What's going on?

The disclosure last week was unambiguous: Iran has for years been building a secret nuclear facility near the holy city of Qom. The facility, according to anonymous intelligence sources who briefed the press on Friday, is suitable for producing enough uranium for a weapon, but not enough uranium for commercial applications. In other words, the Iranians are trying to develop a nuclear weapon.

But today, the Times publishes hemming and hawing from anonymous U.S. intelligence sources, who "have stood firm in their conclusion that while Iran may ultimately want a bomb, the country halted work on weapons design in 2003 and probably has not restarted that effort - a judgment first made public in a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate." Germany and Israel, the paper says, are quite confident that Iran is actively working on a weapon, but the U.S. is—perhaps suffering from a well-earned crisis of confidence after the Iraq debacle—claiming that building a secret site that can apparently only refine enough uranium for a nuclear bomb is somehow qualitatively different from re-starting a nuclear weapons program.

Today's Times piece is essentially identical to a Newsweek story that ran earlier this month—before the Qom disclosures—headlined "Intelligence Agencies Say No New Nukes in Iran" and claiming that the U.S. didn't believe Iran was seeking a bomb, but that many of our allies disagree. We pointed out last week how unfortunate it must have been for Mark Hosenball, the Newsweek reporter who wrote it, to have had his scoop superseded so quickly by news of the Qom facility, which to most rational minds would seem to indicate both that Iran is seeking a bomb, and that the U.S. has known that it is for years. But today's Times piece indicates that there is some deliberate kabuki going on, with the U.S. apparently wanting to take a stern stand against Iran and at the same time insisting that there is no "official" nuclear program. An admission of the latter would tend to back the U.S. into a corner—if there is an actual, active program to build a nuclear bomb, it would make it harder to justify not taking military action, no? And such a statement from the U.S. would certainly give cover to Israel if they decided to bomb Iran's facilities.

The trouble is, the hairsplitting is defining nuclear deviancy down. The original 2007 National Intelligence Estimate [pdf] that both Newsweek and the Times say we're sticking by said that "Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program." Today's Times, however, moves the goalposts slightly by reporting that our spooks think Iran "halted work on weapons design in 2003 and probably has not restarted that effort." Well, there are programs, and then there are designs. The 2007 estimate said there was no program—which would include, we imagine, an effort to enrich uranium for the purposes of building a weapon, which it seems like Iran is in fact doing. If the fact that there is, allegedly, no active design component to that program makes it not really a program, then what are we worried about them secretly enriching uranium for, anyway?

And who needs to work on a nuclear weapon design when you already have a nuclear weapons design? According to the Guardian, Iran has been sitting on a warhead blueprint since at least 2005, courtesy Pakistan's nuclear pied piper A.Q. Khan:

International suspicion of Iran's nuclear programme heightened yesterday when it was revealed that Tehran had obtained a blueprint showing how to build the core of a nuclear warhead.

So, to recap: Iran is building a secret nuclear facility to enrich enough uranium only for a bomb but not for anything else but we stand by our 2007 assessment that they have not re-started their nuclear weapons program which we are now retroactively amending to say they have not re-started a nuclear warhead design program even though they probably already have a nuclear warhead design. So you see, there's no nuclear weapons program.

This is all seen through a glass darkly, and much or all of it is probably not true, and there's nuance and detail that only sophisticated followers of the issue would understand. But the Times' job, and Newsweek's, is to report what's going on as clearly as possible and without submitting to the spin and info-ops wordplay that the spooks are clearly throwing up right now. We dumped on Hosenball's story last week because we read it at face value in light of news of the Qom facility, but it turns out to have been substantially correct inasmuch as it reported that the U.S. intelligence community claims to believe something that it clearly does not believe, because to publicly claim to believe it would reduce the administration's available options. So our apologies to Hosenball—we just wish that he, and the Times, had mentioned the how ludicrous it is for their sources to claim that whatever Iran is doing doesn't count as a nuclear weapons program simply because we've decided a priori that for Iran to have an active nuclear weapons program would make things very hard for us.