The 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear capability states that Iran stopped its quest of nuclear weapons in 2003. This revelation was in direct contradiction with the NIE from 2005 that had profiled Iran as country hellbent on acquiring nuclear weapons. If the earlier estimate was true, then what changed Iran’s mind to mothball the decision to seek nuclear weapons?
The genesis of the Iranian desire to seek atomic weaponry dates to the Iran-Iraq War, during which a weapon of mass destruction could have tilted the results of that conflict. That conflict also highlighted the strategic necessity for Iran to have a deterrence capability that can forestall yet another invasion from Iraq or any other quarter.
Interestingly, Saddam Hussein’s own bravado and ambiguous allusions to possessing an atomic capability in the years preceding the 2003 U.S. invasion, too, was based in part to get the Iranians to think that Iraq has nuclear weapons, thereby deterring Iran from a revenge-attack for the earlier war between the two countries. This paradigm of mutually-assured-destruction (or mistrust) continued until March 2003.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and demise of the Saddam regime – coupled with finding no Iraqi atomic weapons – removed the very raison d’etre for the Iranian plans to seek nuclear weapons. But the disappearance of Saddam regime as Iran’s primary adversary was replaced conveniently with Israel as the source of existential anxiety for the Iranian regime. Even if Iran wanted to disband the development of nuclear weapons in Spring 2003 it was not quite ready as yet to do so.
In August 2003 came news and pictures of Iranian nuclear facilities that bore the hallmarks of an extensive enrichment activities. In October 2003, the IAEA’s inspection of Iran’s facilities produced evidence of highly enriched weapon grade uranium in one or two of its centrifuges. Iran explained the presence of that high grade material as something that was probably in the equipment that Iran had purchased from the nuclear merchants. The finger pointed to A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb, who and transacted nuclear technology with Iran, Libya and North Korea. In December 2003 Libya came clean about its clandestine nuclear program.
Iran, however, could not come clean like Libya, because it was heavily invested in the development of nuclear energy for power generation purposes. The obsolete behemoth nuclear power plant at Bushehr was a matter of prestige, as was the development of a fuel cycle for it and other future plants. This topped the list of urgent technological pursuits for the Iranian government and scientific community.
The problem with the pursuit of nuclear technology for peace and war is akin to the pursuit of pharmacology for medicine or chemical warfare. Once the knowledge is acquired, weaponization can follow. The trick is to eliminate the need for the use of nuclear weapons, not the knowledge-base. The first one is easy, the second one impossible.
Nothing in the U.S. approach to Iran or U.S. and U.N. sanctions changed Iran’s mind to mothball the nuclear weapons program. The fear that a Russian embargo on its nuclear cooperation with Iran would choke and even stop the very rudimentary Iranian efforts at understanding and mastering the atom for peaceful purposes. The calculation to stop the weapons program was a correct one – as it would permit Iran to gain access to some enrichment capability under the IAEA regime, to which it had every right.
This is the age of spin, if it is not the spinning of a centrifuge then the spinning of news. In the name of decency, however, President Bush ought to stop taking credit for Iran’s suspension of its nuclear weapons program. Given the bankrupt state of Bush Administration’s foreign policy, it is understandable that “Mighty Mouse” would want to take credit where it is not due: just like in Iraq – it is not the surge that is working, it is Iranian cooperation with the Iraqi government. If Iranians mothballed the nuke program, it was because they could not risk losing access to rest of the technology from Russia.
I suppose the Bush Administration should also take credit for the Doha Summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as a way for isolating Iran or curbing its ambitions in the Persian Gulf! It was not long ago when the Bush Administration was warning the Arab governments to beware of a nuclear Iran and its hegemonic tendency in the Persian Gulf. Translation: Buy more arms from the United States. Well, I guess, in light of the NIE 2007 that “scare” tactic has to be re-spun.
And while the Administration is at it, perhaps, it should explain how is Iran’s tendency in the Persian Gulf today and different that it was during the Shah: if that did not come to much in the long run, why should this one achieve anything? In my assessment, in the battle for the hearts and minds of the streets of the Middle East, a cooperating Iran is far greater danger to the U.S. interest than a non-cooperating Iran.
Meanwhile, someone has to develop an NIQ – national intelligence quotient – for people aspiring to be president of the United States. This is far too dangerous of a world to be entrusted to a bush-league president, served by a clown for a vice president and an efriteh for foreign policy tsarina, and jackal-like new-found allies like the sarkozy.