Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
(Photo Credit: AP Photo / Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
On January 29, 2014, the Times of Israel published what seemed to be some truly alarming news.
“Iran now has all the technical infrastructure to produce nuclear weapons should it make the political decision to do, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper wrote in a report to a Senate intelligence committee published Wednesday,” reported the paper’s Marissa Newman.
Despite paraphrasing Clapper’s assurance that Iran “could not break out to the bomb without being detected,” Newman quoted extensively from the report – the annual “World Threat Assessment” – issued by the U.S. intelligence community:
Tehran has made technical progress in a number of areas — including uranium enrichment, nuclear reactors, and ballistic missiles — from which it could draw if it decided to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons,” Clapper wrote. “These technical advancements strengthen our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons. This makes the central issue its political will to do so.”Meanwhile, the article’s headline made sure reader’s got the point, screaming:
But the truth is, regardless of how distressing and portentous that headline sounds, this is not breaking news. In fact, the exact same assessment has been made for years.
Far from being portentous of an inevitable atomic apocalypse, such a statement is actually fairly innocuous and speaks to the nature of nuclear research, development, and technology. “[I]f a nation has a developed civilian nuclear infrastructure—which the NPT actually encourages—this implies it has a fairly solid nuclear-weapons capability,” wrote nuclear physicist Yousaf Butt in a recent column for the National Interest. ”Just like Iran, Argentina, Brazil, and Japan also have a nuclear-weapons capability—they, too, could break out of the NPT and make a nuclear device in short order. Capabilities and intentions cannot be conflated.”
For nearly a decade now, it has been acknowledged that, in addition to the nine nuclear weapons states (Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea), perhaps “40 countries or more now have the know-how to produce nuclear weapons,” according to former IAEA chief Mohammad ElBaradei, though it is true that not all of those nations have domestic enrichment capabilities.
Even a 1996 report by a former weapons system analyst points out, “Virtually any industrialized nation today has the technical capability to develop nuclear weapons within several years if the decision to do so were made. Nations already possessing substantial nuclear technology and arms industries could do so in no more than a year or two.”
Moreover, the above paragraph quoted by Newman regarding the “technical progress” made by Iran is taken nearly verbatim from last year's assessment, relayed to Congress in March and April 2013. The language in both of those reports is as follows:
Tehran has developed technical expertise in a number of areas — including uranium enrichment, nuclear reactors, and ballistic missiles — from which it could draw if it decided to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons. These technical advancements strengthen our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons. This makes the central issue its political will to do so.The only difference between last year’s assessment and the latest report in this regard is replacing the phrase “has made technical progress” with the phrase “has developed technical expertise.”
Newman, in her report, fails to point this out to her readers.
Hysterical media spin aside, Clapper is merely reaffirming what the U.S. intelligence community has been saying for years: Iran has no nuclear weapons program, is not building a nuclear weapon and the Iranian leadership has not even made a decision to do so. Meanwhile, Iranian officials have, for decades, condemned nuclear weapons as strategically useless, morally abhorrent, and religiously forbidden and foresworn any intention of ever acquiring, stockpiling or using such weapons.
These conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community are nothing new. Clapper’s own testimony and reports from both 2011 and 2012 have all said effectively the same thing.
In early 2011, Clapper told both the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services Committees:
Iran’s technical advancement, particularly in uranium enrichment, strengthens our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons, making the central issue its political will to do so.The next year, before Intelligence Committees in the House and Senate and the Senate Armed Services Committee, Clapper said literally – to the letter – the same exact thing.
While each past assessment in recent memory has claimed that “Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons,” they also add, “We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”
If anything, this year’s assessment, despite the Times of Israel's breathless reporting, is even less declarative in its perception of Iranian intentions.
Dropping the “keeping open the option” language, but replacing it with other often-repeated conclusions from past years, the 2014 report notes, “We continue to assess that Iran’s overarching strategic goals of enhancing its security, prestige, and regional influence have led it to pursue capabilities to meet its civilian goals and give it the ability to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons, if it chooses to do so.”
Assessments about Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities, also prominently presented in Newman’s Times of Israel piece, have been similarly recycled for years.
Not everything in this year’s intelligence assessment is old, however. The Joint Plan of Action of the P5+1 – the interim international accord signed in Geneva by Iran and six world powers in November 2013 – is determined by American intelligence agencies to “provide additional transparency into [Iran's] existing and planned nuclear facilities.”
“This transparency would provide earlier warning of a breakout using these facilities,” the report states.
With positive steps toward a negotiated conclusion to the absurd decades-long standoff over the Iranian nuclear program – a truly “manufactured crisis,” in the words of investigative journalist Gareth Porter’s vital new book on the subject – it is even more shameful that press reports like Newman’s traffic so heavily in fear-mongering and deliberate disregard for either context or truth.
Originally posted at Muftah.