Iran’s Bomb: Haven’t We Been Here Before?

I am far from any kind of expert in nuclear weapons development, so I could be 180 degrees wrong. But I have a growing sense that the increasingly ominous reports about Iran’s A-bomb aspirations mimic a story I’ve heard before.

It was in 2002 and 2003, when the drumbeats of impending war were being pounded by our political leaders and dutifully transcribed by most (though not all) of the supine bunch of stenographers we call the mainstream press.

Although many analysts at the CIA were skeptical, the dominant narrative in Washington was that Saddam Hussein not only had weapons of mass destruction, but he had stockpiles of them. You just about had to go to the “alternative” press on the Internet to hear any other side of the story.

The incessant drip-drip-drip from the Bush-Cheney propaganda machine, including allusions to the mushroom cloud, stirred up a witch’s brew of fear among the population. And that fear was constantly being stoked into hysteria, based on the certitude that Saddam Hussein played a big part in 9/11 – didn’t he meet with some al Qaeda agent in Vienna? — and the display of actual weapons parts by Colin Powell at the UN. And Colin Powell was a man we had all come to trust and respect, wasn’t he?

Well, I’m getting a feeling of deja vu all over again listening to Administration officials talking about whether Iran will have its bomb in a year or two years, the US assuring the Ayatollahs that no aspect of American power was off the table, the Israelis releasing their crop of “top secrets everyone should know” to talk about when and if they’re planning to bomb Iranian nuclear installations. Just listen to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who claims Israel “does not want to take military action against Iran over its nuclear program, but at some point may have no other option. The
Jewish state at this point did not intend to launch a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, but retained the option as a ‘last resort,’

And, in case you haven’t noticed, this main narrative is being burnished on a pretty regular basis by other scary-sounding developments by both sides, or all three sides. The Iranians hatched a plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador to Washington in the U.S. Unexplained explosions ripped through one of Iran’s major nuclear installations. The Iranians sentenced an American to death for spying for the Israelis. Then they threatened to close the Straight of Hormuz, through which passes a big chunk of petroleum that’s shipped by sea. The Iranians were also busy discussing cutting off oil supplies to Europe, and the West was conjuring up ever more draconian sanctions.

But are we being sandbagged again? Doesn’t anyone disagree with the conclusions reached by the US and Israeli administrations? Well, yes, lots of them, but people’s misgivings are being reported in only a tiny fraction of the mainstream press, and they’re difficult to find.

For example, Whistleblower Sibel Edmunds’ Web site, Boiling Frogs, brings us an article by William Blum, for many years one of the most credible critics of US foreign policy.

“Is USrael (Blum uses this contraction to indicate the two nations’ singularity of purpose) actually fearful of an attack from a nuclear-armed Iran?” Blum asks.

He answers: “In case you’ve forgotten…In 2007, in a closed discussion, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said that in her opinion “Iranian nuclear weapons do not pose an existential threat to Israel.” She “also criticized the exaggerated use that [then Israeli] Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is making of the issue of the Iranian bomb, claiming that he is attempting to rally the public around him by playing on its most basic fears.”

He goes on: In 2009, “A senior Israeli official in Washington” asserted that “Iran would be unlikely to use its missiles in an attack [against Israel] because of the certainty of retaliation.”

And in 2010, “The Sunday Times of London (January 10) reported that Brigadier-General Uzi Eilam, war hero, pillar of the Israeli defense establishment, and former director-general of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission, ‘believes it will probably take Iran seven years to make nuclear weapons’.”

Early last month, Blum continues, “US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told a television audience: “Are they [Iran] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No, but we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability.”

“A week later we could read in the New York Times (January 15) that “three leading Israeli security experts — the Mossad chief, Tamir Pardo, a former Mossad chief, Efraim Halevy, and a former military chief of staff, Dan Halutz — all recently declared that a nuclear Iran would not pose an existential threat to Israel.”

Then, a few days afterward, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in an interview with Israeli Army Radio (January 18), had this exchange:

Question: Is it Israel’s judgment that Iran has not yet decided to turn its nuclear potential into weapons of mass destruction?

Barak: “People ask whether Iran is determined to break out from the control [inspection] regime right now … in an attempt to obtain nuclear weapons or an operable installation as quickly as possible. Apparently that is not the case.”

Lastly, we have the US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, in a report to Congress: “We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons. … There are “certain things [the Iranians] have not done” that would be necessary to build a warhead.

Blum concludes: “Admissions like the above — and there are others — are never put into headlines by the American mass media; indeed, only very lightly reported at all; and sometimes distorted — On the Public Broadcasting System (PBS News Hour, January 9), the non-commercial network much beloved by American liberals, the Panetta quote above was reported as: “But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability, and that’s what concerns us.” Flagrantly omitted were the preceding words: “Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No …”

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Nobody (except Iran) believes Iran with a nuclear weapon would be a plus for Iran or its neighbors, or for the Israelis or the US. All the parties to this dangerous epidemic of saber-rattling ought to step back and take a deep breath.

Unless, on the other hand, it’s true that every American president needs to have at least one war on his watch to establish his street creds. Well, our current president is dealing with two wars, but maybe these don’t count because they were inherited.

President Obama has tried, early in his term, to extend a hand of friendship rather than a clenched first to the Iranians. Thus far, that approach has failed.

There are a few things that could reverse that situation. The IAEA is back inside Iran doing inspections. Let us await the IAEA’S report at the conclusion of its current inspection. Then perhaps the Iranians will want to sit down with the Quartet for a serious discussion, not only of the nuclear issue, but of a whole range of issues – notably to include human rights – that separate Iran from the other nations of the world.

Second, a bit further down the road we should be able to assess how effective the sanctions have become. If there are signs that the Iranians are beginning to feel the pinch, conversations and negotiations might be more practical than they have been in the past.

Finally, if Iran makes good on its promise to close the Straight of Hormuz, it will surely have shot itself in the foot. The simple reason is that Iranian oil has to move through these same waters to get to market. The prospective supply shortfall will likely result in a spike in oil prices that will help no one, save speculators.

There is and will be continuing political risk for the Obama Administration, especially in a presidential election year. Republicans will rail against any kind of dialogue with the Iranians. But they’ll rail whether we talk or not. And, if talks actually do take place, they could be a humiliating failure.

Is this worth the risk? Talking – or at least trying to get the parties to meet one another again – is preferable in every way to Shock and Awe. Just keep in mind how long it took us to extricate ourselves from the last Shock and Awe.

Originally published by Prism Magazine.

William Fisher has managed economic development programs for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere for the past 25 years. He has supervised major multi-year projects for AID in Egypt, where he lived and worked for three years. He returned later with his team to design Egypt’s agricultural strategy. Fisher served in the international affairs area in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. He began his working life as a reporter and bureau chief for the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Associated Press in Florida. He now reports on a wide-range of issues for a number of online journals.

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