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February 17, 2012

Has Iran Decided to Build the Bomb?
Posted by David Shorr

Ahmadinejad_iran-nuclearSenator Lindsey Graham is convinced the goal of Iran's nuclear program is military, and the contrast between Graham's certainty and the more judicious view of President Obama's director of national intelligence highlights critical points for a peaceful resolution of the issue -- or a war. Hat tip to Eli Clifton over at Think Progress for flagging an exchange between Sen. Graham and DNI James Clapper at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this week. The bottom line of Graham's position is that a diplomatic solution is impossible, and a military confrontation is inevitable. 

Clifton's post focuses on the key elements of the intelligence assessment. Here's how Director Clapper described where Iranian policy stands in terms of building the bomb:

I think they’re keeping themselves in a position to make that decision but there are certain things they have not yet done and have not done for some time.

Underneath the careful vagueness of this statement lies a crucial point. There is a clear logic for Iran to hone uranium enrichment techniques that would make it a near-nuclear power, yet still remaining a non-nuclear weapon signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty -- which is Tehran's stated policy. Of course that leaves the questions of how far down the nuclear technology road Iran goes and how the outside world will verify that Iran's nuclear activities are civilian, questions that will have to be addressed as part of any diplomatic solution. 

Now let's look at the logic for Sen. Graham to assume the worst about Iranian intentions. I can only assume Graham reached his conclustion through an assessment of Iranian governmental players and his information on the nuclear program. And yet ... I can't help noticing that Graham's position fits the familiar Republican tougher-than-thou formula as most GOP foreign policy positions.

So with this view of Iranian intentions, Lindsey Graham presumably dismisses Iran's official line about a keeping on the civilian side of the nuclear line. My question, then, is whether it's smarter for the United States and others to toss aside Iran's promise not to build a bomb, or hang onto that pledge as the standard by which we measure their behavior. Aside from political posturing, is it really in America's interests to completely discount Tehran's stated intentions?

Let's be clear about what our alternatives are here. When I argue against assuming the worst, I'm not saying that we take Iranian statements about remaining a non-weapon state at face value. Like I said a few paragraphs ago, the point of diplomatic negotiations is to define -- and verify -- the parameters of Iran's civilian nuclear activities. In fact, I look at President Obama's policy on Iran as an effort to keep the burden of proof on the Iranians. Now over on the side of assuming the worst, that seems to me like a conclusion that diplomacy is futile. If Senator Graham and other conservatives believe Iranian leaders are determined to build the bomb, does that mean war is inevitable?  I think so.

And this is the point of the other quotation from the national intelligence director cited in Eli Clifton's Think Progress post, that Iran's course is not yet set and still susceptible to diplolmatic pressure: 

We judge Iran’s nuclear decisionmaking is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran. Iranian leaders undoubtedly consider Iran’s security, prestige, and influence, as well as the international political and security environment, when making decisions about its nuclear program.

The very possibility of a peaceful solution hinges on whether you believe an Iranian n-weapon is still an open question in Tehran.

But the issue at the heart of legislative efforts by Senator Graham and others is a different one. Recalling once again, negotiations with Iran must specify how far down the nuclear technological road they are, i.e. the fate of Iran's uranium enrichment activities. For the hard-liners in the Senate, the only acceptable answer is that Iran will be not one step down the nuclear road -- that they must walk their technical efforts all the way back. It is a Boltonesque approach that insists on the other side's total capitulation. 

As the clamor for war with Iran grows louder and louder, we must be clear what's at stake. If you were paying only faint attention to this debate (as most voters probably are), you'd think it's about keeping Iran from building nuclear weapons. But senators have been pushing to set the bar much higher, the kind of stringent requirements that make diplomacy impossible and war inevitable. Americans need to know the real question here: are you willing to go to war in order to stop Iran from spinning their centrifuges to enrich uranium?


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