Prelude to a War

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President Obama’s speech to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee on March 4 was framed by the media as a repudiation of an attack on Iran. He did warn against “bluster” and “loose talk” of military action, but his favored approach overlaps that of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

The well-known historian and Kennedy administration adviser Arthur Schlesinger called it “a policy of ‘anticipatory self-defense’ that is alarmingly similar to the policy that imperial Japan employed at Pearl Harbor.” In this view of “defense,” the United States has the inherent right to wage preventive – not preemptive – war at will. That is, to attack a country on the basis of some potential future capacity to threaten the U.S., which they may or may not attain. This amounts to a right to commit international aggression, even if a threat is largely manufactured, as it was with Iraq in 2003.

The Obama administration has sanctioned Iran, isolated it diplomatically, encircled it militarily, subjected it to cyber-warfare and commercial sabotage, and repeatedly threatened it with preemptive strikes. Officials call such pressure an alternative to war, but it might instead serve as a prelude.

Yet this hysterical theater of peril on the Iranian nuclear issue is not based on any credible threat. Contrary to the propaganda, there is a consensus in the U.S. military and intelligence community that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons and has not shown any intention to do so. Worse still, the policies now being applied are likely to bring about exactly the result the hawks say they’re trying to prevent: an emboldened, nuclear-armed Iran.

Correcting the Record

Unfortunately, the American people are badly misinformed about Iran’s nuclear program. In a 2010 poll, 7 in 10 Americans said they believed Iran already had nuclear weapons. Other polls conducted in the last few months show that over 80% of Americans think Iran is on the verge of having nuclear weapons, and many consider military action a viable option to reverse this course. A review of the basic facts contradicts these widespread misconceptions.

In 2007, the highly classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concluded that Iran had halted efforts to develop nuclear weapons in 2003. The NIE is produced by 16 different intelligence agencies, and it is the most authoritative judgment on national security issues. A review of that report was published in 2011 and reaffirmed the same conclusion: Iran has no nuclear weapons program.

In November, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported concerns about possible military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, but the watchdog group cited no firm evidence. And despite media hyperbole, the report said that “the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of [Iran’s] declared nuclear material,” meaning that all of the enriched uranium is accounted for by inspectors and is not being weaponized.

Iranian policy for some time now has been to abstain from developing nuclear weapons but to gather the know-how needed to build them. The Iranians are essentially hoping to deter adversaries without actually having a deterrent, by signaling that a nuclear weapon could be built quickly in response to an attack.

Adm. Dennis Blair, Obama’s former director of national intelligence, told Congress in March 2009, “We judge in fall 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear weapons design and weaponization activities” but “is keeping open the option to develop them.”

Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the IAEA, said the same year that he did not “believe the Iranians have made a decision to go for a nuclear weapon, but they are absolutely determined to have the technology because they believe it brings you power, prestige, and an insurance policy.”

This conforms to statements by others in the know. While Iran is aiming to be “nuclear capable,” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said in February, “the intelligence does not show that they’ve made the decision to proceed with developing a nuclear weapon.” James Clapper, director of national intelligence, has reiterated this conclusion.

Most estimates place Iran several years away from having the technical capability to actually launch a nuclear weapon. That’s several years after the date they hypothetically decide to build such weapons, which U.S. intelligence says is not likely to happen anytime soon.

The Dangers of Military Action

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in February that war with Iran would be “destabilizing” and “not prudent.” That’s an understatement.

Many war advocates argue for a “surgical strike” on Iran’s nuclear facilities to set back the program and buy more time. But they have far too much confidence that the consequences could be contained. In December, Panetta warned that Iranian retaliation against U.S. military bases in the region could “consume the Middle East in a confrontation and a conflict that we would regret.”

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John Glaser [send him mail] is the Assistant Editor of He graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a degree in Political Science. He lives in Washington, DC.

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