As our Nobel laureate President ascended to the podium on September 25 at the United Nations for his last international speech before the election, we again were the recipients of fine oratory and rhetorical flourish about America's problems in the world. Focusing on the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa – what's often misleadingly termed, u201Cthe Muslim worldu201D – Obama singled out Iran's treaty-entitled uranium enrichment activities, saying u201Cmake no mistake: a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained.u201D
Obama's remarks were dutifully transcribed by our stenographer class, as can be expected, despite intelligence-community conclusions to the contrary and the historical precedent of containment as Cold War policy. This follows the latest media scare concerning Iran's nuclear capabilities, and the recent tiff between the U.S. and Israel over it. Like Obama's speech (and because of similarly unchallenged statements by politicians), many media reports are awash in misleading narratives, incomplete histories, and outright fiction about Iran and its nuclear program.
Given how easily the American public and media were manipulated into believing that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, this moment should give us some pause. The disastrous effects of that $3 Trillion Dollar War are still being felt across the world. For those not interested in seeing a much-bloodier, costlier sequel, I offer this introductory course in intellectual self-defense. The only way to rebuff and dismantle propaganda is to be aware of the truth on which it claims to comment.
Lesson #1: Iran is not building nuclear weapons
National Intelligence Estimate: u201CWe judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.u201D (2007 National Intelligence Estimate Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities; November 2007)
u201CSeveral senior Israeli officials who spoke in recent days to The Associated Press said Israel has come around to the U.S. view that no final decision to build a bomb has been made by Iran.u201D (Associated Press, u201CIsrael shifts views on Iranu201D; March 18, 2012)
The 2011 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a synthesized compilation of data evaluated by America's 17 intelligence agencies, declared that there were no serious revisions to the controversial (for war hawks) 2007 NIE – which stated Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003. While the 2011 estimate did include updated progress on Iran's civilian nuclear program, such as an increased number of operative centrifuges, it still could not muster any evidence to indicate the program was being weaponized.
These findings echo reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has also concluded that Iran is not building nuclear weapons. The IAEA accounts are typically pored over for the slightest hint of ambiguity or malevolence, which are then promulgated as the most important takeaways in Western news summaries.
A recent example of such deliberate obfuscation was the IAEA report on Iran from August 30, 2012. Typical American media accounts highlighted the increase in Iran's nuclear infrastructure (underground centrifuge production, etc.), while failing to mention that their stockpile of 20%-enriched uranium – the only material capable of being enriched further to 85% or weapons grade – had actually diminished as a result of conversion to fuel plates for use in the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes. Thus nuclear development is highlighted, under the false premise that that equals progress toward a weapon, while exculpatory evidence is discarded: a case study in how news and propaganda function.
A civilian nuclear program is not easily converted into a weapons program. Before a country can begin the latter, it must break the IAEA monitoring seals on its uranium stockpile, which is also under constant camera detection. It must also kick out international inspectors, who currently have unfettered access to all of Iran's nuclear sites. Completing those very public steps would be the first true warning indicators that Iran was building nuclear weapons.
As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran is entitled to enrich uranium to low levels for domestic power consumption and medical treatment, such as radiation therapy for cancer patients.
Lesson #2: Iran is not a threat to the US
The United States military is the largest, most sophisticated machine of force and violence the world has ever seen. After factoring in foreign military aid and nuclear weapons maintenance, the U.S. spends over an estimated $1 trillion (that's >$1,000 billion) on defense annually.
By contrast, Iran spends somewhere between $10-12 billion on defense annually, after factoring in foreign and domestic paramilitary units such as the Revolutionary Guards and Basij – Iran's domestic volunteer militia. This is u201Cless than the United Arab Emirates, and only between 25% to 33% of Saudi defense spending,u201D notes Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It spends approximately 1/5 of the amount allocated by the six sheikdoms of the Gulf Cooperation Council – America's staunchest regional allies (save for Israel) and the guardians of Western access to crude.
Lesson #3: Iran is not an existential threat to Israel
Ehud Barak, Israeli Defense Minister: u201CIran does not constitute an existential threat against Israel.u201D (Reuters, Report: Barak says Iran is not existential threat to Israel; September 17, 2009)
Dan Halutz, former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces and Commander of the Israeli Air Force: u201CIran poses a serious threat, but not an existential one. The use of this terminology is misleading. If it is intended to encourage a strike on Iran, it's a mistake. Force should be exerted only as a last resort.u201D (YNet, Former IDF Chief: Iran doesn't pose an existential threat; February 2, 2012)
Tamir Pardo, Director of the Mossad: u201CDoes Iran pose a threat to Israel? Absolutely. But if one said a nuclear bomb in Iranian hands was an existential threat, that would mean that we would have to close up shop and go home. That's not the situation. The term existential threat is used too freely.u201D (Haaretz, Mossad Chief: Nuclear Iran not necessarily existential threat to Israel; December 29, 2011)
Israel maintains a competitive advantage in total amount spent on munitions and assets, as well as a massive edge in terms of technological sophistication. Israel spends almost twice as much as Iran on defense appropriations and is able to buy the world's most advanced weaponry from the United States (mostly with U.S. taxpayer money, laundered through foreign aid). Iran, by contrast, is heavily dependent on the dated munitions it received under the Shah and acquires rudimentary missile technology from China and North Korea with its own money.
Even if Iran were pursuing nuclear weapons, Israel's own stockpile – estimated at a several hundred high-yield warheads – ensures that Tehran would not engage in a first-strike. Those familiar with the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) know that when confronted with the possibility of your own annihilation, so the theory goes, you're incentivized to refrain from launching a first strike. Israel's stationing of nukes on German-made Dolphin class submarines in the Mediterranean assures that even if a first strike were to be carried out on the Jewish state, the perpetrator would still be subject to a retaliatory strike.
However, much as America acts as Israel's patron, so too Iran spends a good deal arming and supporting proxy armies in southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip – Hezbollah and Hamas, respectively. While these forces present a serious challenge to Israeli military incursions into said areas, their ability to project force within Israel's borders is limited to indiscriminate rocket fire. While dangerous and psychologically terrifying for civilians, such tactics cannot be considered more than a nuisance when comparing capacities for state violence.
Israel is not a signatory to the NPT and repeatedly refuses propositions for a Middle East Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone (MENWFZ) to be established as a means of ending the stand-off with Tehran, despite majority support from the Israeli public.