New Weasel Word on Iran Nukes

Exclusive: The U.S. news media has consistently created the impression that Iran is building a nuclear bomb and that its denials shouldn’t be taken seriously. However, U.S. and Israeli intelligence assessments may finally be eroding that smug certainty, Robert Parry reports.

By Robert Parry

What can one say when the Washington Post’s neoconservative editorial writers more correctly describe the U.S. and Israeli assessments on Iran’s nuclear program than does a news story in the New York Times? In a Wednesday morning surprise, a Washington Post editorial got the nuances, more or less, right in stating: “U.S. and Israeli officials share an assessment that, though Iran is building up nuclear capability, it has not taken decisive steps toward building a bomb.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testifying before Congress, seated next to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey (Defense Department photo)

You could still say the Post is hyping things a bit, skewing the wording in an anti-Iranian direction, but the sentence is essentially correct on where U.S. and Israeli intelligence judgments stand, that Iran has NOT made a decision to build a nuclear bomb.

But then there’s the New York Times. It continues to mislead its readers, albeit with a new weasel word inserted to avoid being accused of completely misstating the facts. In a news article on Wednesday, the Times reported that “the United States, Europe and Israel have all called [Iran’s nuclear] program a cover for Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons capability, an accusation that Iran denies.”

The key weasel word now is “capability,” which is a very elastic concept since any work on nuclear research for peaceful purposes, such as low-level enrichment of uranium, could theoretically be used toward a weapons “capability.” (The word also appeared in the Post editorial.)

There’s a parallel here to President George W. Bush’s statements about the Iraq War: Remember, after his promised Iraqi stockpiles of WMD didn’t materialize, Bush retreated to claims about WMD “programs,” i.e. the possibility that something might have occurred down the road, not that it actually had happened, was happening or was likely to happen. “Capability” is now filling a similar role.

So, instead of stating that U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies concur that Iran’s leadership has NOT made a decision to go forward with a nuclear bomb, the Times creates a false impression that they have done so – by suggesting Iran is making progress toward a “nuclear weapons capability.”

If that wording leaves you with the notion that Iranian leaders have decided to press ahead in building a nuclear bomb (but are lying about their intent), you can be forgiven because that seems to be the misimpression the Times wants you to have. Indeed, even well-informed Americans have come away with precisely that misimpression.

And there’s another parallel to Bush’s case for war with Iraq, when he falsely implied that pre-invasion Iraq was allied with al-Qaeda, without actually saying precisely that. Any casual listener to Bush’s speeches would have made the implicit connection, which was what Bush clearly intended with his juxtaposition of words, but his defenders could still argue that he hadn’t exactly made the link explicit.

Now this sleight of hand is being done mostly by the U.S. news media, including the New York Times in its influential news columns. To state the obvious, employing misleading word constructions to confuse readers is an inappropriate technique for a responsible news organization.

Intelligence Assessments

The Times and most other major U.S. news outlets have refused to alter their boilerplate on Iran’s nuclear ambitions (beyond slipping in the word “capability”), even as a consensus has emerged among the intelligence agencies of the United States – and Israel – that Iran has NOT made a decision to build a nuclear weapon.

As ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern has noted, this intelligence judgment has even been expressed recently by high-profile figures in the defense establishments of the two countries – U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

In an article entitled “US/Israel: Iran NOT Building Nukes,” McGovern wrote: “You might think that you would have heard more about that, wouldn’t you? U.S. and Israel agree that Iran is NOT building a nuclear bomb. However, this joint assessment that Iran has NOT decided to build a nuclear bomb apparently represented too big a change in the accepted narrative for the Times and the rest of the FCM [Fawning Corporate Media] to process.”

McGovern cited an interview by Barak on Jan. 18 in which the Defense Minister was asked:

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

Barak: … confusion stems from the fact that 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. …

Question: How long will it take from the moment Iran decides to turn it into effective weapons until it has nuclear warheads?

Barak: I don’t know; one has to estimate. … Some say a year, others say 18 months. It doesn’t really matter. To do that, Iran would have to announce it is leaving the [UN International Atomic Energy Agency] inspection regime and stop responding to IAEA’s criticism, etc.

Why haven’t they [the Iranians] done that? Because they realize that … when it became clear to everyone that Iran was trying to acquire nuclear weapons, this would constitute definite proof that time is actually running out. This could generate either harsher sanctions or other action against them. They do not want that.

Question: Has the United States asked or demanded that the government inform the Americans in advance, should it decide on military action?

Barak: I don’t want to get into that. We have not made a decision to opt for that, we have not decided on a decision-making date. The whole thing is very far off. …

Question: You said the whole thing is “very far off.” Do you mean weeks, months, years?

Barak: I wouldn’t want to provide any estimates. It’s certainly not urgent. I don’t want to relate to it as though tomorrow it will happen.

Less Alarming Consensus

In a Jan. 19 article on Barak’s interview, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz summed up the Israeli view as follows: “The intelligence assessment … indicates that Iran has not yet decided whether to make a nuclear bomb.

“The Israeli view is that while Iran continues to improve its nuclear capabilities, it has not yet decided whether to translate these capabilities into a nuclear weapon – or, more specifically, a nuclear warhead mounted atop a missile. Nor is it clear when Iran might make such a decision.”

McGovern noted that Barak in the interview appeared to be identifying himself with the consistent assessment of the U.S. intelligence community since late 2007 that Iran has not made a decision to go forward with a nuclear bomb. The formal National Intelligence Estimate of November 2007 – a consensus of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies – stated:

“We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; … Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005.”

Despite complaints about the NIE from some American and Israeli war hawks, senior U.S. officials have continued to stand by it. Defense Secretary Panetta raised the topic himself in an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Jan. 8.

Panetta said “the responsible thing to do right now is to keep putting diplomatic and economic pressure on them [the Iranians] … and to make sure that they do not make the decision to proceed with the development of a nuclear weapon.”

Panetta was making the implicit point that the Iranians had not made that decision, but just in case someone might miss his meaning, Panetta posed the direct question to himself: “Are they [the Iranians] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No.”

Today, it appears that even the neocon editors of the Washington Post have been forced to accept this important distinction, grudging as that acknowledgement may have been. The New York Times, however, has simply inserted the new weasel word, “capability,” which could mean almost anything and which still misleads readers.

To its credit, perhaps, the Times did include another relevant fact near the end of its Wednesday article, noting that Israel is “a nuclear weapons state.” That’s a key fact in understanding why Iran might want a nuclear deterrent but is rarely cited by the Times in its background on the current crisis.

For further context, the Times also might want to add that Israel’s nuclear arsenal remains undeclared and that Israel – unlike Iran – has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or to allow international inspectors into Israeli nuclear facilities. But such balance may be simply too much to expect from the Times.

[For more on related topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.

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37 comments on “New Weasel Word on Iran Nukes

  1. Thomas Beck on said:

    Israel has nuclear weapons but has never declared that any other country does not have the right to exist, the way Iran apparently has stated that Israel does not have a right to exist. To claim that Iran wants nukes because Israel has them seems to be positing an equivalency of threat. Israel despises the current regime in Iran but not the country itself; Iran cares little for who rules Israel but despises the very existence of the country. The Iranian regime wants to protect itself; Israel wants to protect its very existence as a country. That’s not really a symmetry of motivation. Whether or not Israel acknowledged its nukes or signed the NPT would very likely have no impact on Iran’s decisions to build nuclear weapons or not. If Iran were to unequivocally accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, that might dramatically lessen tensions in the region.

    • Gregory L Kruse on said:

      The operative word there is “might”.

      • Manuel Ongjunco on said:

        The comment of Gregory L.Kruse is honest. Robert Parry is a die-hard liberal who wants no war at all cost. He is just an ordinary citizen who is not privy to what is going on unlike the President and other key members of the cabinet. If Parry wants to feed himself to the lions to gain entry to heaven, that is his right. But to try to influnce political leaders to believe in his idealism is despicable. The paramount responsibility of any political leader is to see that his country and his people are safe not destroyed and dead. This is why we should not elect religious and liberal zealots to high office. What if Parry is wrong in his assessment of the true intent of Iran and suddenly we lost two or three American cities and Israel? I am sure he will just say, “I am sorry!, with several exclamation points. I believe he is so cowardly he will not even commit Hari-Kiri. Let the political leaders do their jobs. No person in the U.S. wants war but when our existence is genuinely threatened, only cowards will run away from battle. Only traitors will give the benefit of the doubt to his country’s enemies.

        • Manuel Ongjunco:

          Iran threatens the existence of the US? Or do you mean the existence of Israel, and when exactly did Iran threaten to attack Israel, if unprovoked by a first Israeli attack? (Oh wait, those a have most likely happened–that being Israeli backed murders within Iran.)

        • charles sereno on said:

          Manny Ongjunco, it’ll take a greater troll than thee to mess up this site.

          • Eben Ross on said:

            When we take a open minded look at the situation…
            Iran has no nuke bomb….Israel does….. Iran has not attacked Israel….Israel has threatened and attacked Iran. Israel and the US could look for some moral high ground…treat others as they would like to be treated. Open talks would be a good start. Israel
            is totally able to defend itself….an eye for and an eye would be a big improvement…..stop the secrets and get other countries to help….

        • hogwash

    • F. G. Sanford on said:

      The asymmetry lies in the fact that, while Iran wants to exist, Israel wants to exist as an ethnically pure, Jews only state on land that doesn’t belong to them. How about this bargain: Iran agrees to Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and Israel pulls back to its pre-1967 borders as specified by U.N. Resolution 242? Israel insists on playing this childish word game about its “right to exist” in order to deflect rational discourse. Israel is full of these fanciful word games which defy reality. My favorite one is, “Facts on the ground”. After subsidizing illegal settlements, they want to claim that those settlements have changed the facts. If only that were true, thieves would be in heaven. Any pick-pocket could claim, “The fact is, your wallet is in my pocket now!” How convenient. The reality is that, if Israel were to remain a single state and nominally a democracy, the Palestinians would eventually outnumber the Jews. Then all this “Jewish State” nonsense would be moot. It’s not a democracy. It’s an apartheid theocracy hiding behind word games, and calling zealots with “Bibles and guns” colloquial names like “Settlers”. It’s preposterous, absurd, hypocritical and above all, the rest of the world sees right through it. Israel has made concentration camps of its occupied territories. Some analogies, like it or not, are impossible to avoid. That is, unless one wishes to ignore the “facts” on the ground.

    • Hossein on said:

      Sorry Thomas but you need to get your facts from other sources than Fox-noise. Where do you get the idea that Iran despises the very existence of Israel? Let me guess Fox-noise? Iran and almost all the nations on this planet have repeatedly voted for a two state solution and I think I need to explain this to you in particular as to what that means, one state for Israel and one state for Palestine. But each time two country’s VETO it. In other words harpoons the idea. Can you guess which these two countries are? I don’t think you are capable of doing so so I will name them for you, USA and Israel. Now if Iran did “despises the very existence of Israel” why would they repeatedly vote for a two state solution and by the way Hamas has also advocates a two state solution. You see I think you are a Zionist and are trying to propagate lies so Israel can continue to break all international laws and kill innocent people. So in spite of the crap people hear on the corporate media they have learned the truth. I will leave you with this; biggest single enemy of Israel is Zionism.

      • Agree with all Hossein says, however he better gets his facts right: Israel has no veto right. That abominable distinction is granted to the five; China, France,Russia, USA and Uk.

        • Why don’t you look it up then make the statement. You are saying Israel has no say?

          • Israel has a say of course, but not a VETO,. A veto is a terminology used at the UN Security council reserved for the permanent members of the 15 member body.
            However the US veto does practically belong to Israel, as the US has used her veto during the past decade almost entirely blocking resolutions reprimanding Israel.

    • There is no such notion as a single country recognizing the right of another to exist; this is a misnomer created by mas media [read Noam Chomsky on this topic]. The author confuses his “gut feeling” with facts on the ground: Israel is a nuclear weapon state that has attcked other countries many times in its short history and has always openly (since 20 years ago) threatened to attack Iran. It is also backed by other nuclear states in its militant stance. Iran on the other hand in not a nuclear weapon state and has not invaded another country for over 300 years. It has never threatened to attack Israel. It has stated its readnienss to retaliate. To say that a country that cannot even offer peace to its own citizen subjects can be reasoned with is the understatement of the year!

    • Roger Thomas on said:

      So, the Zionist regime has ‘never declared that any other country does not have the right to exist’? Well, maybe not but if actions are louder than words, what has it done with Palestine. The Zionazis have wiped it from the face of the Earth! They continue with their savagery in their daily task of ethnic cleansing. They are the aggressors and represent a constant threat to all the neighbouring countries as well as Iran which they have threatened to attack.

      The Zionists brutality is horrific and must engender a hatred for them (and for Americans and eventually Worldwide Jewry) not simply from Muslim countries but from all peoples. There will doubtlessly be further wars with the enemies of Zionism which are developing their weapons’ technology to the extent where the Zionists may end up as the losers. Such a scenario should fill the World with dread as the ruthless Zionists in extremis will unleash their huge nuclear arsenal.

      Unless the Zionist regime can be forced to rid itself of a nuclear capability,it is imperative that Iran and others in the region develop their own nuclear deterrence.

      The Zionists possession of nuclear weapons is, to my way of thinking, the most serious threat to the future of the World. They must go!

    • Can anyone explain to me why Israel supporters believe it is okay for Israel to have hundreds of undeclared, uninspected nuclear weapons, begun with technlogogy and raw material apparently obtained illegally (i.e., stolen) from a US nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania in the 1960s, yet also believe it is legit to attack Iran for having nuclear weapons “capability”? Mr. Becks’ argument, one we have all heard before, seems to boil down to Iran is bad and Israel is good. If Iran refuses to recognize israel as a “Jewish State: (what kind of sick, institutionalized racism is that?) they are a legit target. He apprently does not want us to consider that it is Israel that has spent the past several decades atacking, murdering, occupying, and oppressing each and every one of its neighbors while Iran has attacked nobody. You want to lessen tensions in the region? Pull US support for Israel, demand repayment of the hundreds of billons of tax dollars they have received as gifts from the USA, and demand they get rid of the nuclear weapons. Them if they wished to survive, they would have to actually negotite nd get along with their neighbors instead of acting like a genocidel bully

    • rosemerry on said:

      PLEASE stop this “right to exist” and “protect itself” mantra. Israel STOLE the land and expelled most of the Palestinians. It was friendly with Iran of the Shah and SAVAK, and pretends that Iran (which has attacked nobody in 200 years) is an enemy, and persists in blaming anyone but its own leaders for any animosity.

    • Your a lier just like the rest of the zionist warmongers,you know that was a lie a fauls interpitation.He said the zionist regime should disapear from the pages of history,nothing about destroying Israel.All people do when they reuse that lie is make themselfs out to be a lier.Iran does not and would not want to use a nucular weapon on Israel.Israel would intern use many of there over 200 illegal nukes destroying Iran.Don’t comment if your going to lie.Israel is the country with the Sampson Option and people need to look at it and see how it came about.Israel is the real terrorist country in the Mid East.They have broken over 65 UN resolutions more than the entire Mid East put togeather,Palistine 0.They also have had over 35 Amewrican vetos allowing them to continue commiting crimes.I say this exact thing so much,but its important to show how ther real danger to the world is.

      • Also look at thing like the USS Lyberty the Lavon Affair and the King David Hotel.Look at 9/11 and 7/7 but 7/7 there is no proff like the others Israel and there CIA Mossad were involved.There is many more but these are amoung the best known.In 1948 after the British stole and gave them a part of Palistine they said thanks by mudering British soldiers and straping bombs to there hanging bodys to muder the soldiers that would take then down.They started as terrorists and have continued ever since.Israel was the worst thing to happen maybe anywere.Modern Jews were kicked out of around 109 countrys.No are people supposed to belive it was the 109 countrys or the Jews that were doing wrong.We see similar things today they were angerd about like lies and usery.Modern Jews are not biblicle Judeans but 85% are AskeNAZIS frm a place that was called Kazaria.That after being kicked out of modern day Asia.There are many documentarys and book 2 books are The Thirtenth Tibe and the Synagogue Of Satan by Andrew Carrinton Hitchcock.There are many Jews that speak and write books about this fact a good one he has videos and a book and is an Israely Jew named Sholom Sand.They call everone that disagrees our uncovers there lies Anti-semites when they are not even semites and are the biggest Anti-semites ever mudering real semites the Palistinians for over 60 years.To much to write you have to look into the facts I;ve told you on your own.Its all on the Internet look.

        • I get going and don’t mention 1 of the most important points,all modern Jews are not evel many speek against Israel crimes like anyone else.There is good and bad in every race on earth.Its seems the Jews with the most power ands money are the warmonering zionists,and make all loke bad to people that don’t understand they don’t speek for all jews they just have the loudist voice due to money and owning the MSM.I get people calling me an Anti-semite when I’m far from it.Modern Jews are like any other people with good and bad.It was important I say that speeking the facts the truth don’t make me raceist.I’m a white Canadian my family has been here as long as I can remember my granfather fought in WW2.I’m Irish,Scotish and not sure what my 1 grandmother was.But whites have been responsible for many of the ugly things in the world but there is always good and bad in every race in all of history.I don’t think I’m better than anyone expecialy because of my skin tone.

  2. charles sereno on said:

    Putting aside motivations, how can you believe Israel’s existence is more threatened than Iran’s? True, there is the stark comparison of populations. However, ever since WWII, guns matter more and that is never more true today.

    • Gregory L Kruse on said:

      Israel’s existence is not in doubt, however much her neighbors might fervently wish it was. Iran has had no friends in the world to compare with Israel’s big friend since WWII, but that doesn’t mean they are not trying to make some so that they can assert themselves on the world stage. This is a right of all peoples, but it is also the right of all peoples to compete for a place on the stage. What is lacking is an entity which has the right to make rules for the competition and enforce them among all the players. Israel’s inability to limit their ambition to a semblance of its real importance is the boil on the ass of the region. Without the US, Israel would have been and still would be threatened with extinction, but isn’t it time at last to expect Israel to act like an adult, even if they do live among less advantaged countries who still act like children?

  3. Gregory L Kruse on said:

    MSNBC afternoon and evening opinion shows have stayed out of the debate over Iranian intentions and Israeli plans. msnbc ran a headline this morning with the same kind of pro-attack slant used by the NYT. This pressure to keep the jackboot firmly on the neck of any opposition to God’s old promise to give all the Holy Land to the Jews forever comes from the most unlikely sources. Of course there are the corporations who want to turn oil into money, the Jews themselves who think of themselves as God’s people, but then there are the deluded Christians who want to bring about the destruction of the whole earth by supporting the Jews who want to attack Iran. Can we hang any farther over the edge of the cliff without falling off?

  4. chmoore on said:

    In main stream news reporting, it looks like hyperbolic headlines rule the day.

    ‘Iran makes nuclear “advances”‘
    Apparantly they’ve achieved the 20% enrichment level in a research reactor, with the goal of use being medical isotope breeder reactors; accompanied by photo-ops of Ahmadinejad inserting domestic made fuel rods.

    Advances in centrifuges are claimed.
    Advanced as opposed to what? The previous or current production Iranian centrifuges? How does the advancement compare with U.S. technology, or maybe more to the point, officialy non-acknowledged Israeli technology?

    Another claim is that Iranian non-proliferation can’t be proven because they refuse to accept U.N. resolutions limiting enrichment to below some of the higher peaceful-use levels.

    Absent is any claim or accusation, even from Iranian critics, of anything close to weapons grade 90% enrichment.

    Another absence – why would Iran, during an economic depression, spend the money and security risk of building nuclear warheads which if deployed could only finish a distant 2nd place at best?

    As long as we’re speculating about Iran’s hypothetical nuclear weapons intentions, isn’t it just as valid to speculate about the intentions of others to take over contol of the Iranian oil infrastructure, you know, like in Iraq?

    Meanwhile on the economic front, oil export limits will likely be a bummer for the European recession, and won’t exactly help the U.S. either, except that it might help large oil companies, who always seem to enjoy profit margin increases and rising stock prices when oil supply lessens.

  5. Dont believe a damn thing that comes out of the State Dept. or Pentagon. Hell, even the IAEA is compromised in the integrity of its reports. If you read the report, you see that the same CIA crap is inserted like a disclaimed every 6-12 months! Then the Santorums and Bachmanns of the world can come out hysterically claiming: “Iran will have nukes in 6 months.” They’ve been saying that since 2003!

  6. Kenny Fowler on said:

    “Today, it appears that even the neocon editors of the Washington Post have been forced to accept this important distinction, grudging as that acknowledgement may have been.”

    The right wing neocon media war fever is showing signs of breaking. It will continue to lurk in the shadows and we must remain vigilant.

  7. I believe that the article is about Main Stream Media’s ways to report the news, drive a certain ideology through and truth be damned. NYT tries to sweep the full page Mea Culpa it published apologizing for pushing the Iraq war. And now, unashamedly the paper is going through the same path. However the publisher forgets that some us suffer from some lesser known ailment for the Nyt publishers called conscience and an elephantine memory.

  8. You correctly skewer the Times and the Post et al, but your post makes an almost equally egregious error. It is NOT true that Iran has “not decided whether to make a nuclear bomb.” Iran HAS decided – decided NOT to build a nuclear bomb. This decision has been CLEARLY enunciated by both the President (Ahmadinejad) AND the Supreme Leader (Khamanei); the latter even issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons. Claims that Iran is “still deciding and hasn’t yet decided” are simply false.

  9. This is only academic and Media war with no real issue. Israels existance is attached with wars otherwise jewish state will break down. Similarly american politics needs an enemy and that Iran or Muslim countries.

  10. Robert Mulcahy on said:

    I just finished my research. Iran did not attack any country for 500 years. Combined American and Israeli aggression against other countries is frequent, intimidating, destructive. Mullahs are seems to far more sober, mature and farsighted than we are told. Wonder, when the western world will be free of immature, irresponsible and dangerous leaders.

  11. carroll price on said:

    The nuclear weapons issue is a red herring and should be dismissed as such. The real issue is regime change, so Iran’s banking system, gold reserves and other hard assets can be seized by the Rothschild banking cartel. Once Ahmadinejad and Iran have been conquered and consumed, the next target will become Hugo Chavez and Venezuela’s vast oil and gold reserves.

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  14. David Boyer on said:

    In War the 1st Casualty is TRUTH. Israel and The United States lack truth capability.

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