Iran Nuke Report: Little New, Big Impact

The much-touted report by U.N. weapons inspectors on Iran’s alleged pursuit of a nuclear bomb contained little that was new, much that was dated, and nothing that could be independently confirmed. But, as Paul R. Pillar, a former top CIA analyst, notes, it still had a big impact.

By Paul R. Pillar

The report on Iran that the International Atomic Energy Agency released this week had been awaited with bated breath, with much pre-spinning of the substance. But the breath was at least as much baited as bated.

Despite references in the surge of report commentary about new evidence on this or that aspect of the subject, the report told us nothing of importance to policy on Iran that was not already well known. The voluminous commentary has consisted chiefly of people saying what they had intended to say on the topic all along, with the report being just the latest peg on which to hang such talk.

This week’s surge in comments about the Iranian program is another step in a long-running process that seems destined to push U.S. policy toward a disastrous conclusion. It is a process of talking up Iran and specifically the nuclear program as if there were no greater danger to Western civilization as we know it.

The mushroom cloud from the U.S. A-bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, during World War II

When this theme is voiced often enough, loudly enough, by enough people, it becomes a received wisdom that is accepted automatically with no effort to determine whether it is true. That in turn leads to the notion, also widely and automatically accepted, that an Iranian nuclear weapon must be prevented at all costs, with no effort to add up the costs.

Commentary such as that heard this week entrenches the further theme that Iran is on an inexorable march toward building a nuclear weapon, with no consideration to all the influences, many of which are in the control of the United States, that will help to determine whether or not Tehran ever takes that step.

As the discourse about the Iranian nuclear program moves through still more chapters, with the IAEA report being the occasion for the latest chapter, the very length of the discourse fosters the impression that all manner of means have been tried to deal with the perceived problem that the program represents.

The impression lingers even though there are wide diplomatic avenues that have never been explored. So we get patently false remarks such as one from Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy that “no one can reasonably argue that countries threatened by Iran have not tried all peaceful alternatives.”

This whole process treats a policy question such as “what should be the U.S. posture toward Iran?” as if it is to be equated with an empirical question such as “is Iran working to make a nuclear weapon?” This is not the first time this mistake has been made.

In the selling of the Iraq War, the Bush administration hammered so relentlessly into the public consciousness the theme of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that many people never stopped to notice that a presumed Iraqi unconventional weapons program, even if entirely real, simply did not equate with a case to launch an offensive war.

American politics, especially amid a presidential-election campaign, exacerbate these unfortunate tendencies. We see it most obviously in Republican presidential candidates falling over each other in an effort to declare their love for Israel and their toughness on Iran.

The latest round in the national discourse about Iran contains several gaping holes, the biggest of which is any serious and careful consideration of what danger an Iranian nuclear weapon actually would pose. The closest things to a serious effort to posit such a danger ultimately come up short.

The direction the discourse has taken has meant that any questioning of this supposedly grave danger is already outside the mainstream. But being in the mainstream does not make something valid.

[For more on the IAEA report, see’s “Iran’s Soviet Bomb-Maker Who Wasn’t” and “Déjà Vu Over Iran’s A-Bomb Charges.”]

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared in The National Interest.)

9 comments for “Iran Nuke Report: Little New, Big Impact

  1. flat5
    November 15, 2011 at 20:45

    Last week’s report from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)–a UN body–sent a chilling message.

    Here is the central finding:

    “The IAEA has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program. After assessing carefully and critically the extensive information available to it, the Agency finds the information to be, overall, credible. The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”

    It spelled out some of those activities, including “efforts, some successful, to procure nuclear-related and dual-use equipment and materials by military-related individuals and entities” and “work on the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon, including the testing of components.”

    While newly reported, this information only confirms what many have been saying for years–that Iran is determined to achieve nuclear-weapons capability, if not the weapons themselves. Moreover, Tehran seeks delivery capability, as evidenced by its longstanding ballistic missile program, which it doesn’t even bother to hide.

    Yet all along, Iran has been able to count on those who, for their own reasons, have rushed to defend it. They’ve claimed Iran is misunderstood, yearning only for peaceful nuclear energy. Ah, Iran and its rapid-response team allege, but for the endless machinations of that bellicose anti-Iranian trio – the U.S., Britain, and Israel!

    It will be interesting to see how Iran-struck spinmeisters react to the latest IAEA report. I wouldn’t hold my breath given past statements.

    Here are some memorable comments in recent years:

    Consider this gem, expressed a few months ago by Mohamed ElBaradei, who was the IAEA head from 1997 to 2009, but never took the issue all that seriously:

    “During my time at the IAEA, we haven’t seen a shred of evidence that Iran has been weaponizing, in terms of building nuclear-weapons facilities and using enriched materials… All I see is hype about the threat posed by Iran.”

    If only it were all “hype”!

    Or from Iran’s intimate friend, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as reported by the Syrian Arab News Agency last year:

    “The President added that Iran has proved its goodwill and restored international confidence in the peaceful nature of its nuclear program…”

    Or from the Iranian supreme leader himself, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei:

    “Building or using nuclear weapons is against Islamic law.”

    Sure, that’s right up there with Saddam Hussein’s 1990 declaration that “We don’t want war because we know what war means.” Literally one week later, August 2, 1990, Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait.

    And while I’m no expert in Islamic law, the IAEA seems to think the Islamic Republic of Iran must have transgressed it, just as Pakistan has, and as Iraq, Libya, and Syria were trying to do at various points in their recent history.

    Or the view of Amr Moussa, when he was the Secretary General of the Arab League (he’s now a leading candidate for the Egyptian presidency):

    “Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa stressed that the Iranian nuclear energy is completely peaceful, threatening no one and it is a right for all the world’s countries.”

    Perhaps Moussa took a misguided cue from his former boss, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who told Washington: “Saddam Hussein has no intention to attack Kuwait or any other party.” That was seven days before Iraqi forces occupied neighboring Kuwait.

    Or this from Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari:

    “Iran has begun its plan for the expansion and further development of its nuclear program with totally peaceful objectives in mind, as Tehran has no need to possess nuclear weapons.”

    Or, two years ago, from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whose country is particularly critical to the Iran equation:

    “We have no information on Iran’s work on nuclear weapons.”

    Or from one of Iran’s best buddies, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez:

    “There is not a single proof that Iran is building… a nuclear bomb.”

    Or from Brazil’s former president, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, who instructed his UN ambassador to vote against a 2010 UN Security Council resolution imposing new sanctions on Iran for its defiance of previous resolutions:

    “Brazil backs Iran’s quest for peaceful nuclear energy in full respect of international accords.”

    Not to be outdone, Turkish Prime Minister Recept Tayyip Erdogan, whose country joined with Brazil as the only two UN Security Council members to oppose the Iran measure, said:

    “Those who accuse Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons are talking hypothetically about what is not yet there.”

    And my two favorites, both coming from well-known American journalists:

    “There’s just no serious evidence inside that Iran is actually doing anything to make a nuclear weapon,” wrote a confident Seymour Hersh in 2009.

    Or this doozey from New York Times columnist Roger Cohen in June:

    “The nuclear bogeyman obsession has been a distraction from the need to try to tease out a relationship with Tehran, see Iran as it is…Iran is characterized by…’administrative chaos’… That’s not how you make a nuke. When remembering Iran – and it must be remembered – call the fear-mongers to account.”

    The misreading by Hersh and Cohen is in a way eerily reminiscent of the famous American essayist, Walter Lippman, who, in 1933, commenting upon Hitler’s denunciation of war in a speech before the Reichstag, wrote:

    “The outer world will do well to accept the evidence of German goodwill and seek by all possible means to meet it and to justify it.”

    So, to Messsrs. ElBaradei, Assad, Khameini, Moussa, Zardari, Putin, Chavez, Lula, Erdogan, Hersh, and Cohen:

    Do you continue to stand by your contention that Iran has no interest in nuclear-weapons capability, notwithstanding the latest meticulous IAEA report?

    Do you believe that Iran is nothing more than the victim of misinformation peddled by IAEA officials, the Obama Administration, and at least ten other concerned governments, whose data helped inform the report?

    The latest IAEA report sends yet another clear warning of Iran’s goal, at least for those prepared to see the truth as it is, not as they might wish or pretend it to be.

  2. Kenny Fowler
    November 12, 2011 at 20:29

    Yeah, these reports are just used to bang the war drums louder. Bombing Iran is crazy talk, wack-a-doodle stuff. They will never develop a viable nuclear weapons capability, they don’t need to. A comment by the brother in law of a neighbor who heard about a scientist who met an Iranian is enough to compile a new report, 3 inches thicker than the last one. If they really wanted a nuke they would have traded for one by now. Nukes are highly overrated these days.

  3. chmoore
    November 12, 2011 at 15:28

    The Monty Python Holy Grail version:

    Witches burn

    Wood also burns

    Wood also floats

    Ducks also float

    So if she weighs as much as a duck, she must be a witch

    Burn Her!

  4. Big Em
    November 12, 2011 at 14:16

    Good article, but the second-to-last paragraph could’ve used some links like this one* to emphasize the minimal threat that Iran would pose even IF it developed a nuclear weapon. If one looks at that link’s current listing of nuclear weapons in the world, it’s obvious that Iran would have NO serious aggressive capability, since it’s launch of a nuclear missile would immediately trigger a devastating nuclear counterattack by the US, Israel, and possibly other nuclear countries who have a HUGELY overwhelming numerical (AND strategic) superiority (bombers, submarines, troop placement & numbers, etc, etc). This whole melodrama is reminiscent of our anti-Cuba stance, where we try to scare ourselves and our allies into thinking that a tiny island like Cuba represents any sort of military threat to the world’s most massive military machine. That’s like saying my kid-sister represents a running threat to the defensive line of the Green Bay Packers.

    One needs to read books like the late Chalmers Johnson’s “Sorrows of Empire” to get a realistic idea of how HUGE the US’ military dominance in the world currently is, because the MSM is too busy following Brittany, Kim, et al to spend any serious time developing a sense of proportionality in international politics.


  5. John
    November 12, 2011 at 13:14

    Are we debating that Iran is not actively pursuing weapons grade plutonium?
    We should not allow it for the same reason we would not let a five year old play with a loaded M-16.

    • MA
      November 12, 2011 at 17:16

      I should, perhaps, ask your dad not to let you play with a loaded M-16.

  6. rosemerry
    November 12, 2011 at 04:16

    The MSM in the USA blindly follow any belligerent line against purported enemies. Iran threatens nobody, has no nukes, was a founding signatory of the NPT, has inspections of its nuclear facilities and wants a nuclear-weapons-free ME. What happens in the USA? Polls show most people think Iran is a terrible threat. Make the enemy, even if it is not in US interests (trade, oil prices etc) then demonise and attack it. Help Israel, no matter how much its interests are completely self-centred.

  7. Hillary
    November 11, 2011 at 10:53

    “The sad truth is that in the new millennium, government propaganda prepares its citizens for war so skillfully that it is quite likely that they do not want the truthful, objective and balanced reporting that good war correspondents once did their best to provide.

    ( Phillip Knightley, in his award-winning book The First Casualty.)

    Fact checking , never a concern for the lies on Iraq , Lybia and Iran but make attention grabbing headlines and the exposure or retractions of the lies are later rarely seen.

    A masterful neocon manipulation of the MSM to keep the public dumbed down.

    The MSM is no longer a place for patriots or truth seekers.

    Sadly our elected representatives dare not expose the lies or present alternative opinions and our Land of the free seems no more.

    As the successful pro war propaganda says ” You are with us or against us”.

    Perhaps time is running out for peace in the world because of all the lies and the policies of the USA for its “war on Islam” that benefits no one.

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