By Stephen Gowans
I have no idea whether Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program, and neither does the Obama administration, but that hasn’t stopped Obama’s advisers from claiming that Iran remains determined to develop nuclear weapons. Nor has it stopped The New York Times from working with the Obama administration to create the impression that Iran has a covert nuclear arms program, despite the country’s insistence it hasn’t, and absent any compelling evidence it has.
In a January 3 article (“U.S. sees an opportunity to press Iran on nuclear fuel”) New York Times’ reporters Steven Erlanger and William Broad cite the views of U.S. and other Western officials that dispute Tehran’s claim that Iran’s nuclear program is for civilian use only. Erlanger and Broad note that:
o Obama’s strategists believe that “Iran’s top political and military leaders [remain] determined to develop nuclear weapons.”
o “Iran’s insistence that its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only is roundly rejected by Western officials and, in internal reports, by international nuclear inspectors.”
o “After reviewing new documents that have leaked out of Iran and debriefing defectors lured to the West, Mr. Obama’s advisers say they believe the work on weapons design is continuing on a smaller scale — the same assessment reached by Britain, France, Germany and Israel.”
o “In early September, the American ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Glyn Davies, warned that Iran had ‘possible breakout capacity.’”
o “Mr. Obama’s top advisers say they no longer believe the key finding of a much disputed National Intelligence Estimate about Iran, published a year before President George W. Bush left office, which said that Iranian scientists ended all work on designing a nuclear warhead in late 2003.”
In these five paragraphs Erlanger and Broad manage to reveal nothing that isn’t already known: that Iran says it isn’t seeking nuclear weapons and that U.S and Israeli politicians say it is. But they’ve written the article in a way that creates the impression that the existence of a nuclear weapons program in Iran is almost beyond dispute.
At no point do The New York Times’ reporters cite contradictory evidence, except to acknowledge that Iran denies it seeks nuclear weapons. However, they immediately counter Iran’s denial, noting that it is rejected by Western officials.
It is, however, untrue that Iran’s denials are uniformly rejected. The United Nations nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, says there is no solid evidence that Iran has ever had a nuclear arms program. Erlanger and Broad themselves reported this on October 4, 2009. “In September, the IAEA issued a ‘statement cautioning it ‘has no concrete proof’ that Iran ever sought to make nuclear arms, much less to perfect a warhead.’”  Added Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief nuclear watchdog at the time: “We have not seen concrete evidence that Tehran has an ongoing nuclear weapons program… But somehow, many people are talking about how Iran’s nuclear program is the greatest threat to the world. In many ways, I think the threat has been hyped.” 
While the U.S. intelligence community hasn’t gone so far as to say there is no concrete proof that Tehran ever had a nuclear weapons program, in its 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) it did say that Iran hasn’t had a nuclear weapons program since 2003.
In a September 10, 2009 article, Erlanger reported that “new intelligence reports delivered to the White House say that [Iran] has deliberately stopped short of the critical last steps to make a bomb,” and “The new intelligence information collected by the Obama administration finds no convincing evidence that the design work has resumed.” 
It could be that new evidence compiled since September has led the Obama administration to adopt a revised view. Certainly, Obama’s advisers say they no longer believe the NIE, but they’ve been saying that since February. Back then, they acknowledged that “no new evidence (had) surfaced to undercut the findings of the (NIE)” but that they didn’t believe it, all the same. 
Significantly, Erlanger and Broad report that, “The administration’s (current) review of Iran’s program … (does) not amount to a new formal intelligence assessment.” In other words, the new intelligence, information from allies, and analyses that have led Obama’s advisers to conclude that Iran remains determined to develop nuclear weapons, isn’t of sufficient weight or credibility to revise the NIE. Just as was true in February.
Sanger and Broad reported as recently as December 16 that the “Institute for Science and International Security, a group in Washington that tracks nuclear proliferation” urged “caution and further assessment” of some of the evidence Obama advisers say has led them to reject the NIE, because “we have seen no evidence of an Iranian decision to build” nuclear weapons. 
The Obama administration’s recent actions smack of the former Bush administration’s practice of glomming on to any evidence, no matter how dubious, to make the case that Iraq had banned weapons. Bush may have been replaced by Obama, but the practice of sexing up intelligence to fabricate a case for war, or in this case, more sanctions in the short term — and of The New York Times playing a role in uncritically circulating pretexts for U.S. aggression — continue.
It would appear that while there is no credible evidence to revise the NIE, it is convenient for the Obama administration to claim that Iran is bent on acquiring nuclear arms. So it simply says it has new evidence that Iran is secretly working on building nuclear weapons. The New York Times, frequently complicit in U.S. foreign policy deceptions, plays along.
One other matter: Would an Iran with a nuclear weapons capability be a threat that warrants a pre-emptive strike?
Any nuclear arms capability Iran developed would be rudimentary and pose what U.S. foreign policy critic Edward Herman has called the threat of self-defense. Nuclear weapons would offer Iran a way of making the United States and Israel, both with vastly larger arsenals than Iran could ever develop in decades, and track records of attacking countries that threaten to disturb the balance of power in the Middle East (i.e., that threaten to challenge U.S. domination of the region), to think twice about overt aggression. A few nuclear weapons wouldn’t turn Iran into the new bully on the block, capable of throwing its weight around, and getting its way. Israel, with its estimated 200 nuclear warheads, is the region’s biggest bully, and, backed by the bully extraordinaire, the United States, will continue to be for some time. Iran, even a nuclear-armed one, is a military pipsqueak, by comparison.
As Uzi Rubin, a private defense consultant who ran Israel’s missile shield program in the 1990s, reminds us: Iran “is radical, but radical does not mean irrational … They want to change the world, not commit suicide.”  The United States, on the other hand, wants to rule the world, and will resort to whatever baseless charges are necessary to justify its actions.
1. “Report says Iran has data to make a nuclear bomb,” The New York Times, October 4, 2009.
3. “US says Iran could expedite nuclear bomb,” The New York Times, September 10, 2009.
4. Greg Miller, “US now sees Iran as pursuing nuclear bombs,” Los Angeles Times, February 12, 2009.
5. “Nuclear memo in Persian puzzles spy agencies,” The New York Times, December 16, 2009.
6. Howard Schneider, “Israel finds strength in its missile defenses,” The Washington Post, September 19, 2009.