WASHINGTON - In the struggle over US
policy toward Iran, neo-conservatives in the
George W Bush administration spoiling for an
attack on Iran's nuclear sites have been seeking
to convince the public that the US must strike
before an Iranian nuclear-weapons capability
To do so, they must
discredit the intelligence community's conclusions
that Iran is still as many as 10 years away from
being able to build a nuclear weapon and that such
a weapon is
an inevitable consequence of its present
were first circulated in a top-secret National
Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran completed in
May or June 2005, and could be a rallying point
for Democrats and dissident Republicans inclined
to oppose an attack on Iran. It has also inhibited
the neo-conservatives from being able to launch
the kind of propaganda campaign against Iran they
Before the 2005 estimate,
neo-conservatives in the Bush administration had
been free to issue alarmist warnings about
impending Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons.
John Bolton, now Washington's ambassador to the
United Nations and then the administration's point
man on weapons of mass destruction, declared in
April 2004, "If we permit Iran's deception to go
on much longer, it will be too late. Iran will
have nuclear weapons."
The pro-war camp
quickly tried to cast doubt on the new estimate,
which made it more difficult for them to make such
lurid claims. Asked about the estimate soon after
it was issued, Robert G Joseph, Bolton's successor
as under secretary of state for arms control,
cleverly dismissed it by saying, "I don't know
quite how to answer that because we don't have
perfect information or perfect understanding."
That theme was to become a propaganda
leitmotif for the neo-conservatives on Iran.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld picked it up
in a major assault on the Iran estimate on April
18. Asked by conservative radio talk-show host
Laura Ingraham if he had confidence in the current
US intelligence assessment that Iran was five to
10 years away from producing a nuclear weapon,
Rumsfeld replied, "No, I'm not confident."
Referring condescendingly to the
intelligence analysts, Rumsfeld said, "They work
hard at it and they're fine people, but it's a
difficult thing to do. Our visibility into their
circumstance is imperfect."
neo-conservatives returned to that theme again,
using the staff report of the House Intelligence
Committee's Sub-committee on Intelligence Policy,
issued on August 23, as a launching vehicle. A key
message of the report was that "American
intelligence agencies do not know nearly enough
about Iran's nuclear-weapons program".
intelligence community has not been passive in the
face of this subtle campaign to dismiss its
analysis on Iran's nuclear program. On April 20,
Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte,
answering questions after a speech at the National
Press Club, reaffirmed the 2005 estimate. He said
the intelligence community believed it was "still
a number of years off before they are likely to
have enough fissile material to assemble into or
to put into a nuclear weapon, perhaps into the
next decade ..."
Equally important, in an
interview with NBC (National Broadcasting Co) News
the same day, Negroponte repeated that formula,
and then added, "According to the experts that I
consult ... getting 164 centrifuges to work is
still a long way from having the capacity to
manufacture fissile material for a nuclear
weapon." That implied that uranium enrichment
alone should not be seized on as evidence that
time is running out.
The day after
Negroponte's remarks, neo-conservative Joseph
launched a direct attack on that point in a
briefing for reporters at the State Department.
Ostensibly the briefing was about Joseph's trip to
the Persian Gulf states to discuss the Iranian
nuclear program. But he zeroed in on what he
called "the question of the point of no return" in
regard to Iranian nuclear weapons, meaning the
point at which a nuclear-weapons capability
Joseph suggested that
there were different views on the point of no
return, such as when Iran had produced enough
fissile material, or the point of successful
But he said there was "an
earlier point of no return", which is when Iran
"has acquired the confidence and capability of
running centrifuges over a sustained period of
time, allowing it to produce enrichment uranium".
The "key point", he asserted, "has always been the
The idea of
successful uranium enrichment as equivalent to the
"point of no return" came from the Israeli
government. On January 26, 2005, Shaul Mofaz,
Israeli defense minister, warned that Iran would
reach "the point of no return" within 12 months.
The Israeli argument is a clever
formulation of the claim that Iran had already
made the decision to manufacture nuclear weapons.
By invoking the Israeli concept, Joseph was really
suggesting that efforts to offer incentives for
Iran to eschew nuclear weapons would be futile.
The intelligence estimate on Iran,
however, explicitly takes the view that there is
nothing inevitable about an Iranian decision to
weaponize. Paul Pillar, who was the national
intelligence officer for the Near East and South
Asia and is now teaching at Georgetown University,
declared in an interview with Newsweek published
on August 28 that the "point of no return" was "a
ridiculous concept". Pillar explained why:
"There's no reason any country - Iran or anyone
else who has such a program - can't turn back or
won't turn back with the right incentives."
Pillar told this writer in February that
the "dominant view" among intelligence analysts
had been that a willingness on the part of the
United States to provide security assurances could
cause Iran to change course on the issue of
Significantly, the chief
of Israel's intelligence organization, Meir Dagan,
has sided with the US intelligence community
rather than the neo-conservatives on this point.
Dagan refused to use the concept of "point of no
return" last December in testimony before the
knesset (parliament). Instead, he said Iran was
six months away from gaining "technical
independence" in regard to a nuclear capability.
As the Jerusalem Post observed on December
27 in reporting the testimony, Dagan's choice of
wording implied that, even after Iran had acquired
the capability to make a nuclear weapon, it might
still be persuaded not to do so by an
judgment on this is also supported by independent
analysts of the Iranian program. Ray Takeyh,
senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations,
told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in
March that it was "neither inevitable nor
absolute" that Iran would turn to nuclear weapons,
because "its course of action is still unsettled".
The intelligence community's conclusion
that Iran may still turn away from nuclear weapons
if the US offers real incentives, including
security guarantees and normalization of
relations, is crucial to the possibility of a
bipartisan resistance to war against Iran.
The neo-conservatives can be expected to
work assiduously in the coming weeks and months to
discredit the current intelligence analysis and
substitute their own alternative as they position
themselves for the attack on Iran they have long
Gareth Porter is a
historian and national-security policy analyst.
His latest book, Perils of Dominance:
Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam,
was published in June 2005.