Don’t Let the Iran Headlines Scare You

Don’t Let the Iran Headlines Scare You

Don’t Let the Iran Headlines Scare You


The headlines are scary. “Iran ready to build nuclear weapon, analysts say,” screams CNN. “Iran Has More Enriched Uranium Than Thought,” shouts the New York Times. “Iran has enough uranium to make bomb,” proclaims the Jerusalem Post.

Don’t believe any of this nonsense.

What Iran has is one ton or so of low-enriched uranium. You can’t build a bomb with that. To do so, Iran would first have to re-enrich all of it to weapons-grade uranium, which it isn’t doing. Right now that uranium is under lock and key, watched over by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In order to enrich it, Iran would have to do so right in front of the inspectors, who’d tell us all about it, or kick the inspectors out and do it secretly. Either way, (a) we’d know about it, and (b) it would still take Iran a long time, many months, if not a year or two, and that’s assuming that they do it right and that the machines don’t break down.

So President Obama can relax.

I’m not one of those Pollyannas who think that the Iranians are all innocent. In my view, the mullahs who run Iran want a bomb. Some analysts believe that they’re pushing ahead as quickly as they can to get there, while others think that what Iran wants is simply a “Japan-like” capability to assemble a bomb when and if the Iranian military thinks its needed. In any case, however, Iran isn’t there yet, and they haven’t taken the necessary next step, namely, to enrich the fuel to weapons-grade. (Not only that, but we can’t be sure that Iran actually knows how to make a bomb, even if has the enriched uranium, nor — despite its recent missile and satellite launches — does it have the capability to deliver a weapon.)

Buried in the Times story, but headlined elsewhere, is the news that Mohammad ElBaradei, the IAEA chief, says that surprisingly Iran has slowed, not accelerated, its program of enrichment lately, perhaps as a sign to the Obama administration that it wants to talk. ElBaradei called it a “political decision,” meaning that it’s not a technical slowdown.

Another alarmist piece on Iran showed up this week in the Los Angeles Times, headlined: “U.S. now sees Iran as pursuing nuclear bomb.” Now, I don’t disagree with the conclusion that Iran is “pursuing” a bomb. But the LA Times story was based on thin reeds. It purported to show that the December, 2007, US National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that Iran had halted work on its military nuclear program, was being reversed by the Obama administration. Here’s the lede:

“Little more than a year after U.S. spy agencies concluded that Iran had halted work on a nuclear weapon, the Obama administration has made it clear that it believes there is no question that Tehran is seeking the bomb.”

That’s utterly bogus. The evidence the newspaper cites has nothing, repeat nothing, to do with any new NIE or intelligence conclusion. (The Obama intelligence team hasn’t even figured out where their parking spaces are yet, never mind reassessing the Iranian nuclear effort.) What the article cites, instead, is (1) a misstatement by Obama, during a news conference, in which the president said something about Iran’s “development of a nuclear weapon,” and then corrected himself, and (2) testimony by Leon Panetta, the utterly unprepared CIA director, at his confirmation hearings, in which poor Leon said the following:

“From all the information I’ve seen, I think there is no question that they are seeking that capability.”

Problem is, Panetta hasn’t seen any — repeat, any — classified information yet. Now, I attended those hearings, and Panetta was speaking before he became CIA director, and he was speaking about what he’s read in the papers, not what he learned from reading secret reports. He’s entitled to his opinion, but that’s all it is. It certainly has nothing to do with any new conclusion reached by the intelligence community.

The point is, there’s plenty to time for Obama to work out a deal with Iran, presumably one that would enlist Iran’s help with Iraq and Afghanistan, Hamas and Hezbollah, and other problems, including the nuclear file, as part of a broad arrangement. And it seems certain that Obama understands that it’s important to get Russia’s help in dealing with Iran, which is why the administration has pledged to “hit the reset button” on relations with Moscow. As John Hughes, a former Reagan administration State Department official, wrote approvingly in the Christian Science Monitor this week:

“All the signs suggest that in return for Russian pressure upon Iran to end its military nuclear program, the Obama White House quid pro quo would abandon the missile defense project the Bush White House had planned to build on Russia’s doorstep. …

“Could [Russia] then exert what remains of its considerable influence on Iran to curtail its military nuclear program? Russia has no desire to see Iran become a nuclear weapons-wielding power in the Middle East. But the price must be right before it is ready to spend political capital to prevent that from happening. It remains to be seen whether abrogation of the American antimissile project in Eastern Europe meets that price.”

Making a deal with Iran will take lots of intricate diplomacy. That will take hime. Fortunately, Obama has lots of time.

Unless, that is, Bibi Netanyahu does something rash.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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