Friday, February 13, 2009

The White House and Iranian nukes: Show me the evidence

We've been down this road before: Colin Powell at the UN, yellowcake, the whole nine yards.

Now President Obama and CIA Director Panetta are openly beating the drums about Iranian nukes:

It has been 15 months since the release of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran which determined that the Iranian government had halted all efforts to create a nuclear weapon, and the outgoing chairman of the National Intelligence Council reaffirmed those findings only two months ago. The Obama Administration didn’t seem to read those reports, however.

President Obama accused Iran of “development of a nuclear weapon” during a press conference. Incoming CIA director Leon Panetta declared during his testimony that “I think there is no question that they are seeking that capability.”

While the Iranian government continues to express its desire to improve relations, Obama and associates just keep hurling accusations at Iran’s civilian nuclear program. There’s one thing the administration is missing though, and that’s evidence. Officials concede there is no evidence that undercuts the 2007 findings, but like the Bush Administration, the newcomers don’t seem to want fact to get in the way of good rhetoric.

As the LATimes reports, although there is little or no substantive evidence to challenge the conclusions of the 2007 report, US officials are now beating the drums to say, not that it was wrong but that it was incomplete:

U.S. officials said that although no new evidence had surfaced to undercut the findings of the 2007 estimate, there was growing consensus that it provided a misleading picture and that the country was poised to reach crucial bomb-making milestones this year.

Obama's top intelligence official, Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence, is expected to address mounting concerns over Iran's nuclear program in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee today.

When it was issued, the NIE stunned the international community. It declared that U.S. spy agencies judged "with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program."

U.S. intelligence officials later said the conclusion was based on evidence that Iran had stopped secret efforts to design a nuclear warhead around the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Often overlooked in the NIE, officials said, was that Iran had not stopped its work on other crucial fronts, including missile design and uranium enrichment. Many experts contend that these are more difficult than building a bomb.

Iran's advances on enrichment have become a growing source of alarm. Since 2004, the country has gone from operating a few dozen centrifuges -- cylindrical machines used to enrich uranium -- to nearly 6,000, weapons experts agree.

By November, Iran had produced an estimated 1,400 pounds of low-enriched uranium, not nearly enough to fuel a nuclear energy reactor, but perilously close to the quantity needed to make a bomb.

A report issued last month by the Institute for Science and International Security concluded that "Iran is moving steadily toward a breakout capability and is expected to reach that milestone during the first half of 2009." That means it would have enough low-enriched uranium to be able to quickly convert it to weapons-grade material.

Tehran's progress has come despite CIA efforts to sabotage shipments of centrifuge components on their way into Iran and entice the country's nuclear scientists to leave.

Iran still faces considerable hurdles. The country touted its launch of a 60-pound satellite into orbit this month. Experts said Iran's rockets would need to be able to carry more than 2,000 pounds to deliver a first-generation nuclear bomb.

The most telling passage in the article, however, is this:

Cirincione said the unequivocal language also worked to Obama's political advantage. "It guards against criticism from the right that the administration is underestimating Iran," he said.

The United States cannot afford to head into another interventionist adventure, or fund massive increases in our defense budget, based--as in 2003--on assurances that the American people should just trust the government without the provision of clear and compelling evidence that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.

The muddling of domestic politics and ambiguous intelligence reports is hauntingly--not to say, disturbingly--resonant of the tactics of the Bush administration.

It's amazing: the United States openly supports, with billions of dollars per year, the rapidly disintegrating nuclear state of Pakistan, and makes absolutely no demands about limitations or restrictions on that country's nuclear arsenal, even when Pakistan has, in the past, openly threatened nuclear war with India.

Nor does the US apparently regard nuclear proliferation a problem in regard to Israel.

This is politics as usual from the Obama administration, and all the more disappointing in that it suggests that all the vaunted changes in America foreign policy we were supposed to see represent little more than re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

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