News that the recent partial release of the National Intelligence Estimate includes the conclusion that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program sometime in 2003 has created quite a stir for the administration to sort out. Those brave hearted souls who actually try to chart the logic behind Bush administration policy have quite the challenge at hand. Actual administration officials and the media opinionators who guard their flanks have had to adopt some fairly circular logic, both to justify the saber rattling of the past few months (years actually) and the continued posture of entrenched contempt for, and confrontation with, Iran that they now cling to.
The fact that this fist waving at the menace of a nuclear Iran has been mistaken for a number of years and downright disingenuous for a period of months (since the administration was made aware of the NIE report sometime in August) seems of little concern in the post candor paradigm of the George W. Bush presidency. Daniel Froomkin of the Washington Post is credited with pinpointing the date as sometime in August, when the administration was at last compelled to acknowledge the NIE report. At about this point administration mouthings stopped referring to the actual constitution of weapons as a threat and our rhetorical gun-sights turned on Iran's "potential access" to "knowledge" or "capabilities" that might indicate or allow for mal-intent. The administration knew the NIE must ultimately come to at least partial light. This subtle retooling of the language was to allow Bush to maintain that precious sense of alarm, even in the face of some regrettably good news.
And that is exactly how the administration has treated the NIE report, as such regrettable good news: "(Alas), there is no credible evidence of an active program to develop Iranian nuclear arms." (OK, I added the "Alas", but that has been the basic tone: "Alas!") And Team Bush has mobilized to confront this good news crisis.
Former U.N. "diplomat" John Bolton, without the slightest crack of a smile at the irony, has advised that we shouldn't believe everything our intelligence agencies tell us. Defense Secretary Gates joined in with the comment "Iran remains a grave threat," and with a call upon Iran to explain its support for "funding and training" of Shia militia in Iraq. (Of course the Iraqi government has essentially funded, trained and employed the National Police as a Shia militia too, but that's beside the point!)
President Bush himself responded. He pointed out that he viewed the 2003 Iranian shutdown of its nuclear program "as a warning signal that they had the program!" (...huh?)
“They halted the program. And the reason why it’s a warning signal is that they could restart it.” (Again ...huh?)
“What changed was the change of leadership in Iran,” the president said at a press conference called to address the good news crisis. Referring to the elections in Iran in 2005, he observed “We had a diplomatic track going, and Ahmadinejad came along and took a different tone. And the Iranian people must understand that the tone and actions of their government are that which is isolating them.”
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OK, maybe a timeline would help. The alleged arms program was shut down in 2003 (that is if you're gonna believe our intelligence!) You might recall that this was at just about the same time the U.S. was obliterating the Iraqi WMD menace with a massive "preemptive retaliation". History would ultimately prove that in Iraq, as well, we were merely attacking the retroactive warning signals of past weapons programs that the Iraqi regime may or may not have been thinking about developing a capacity for ...some time in the future.
Interestingly enough, some conservative pundits, such as Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe, have pointed to the shutdown of the Iranian program as yet another aspect of the remarkable success of the Bush Iraqi adventure.
But wait a minute!
That was 2003 and, as President Bush pointed out, Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005.
(Count with your fingers if necessary.)
So the decision to have a weapons program and the decision to halt it, both occurred two years prior the evil doer Mahmoud ever entering office. Actually, both decisions would be attributable to the regime of President Mohammad Khatami, who was (and still is) widely well regarded in the West as a moderate reformer in Iranian politics. (That's the problem with retroactive warning signals, sometimes they don't follow the script.) The "diplomatic track" may or may not have been derailed by the neighboring occupation force of 150,000 American troops moving in next door (and staying), but however you want to read the entrails you can't connect the current Ahmadinejad regime with the arms program at issue. By our own accounting of the facts, Ahmadinejad has done only as he has said, expanded upon Iran's domestic nuclear power and challenged the notion of needing America's permission to do so.
In actuality Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran pose no threat to America or her interests with any form of arms capacity. What does stand as a challenge, and what is suddenly showing in rather stark light, is the frail logic of our policies. With regard to arms, with regard to the exercise of power, in the Mideast and around the world, what is being called into question in our confrontation with Iran is the generalized doctrine American exceptionalsim, "The Because We Said So" Doctrine.
Why is nuclear power a sovereign domestic concern for American politicians to discuss freely, yet something Iran must seek permission for? What empowers the U.S. to arbitrate the standing of nuclear nations, blessing for India what it would bomb in Iraq? Would America's ally Israel submit to the same monitoring conditions for its power plants now being demanded of Iran? These questions, this is the war of ideas Iran is waging right now. And that's one place where I worry about our own "weapons capacity."
Tom driscoll is an opinion columnist, poet, performiing songwriter (let's just say he writes).