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Seda: Voices of Iran

Lesson: Iran's Nuclear Program (Teachable Moment)

In February 2003 the world learned from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran had been working for years on a secret nuclear program. Iranian leaders insisted that the program was strictly for peaceful purposes. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, declared that nuclear weapons are "un-Islamic."

But the U.S. and other members of the UN Security Council were suspicious. Suspicions mounted when Iran refused to allow IAEA inspectors into certain sites. The Security Council then began efforts to make a deal with Iran that would satisfy its civilian needs and prevent it from creating nuclear weapons in the future.

In 2005 a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which is a consensus view of all 16 American spy agencies, declared that it assessed "with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons." UN Security Council meetings with Iran continued. Iran's nuclear program included uranium enrichment with centrifuges. These machines spin very rapidly to concentrate or enrich a form of uranium. The resulting materials can be used for nuclear reactors to produce energy for civilian purposes--or, in time, to create nuclear weapons.

In December 2006 the Security Council imposed economic sanctions on Iran because Iranian leaders refused to stop this enrichment process. Iran's leaders maintained, correctly, that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which most nations approved years ago, gives them the right to enrich uranium (for peaceful purposes). But they did not explain their secrecy.

President Bush repeatedly warned of Iran's nuclear weapons threat. In an October 2007 news conference, he declared that Iran's nuclear weapons program might lead to World War III. Later that month he spoke of the need "to defend Europe against the emerging Iranian threat." The U.S. announced additional sanctions on Iran, targeting individuals as well as companies and state-owned banks.

On December 3, 2007, American intelligence agencies released another NIE, which was based on new information that had been collected months earlier. It contradicted the 2005 NIE and contained a huge surprise: "We assess with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons." But, with "high confidence," the NIE now declared, "Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure…." The report added that intelligence agencies "do not know whether it [Iran] currently intends to develop nuclear weapons."

President Bush said the next day that Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, had advised him in August about new intelligence on Iran's nuclear weapons program but did not explain it in detail. He said he had not received the drastically different intelligence assessment until the week before it was made public. "That's not believable," said Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the foreign relations committee and a Delaware Democrat now running for president.

Why had the president been warning ominously of an Iranian nuclear threat months after intelligence agencies had changed their earlier assessment? White House Press secretary Dana Perino said that McConnell had warned the president in August that "new information might cause the intelligence community to change its assessment of Iran's covert nuclear program, but the intelligence community was not prepared to draw any conclusions at that point in time…."

The president said, "I view this [new NIE] report as a warning signal that they had the program, they halted the program. And the reason why it's a warning signal is that they could restart it. And the thing that would make a restarted program effective and dangerous is the ability to enrich uranium." The international community needs "to pressure the Iranian regime to suspend its program."

This did not satisfy the president's critics. Said David Albright, a former IAE weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security: "Bush has made a big mistake, and he's not responding in a way that gives confidence that he's on top of this. He isn't able to respond because he's not able to say he's wrong." (New York Times, 12/6/07)

Flynt Leverett, a former member of the National Security Council under President Bush, said, "The really uncomfortable part for the administration, aside from the embarrassment, is the policy implication. The dirty secret is the administration has never put on the table an offer to negotiate with Iran the issues that would really matter: their own security, the legitimacy of the Islamic republic and Iran's place in the regional order." (New York Times, 12/5/07)

Mohamed El Baradei, director general of the IAEA, said that the NIE "tallies with the [IAEA's] consistent statements over the last few years--that although Iran still needs to clarify some important aspects of its past and present nuclear activity, the agency has no concrete evidence of an ongoing nuclear weapons program or undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran."

El Baradei had said earlier, "I would hope we would stop spinning and hyping the Iranian issue….The earlier we follow the North Korea model, the better for everybody." He was referring to what appear to be successful diplomatic efforts to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Both U.S. and foreign officials said the new NIE means that imposing additional international sanctions on Iran will now become much more difficult.

For Discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What reasons are there for suspicion about Iran's nuclear program?

3. What differences are there between the 2005 and 2007 NIE reports?

4. What is President Bush's view of the new NIE?

5. What is Dr. El Baradei's view of the new NIE?

6. What criticisms do Albright and Leverett make? Is each justified? Why or why not?

7. Why do officials think that imposing more sanctions on Iran will now be unlikely?

Source: Written by Alan Shapiro;


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