June 14, 2011 | Scripps Howard News Service

Confidence Game

If there's a lesson to be learned from the NIE, it's keep the pressure on Iran.

Ask yourself a simple question: Why is Iran still violating international law by enriching uranium? Do you think Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and associates worry that more electricity may be needed to keep air conditioners humming in Tehran? Or do you think perhaps they want highly enriched uranium to make nuclear weapons?

If your answer is: “Gee, I dunno,” you may be qualified for a job in the American intelligence community — along with all the CIA analysts who in the past came to erroneous conclusions about the nuclear-weapons programs of Iraq, Libya, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Syria.

As recently as 2005, it was the consensus view of the intelligence community — asserted with “high confidence” — that Iran was “determined to develop nuclear weapons.” But this week, the “key judgments” of a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) were released. This time they conclude — with equally “high confidence”– that in 2003 “Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”

That program had been in place for more than 20 years — a point to keep in mind when apologists for the Islamist mullahs insist that Iran’s nuclear weapons program never existed (as apologists for Saddam Hussein insist that he never possessed or sought any weapons of mass destruction).

Ask yourself a more difficult question: If Iran’s rulers did suspend their nuclear-weapons program, what caused them to do that? If your answer is that they were responding to “international pressure,” a career in the diplomatic service might be right for you.

But recall that in 2003 the so-called international community was not applying significant pressure to Iran. However, that was the year American forces toppled Saddam Hussein — as the NIE neglected to mention but military historian Victor Davis Hanson was quick to point out.

Is it possible that the mullahs looked over their western border and said: “Why don’t we hold off on the nukes for a while — at least as long as that trigger-happy cowboy is in the White House?” If that’s your view, expect to be called an unreconstructed neo-conservative who should shut his mouth because his carbon-dioxide exhalations are contributing to global warming, the only real threat to the planet.

Many commentators are fudging the distinction between Iran “suspending” and “abandoning” its nuclear weapons program. According to the new NIE, Iran not only continues to enrich uranium, it also is “continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so.” If your teenage son tells you he doesn’t smoke, but you nonetheless find tobacco, rolling papers and matches in his knapsack, what would be your guess regarding his intentions and capabilities?

Nor does this new NIE conclude that Iran poses no nuclear threat. The Tehran regime is “keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons,” it notes, adding: “The earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon is late 2009.” Coincidently, in 2009 the United States will have a new president, one who — the mullahs may calculate — is likely to take a more casual approach to rogue regimes acquiring nuclear weapons.

The most puzzling line in the NIE is this: “We assess with moderate confidence that Iran probably would use covert facilities — rather than its declared nuclear sites for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon.” How confident are you that the Intelligence Community knows much about Iran’s “covert facilities” — its secret programs and places?

Here is what we should know: For almost 30 years, the slogan of Iran’s militant Islamist rulers has been “Death to America!” Ahmadinejad said last year that “a world without the United States … is achievable.” And Hassan Abbassi, a top advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader, said this year: “We have a strategy drawn up for the destruction of Anglo-Saxon civilization … We know how we are going to attack them.”

The good news is, if the new NIE is correct — a big if — the mullahs may respond rationally to pressure — not least the threat of serious sanctions and credible military force.

So finally, ask yourself this: Does it make any sense to end the pressure — reversing the only policy that has ever had a positive impact on Iran’s radical Islamist ruler? If you’re answer is “Yes!” you may have a future as a policy advisory to Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leaders who is in response to this NIE is demanding that the Bush administration “appropriately adjusts its rhetoric and policy” toward Iran.

– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

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