IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.


The case of Iran’s bomb program—controlled by a messianic government led by a Holocaust denier and operating within missile range of Israel and Europe—presents a distinct problem in atomic history.
Image: cartoon
/ Source: The New Yorker

Last week, the Bush Administration released declassified extracts from a new National Intelligence Estimate about Iran’s nuclear program. The passages landed in Washington like a religious scroll; they radiated revelation. The N.I.E. drew upon new intelligence, collected last summer, to report with “high confidence” two facts that were previously unknown, or at least heavily disputed: that Iran’s Islamic revolutionary government had commissioned a secret, military-run atomic-weapons program, in addition to its open nuclear-power program, and that, in 2003, Iran halted this secret program, “primarily in response to international pressure.”

This assessment may yet prove to be no more accurate than past American intelligence evaluations of Iran (the Shah’s rule is stable; the Iranian Revolution has reliable moderates; if the United States invades Iraq, Iran will react passively). But, taken at face value, the findings expose some of the bluff, humbug, and extremism that have often dominated nuclear diplomacy between the Bush Administration and Tehran.

Iran’s ruling clerics are revealed in the estimate as nervous types. As the mullahs watched the United States recklessly invade Iraq, in 2003, to destroy weapons of mass destruction that no longer existed, they harbored the guilty secret that their atomic-bomb program did exist, and might yet be discovered. So they apparently put their bomb work to rest. To a considerable extent, the “international pressure” referred to in the estimate must have been neurotic and self-inflicted: if the mullahs confessed their secret program, they might be goners, but if they did not confess and got caught, they might also be goners. Iran’s government seems to have coped with this conundrum in the manner of deceivers throughout history and literature: it blustered, obfuscated, hinted, delayed, negotiated for some way out, but ultimately found itself imprisoned by its own deceit. More pragmatically, it launched a clandestine campaign against the American forces occupying Iraq, to forestall a possible American invasion.

The estimate’s findings provide equally bracing clarity about the Bush Administration: they show that the Cheney regency persists, and that the Vice-President and his neoconservative protégés in the Administration have continued to exaggerate and misuse intelligence to advance preconceived policies—in this case, a policy of militant confrontation with Iran, salted by public misstatements of what was known or knowable about the Iranian nuclear threat. A year ago, in these pages, Seymour Hersh reported that the C.I.A. had acquired intelligence that Iran’s nuclear program was considerably less advanced than the White House advertised, but that this reporting had been dismissed by Cheney and his aides, who wanted only intelligence that would allow them “to accomplish the mission,” as a senior intelligence official told Hersh. The official’s choice of words resonates still.

During a news conference last week, President Bush said that he didn’t learn the new facts about Iran’s bomb program until late November, several months after the discoveries were made. Dana Perino, the White House press secretary, later corrected this assertion, saying that Bush had been told the gist of the new information last summer, but not the details. This puzzling chronology may be explained by the President’s lassitude, or by his desire to deflect attention from how much he knew and when, or by the reluctance of his spy services to deliver unwelcome intelligence, however provisional, to the Cheney-prowled White House.

The new intelligence offers an implied but compelling case for sustained diplomatic engagement with Iran, because it reveals that country’s ambivalence about its nuclear ambitions. In any event, there is no other plausible way to pursue the urgent objective of Iran’s nuclear disarmament. As the Administration’s recent progress in negotiations with North Korea has shown, it is hard to predict when an opaque, radical government might be ready to bargain seriously about its nuclear hole card. The only way to find out is to stay at the table. (At this point, the risks of an unsuccessful diplomatic initiative scarcely seem worth worrying about: the world’s capacity to absorb American foreign-policy failures is apparently elastic.)

By now, more than sixty years into the atomic age, there is little mystery about why or how countries sometimes agree to give up work on nuclear weapons. Moral vision is not a decisive factor, the evidence suggests; the leaders who have repudiated bomb programs span the considerable range between Muammar Qaddafi and Nelson Mandela. Nor does the nature of a country’s political system seem to matter much. According to Richard Rhodes’s recent history “Arsenals of Folly,” the countries that, since the bombing of Nagasaki, have forsworn, under diplomatic pressure, either bomb arsenals or advanced-weapons experiments include, in addition to Libya and South Africa, Yugoslavia, Sweden, Australia, Norway, Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, Turkey, Greece, Romania, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Switzerland, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

Nuclear bombs are expensive, dangerous, and not very useful in war, but they do bring prestige and scare off unruly neighbors. While each diplomatic case is as individual as a fingerprint, the formula for achieving voluntary nuclear disarmament is well established: a country’s anxieties about security are negotiated into quietude; its aspirations to political legitimacy and economic integration are rewarded; and, if the government in question is nonetheless recalcitrant, political and economic pressure are brought to bear. This method is not infallible, but the global scorecard since 1945 is not entirely discouraging: about two dozen successes; three failures (India, Pakistan, Israel); five problem arsenals born in the Cold War and complicated by Great Power competition (the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain); and two cases-in-progress, North Korea and Iran. In only one instance, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, has preëmptive military action, rather than diplomacy, figured significantly in an attempt to stop nuclear proliferation; as a test case of this approach, beginning with Israel’s raid on an Iraqi reactor in 1981 and culminating with the present war, it has proved less than persuasive. In an earlier era, the Cuban missile crisis was similarly uninspiring.

The case of Iran’s bomb program—controlled by a messianic government led by a Holocaust denier and operating within missile range of Israel and Europe—presents a distinct problem in atomic history. Iran’s possession of the notionally peaceful nuclear fuel cycle it seeks might well provide an unreliable regime with an unacceptable reserve-bomb capacity. These tactical and negotiating problems are daunting, but their prominence in the current discourse is a diversion from a deeper fallacy in the Bush Administration’s approach to the nuclear danger. The Administration, trapped by its ahistorical skepticism about diplomacy, manages nuclear negotiations as merely an extension of regional-power contests. The challenge posed by atomic bombs, however, has always been global and moral. The engagements that will matter most, after Bush and Cheney have at last departed, will be not only with Iran and North Korea but with the neglected goal of worldwide nuclear-arsenal reductions, negotiated in full embrace of the ideal of abolition.