In the American media, there is a persistent concern that Iran has decided and is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. This narrative has made its way into the belief system where 84 percent of Americans believe that Iran has a nuclear weapons program.
Yet the U.S. intelligence community has said on many occasions that there is still no evidence of a weapons program. We are not talking about a lack of consistent evidence; we are talking about a consistent lack of evidence. The main problem with Iran's nuclear program isn't that it is a nuclear program -- many nations have a nuclear program, even nuclear weapons programs. The problem is a lack of trust that each party has for the other. Iran doesn't trust that the West isn't seeking regime change, although the West would like to see that. The West doesn't trust that Iran's nuclear program is, as Iran maintains, exclusively for peaceful purposes.
A Consistent Finding
There is a long line of reports stating that there is "no evidence" of a nuclear weapons program in Iran.
- November 2003: An IAEA report states that it found "no evidence" that the previously undeclared activities were related to a nuclear weapons program.
- 2007: U.S. National Intelligence Estimate stated that Iran ended its nuclear weapons and design work in 2003.
- October 2007: The head of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, stated that he had seen "no evidence" of Iran developing nuclear weapons; "Have we seen Iran having the nuclear material that can readily be used into a weapon? No. Have we seen an active weaponization program? No."
- February 2008: The IAEA had no evidence of a current, undeclared nuclear program in Iran, and all of the remaining issues listed in the Modalities Agreement regarding past undeclared nuclear activities had been resolved, with the exception of the "Alleged Studies" issue.
- September 2008: An IAEA report found no evidence of any diversion of nuclear material for non-peaceful uses.
- August 2009: The incoming head of the IAEA said he did not see any hard evidence Iran was trying to gain the ability to develop nuclear arms.
- August 2009: The U.S. State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research noted that the U.S. intelligence community has no evidence that Iran has yet made the decision to produce highly enriched uranium.
- A 2009 Congressional Research paper noted that if Iran had a nuclear weapons program, any work on a weapons program stopped in 2003.
- February 2012: American intelligence analysts continue to believe that there is no hard evidence that Iran has decided to build a nuclear bomb.
- March 2012: Former Israeli Mossad Director Meir Dagan said he believes that there is no imminent threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon, and that the timetable is much longer than some think: three years longer in fact (from the point when Iran decides to pursue a weapon, which it has not as of yet).
Why the Concern?
Despite the long line of reports and officials stating that there is "no evidence" of a nuclear weapons program, concerns persist for one primary reason. We do not trust Iran, and for good reason. From the point of view of the U.S., Israel and the West, the lack of full and unfettered transparency is reason for serious alarm. From the point of view of Iran, this is 1) a violation of their sovereignty, and 2) a double standard -- Israel has no internationally sanctioned supervision of its nuclear program.
More recently, IAEA believes high-explosives research pertinent to nuclear weapons may have taken place. May have taken place is not the same as took place. This paired with the lack of unfettered transparency and the suspected clean-up at nuclear sites are real reasons for concern. Also found have been a lot of dual use technologies, which have been reason for concern.
With 84 percent of Americans believing that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, despite statements to the contrary by our own government, despite the IAEA stating in numerous reports that there is no evidence, and despite the lack of ability of Israel to produce evidence that would be persuasive enough to stand up at the UN, this perception is very troubling. There are several Congressional candidates who are running on the notion that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. This, too, is very troubling.
We need to learn the lessons of our past. We made a mistake believing that Iraq had a WMD program. While Iran is not Iraq, that mistake resulted in thousands of American soldiers dead and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens dead. We spent over $3 trillion, which was added to our debt, and the international community doesn't trust U.S. proclamations of threats like they once did.
Bold leadership on this issue is needed. The need for negotiation could not by higher. Negotiation is not weak. It is not appeasement. Negotiation is respect. It is humility. It is a demonstration of strength and confidence, over fear and self righteousness. And it is absolutely necessary to avoid war and military conflict.
My point here is that there is a long line of "no evidence" reports. If there were evidence, there would be no question that the U.S., Israel, or the IAEA would have presented that evidence at the UN Security Council as Adlai Stevenson did in 1961 on the USSR's nuclear missiles in Cuba, or as Colin Powell tried to do in February 2003 over Iraq's alleged WMD. If evidence of a weapons program is presented and accepted as valid by the international community, I and many others might feel differently about a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. But we are not there.
We must form our opinions and beliefs based on what we know, not what we fear. Fear is important. It keeps us vigilant and sometimes alive. But we can't let that fear cloud our judgment when the evidence, or lack-thereof, says otherwise. That needlessly led us into Iraq in 2003.
PAUL HEROUX previously lived and worked in the Middle East, was a senior analyst at the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies, and is a frequent guest on TV and radio stations discussing the Middle East. Paul has a Master's in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master's from the Harvard School of Government. Paul can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com.