The official position of the U.S. on Iran is still — rightfully — that no one can be sure that the Iranians are bent on making a nuclear weapon.
In a briefing yesterday, acting State Department spokesperson Mark Toner put an exclamation on this when he was asked if the Iranians “want a bomb or not.” He redirected the reporter to somebody who might actually know: Iranian President Mahmood Ahmadinejad. “Ask Ahmadinejad,” Toner said. (The full exchange is below.)
On Tuesday, Foreign Policy‘s Josh Rogin reported that a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran had been completed and circulated among some members of Congress– The Iran hawks who spoke to Rogin spoke with certainty about Iran’s desire for a bomb.
The ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), who hadn’t yet seen the new NIE, told Rogin: “There can be no serious doubt that Iran wants to have a nuclear weapons capability.”
But a report in the Wall Street Journal by Adam Entous on Thursday suggested that, according to the latest NIE, while Iran has been working on various components that could be synthesized into a full-blown nuclear weapons program, the regime in Tehran seems to have split over whether to work toward that goal. Entous:
The NIE’s findings suggest that, in the U.S. view, at least some Iranian leaders are worried that economic turmoil fueled in part by international sanctions could spur opposition to the regime—though officials acknowledge it is impossible for outsiders to determine the precise effect of sanctions on decision-making in Tehran.
Noting that the NIE is a consensus opinion among U.S. intelligence agencies, Entous gets this quote from an unnamed U.S. official:
“The bottom line is that the intelligence community has concluded that there’s an intense debate inside the Iranian regime on the question of whether or not to move toward a nuclear bomb,” a U.S. official said. “There’s a strong sense that a number of Iranian regime officials know that the sanctions are having a serious effect.”
As Matt Duss at ThinkProgress has hammered home again and again, the current position — ‘We just don’t know!’ — tracks perfectly with the public stances of the CIA (pdf), the UN’s atomic agency (IAEA), and serious analysts everywhere. (The most vociferous dissenters from this conventional wisdom — in Israel — have proven themselves to be less than reliable on the matter.)
Duss spoke to an Iranian-Israeli analyst who, contra his compatriots in government, took a wholly responsible stand on the subject:
“No one, absolutely nobody, perhaps not even Khamenei knows whether they will field a weapon, yet. Its all assumptions,” said Israeli analyst Meir Javedanfar, via email.
At a conference earlier this month sponsored by the National Security Network and the Center for American Progress, former intelligence analyst and Georgetown professor Paul Pillar concurred with the assessment that no decision has been made by the Iranians.
He said this supported the notion that a deal to avert the current crisis is still possible: that with real inducements of the sort not yet offered by the West, Iran could decide not to pursue weapons.
“[A deal] is still feasible,” he said. “We’re talking about an Iranian decision not yet made and influenceable by the West — including the United States — and what it does.”
Here’s State spokesperson Mark Toner’s full exchange on Iran’s intentions during the Feb. 17 daily press briefing:
QUESTION: Mark, is there any evidence that the —
MR. TONER: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: — of a – some kind of split within the Iranian regime about the wisdom of proceeding forward with its nuclear program – the impact of economic sanctions, et cetera – is there any evidence of a schism within the regime?
MR. TONER: It’s a fair question. I don’t know or can’t speak to it authoritatively today. We’ve seen some signs that the sanctions have had some impact, and the best we can do is offer Iran a clear path forward and one that involves coming clean with the international community about its nuclear program, which would then lead to greater engagement and easing of sanctions.
QUESTION: Has the Department observed any slowdown on the part of the Iranians’ efforts to achieve a nuclear weapons capability?
MR. TONER: I can’t speak to that.
QUESTION: So in – do you have any assessment as to the desire of the Iranians to pursue a nuclear weapons capability? Does it remain your view that they are determined to achieve a nuclear weapons capability? That is the still the U.S. view, correct?
MR. TONER: The U.S. view is that Iran – that the international community has serious questions about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and has asked repeatedly, through the IAEA, through the P-5+1, for Iran to come clean, to address those concerns in a transparent way. And we continue to call on them to —
QUESTION: You don’t affirmatively believe that they are seeking a nuclear weapon?
MR. TONER: We are asking them to – again, to address the international community’s concerns about their nuclear program, about the intention of their nuclear program. But I’m not going to go beyond that.
QUESTION: Do they want a bomb or not? Do they want a bomb?
MR. TONER: Ask Ahmadinejad.