Another Rumor of War
Meanwhile, in Iran . . .


James S. Robbins

A report in the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, picked up in the Jerusalem Post and Tehran Times, states that members of the Dutch intelligence service AIVD conducting infiltration and espionage against the Iranian nuclear program have been pulled from their positions because they believe that a U.S. attack on Iranian WMD targets is imminent.

The Dutch? Anti-Iranian infiltration and espionage? Who knew? Way to go guys, seriously. Respect.

Couple that with a recent report that the government of Israel has decided that it will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear-weapons capability, and will take action as necessary. The latter story is interesting because this has ostensibly been U.S. policy for several years. In his 2002 State of the Union address President Bush stated, “The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” In June 2003 he said more specifically that the United States “will not tolerate the construction of a nuclear weapon” by Iran. In February 2006 he stated, “The nations of the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons,” and in October 2007 the vice president said, “The United States joins other nations in sending a clear message: We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.”

Check the language. Not permit, not tolerate, not allow. It implies that Iran has no choice in the matter. If it looks like they are going to develop a nuclear capability, the U.S. will take action to prevent it.

Lately, this promised action has translated primarily into diplomatic initiatives. That seems somewhat at odds with the stated policy. If the U.S. government “preferred that Iran not” develop nuclear weapons, or “strongly objected” to their development, or something along those lines, then diplomacy would have a chance – either Iran would not develop a weapon, or we could issue a strong letter of disapproval after their first atomic test. A win-win.

But U.S. policy has been unequivocal. Iran cannot have nuclear weapons. If they get them, apart from the strategic effects and other consequences, it will demonstrate to the rest of the world that the United States might talk tough but ultimately lacks the will to take action. At that point America shrugs, admits defeat, and we are treated to a proliferation of white papers on the merits of nuclear deterrence. The rationalizations would be endless, and sometimes sincere, but the end result would be to signal a new level of U.S. impotence. It would say to the proliferators of the world, regardless of what the U.S. says, just go right ahead with what you are doing. Hand the Americans a fait accompli. They’ll back down. At that point they won’t have a choice.

The conventional wisdom has been that there are two clocks running in Iran, one for the acquisition of nuclear weapons, and the other for some form of pro-democratic, perhaps pro-west regime change. The hope has been that clock number two outpaces clock number one, and the problem is solved. (Set aside for the moment the possibility that even a democratic Iran might want a nuclear capability, just as the democracies of India and (at the time) Pakistan did.) There is no particular sign that freedom is set to ring in Tehran. Yet indications continue to emerge that the nuclear clock keeps ticking. Even the much publicized 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which threw cold water on the notion of taking action against Iran, stated that Tehran would technically be capable of producing a nuclear weapon in the 2010-2015 time frame — i.e., starting the year after next. And it is worth noting that such timelines have always consistently overestimated the amount of time needed to produce nuclear weapons — which is why nuclear tests always come as a surprise.