When Americans tuned in to the news on the afternoon of December 3, they were in for a surprise. A new assessment made public by the U.S. intelligence community had concluded that while Iran was still enriching uranium, which can be used for both nuclear energy and nuclear bombs, it had frozen its weaponization-only program back in 2003. In other words, Iran did not seem dead set on building nukes. It was quite a shock. After all, the administration had been saying for years that Iran was racing to build the bomb.
President Bush warned just last August that unless Iran is stopped, the Middle East would be put “under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust.” Military strikes seemed to be a possibility. “We will confront this danger before it is too late,” Bush said. And yet the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the collective judgment of sixteen U.S. intelligence agencies, concluded that Iran wasn’t intent on building a bomb.
George Perkovich, a nonproliferation analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was surprised by the news, too, but for a different reason. “I thought, wait a minute,” he recalls. “I’ve written this before.”
In May 2005, Perkovich wrote a paper speculating that Iran’s leaders weren’t actually bent on making the bomb but rather wanted to keep their options open. In that scenario, he wrote, “as Iranian elites began to pay attention to nuclear issues,” they realized their best bet was an above-board civilian nuclear program. Such a path would still allow Iran to “gradually acquire” the know-how and technology to “produce nuclear weapons some day should a dire strategic threat arise”—all the while abiding by international law.
Perkovich wasn’t the only one to guess that Iran wasn’t bent on building the bomb. “I would see intelligence analysts over the last few years and ask, ‘Where’s the evidence of what Iran’s doing now?’” remembers Paul Kerr, formerly an analyst with the Arms Control Association, now with the Congressional Research Service. “And the answers I would get back were just really thin.” Kerr believed the evidence pointed in the other direction. In November 2006, he said so in a piece for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
The very fact that Iran has previously offered several concessions, as well as curtailed some nuclear activities, should signal to the international community that Tehran has not necessarily committed itself to building nuclear weapons—and that there are those within the regime who are reluctant to risk political and economic isolation.
Perkovich, Kerr, and others had been questioning the administration’s many assumptions about Iran: about why Tehran might have an interest in a weapons system in the first place, about whether it had a program to build one, and, if it did, about whether it was willing to do a deal to halt it. The analysts didn’t have exact answers, of course; they were just raising basic questions. What’s striking is how rarely such questions were asked by members of the press.
After its depressing performance on WMD and Iraq—aluminum tubes, Judith Miller, falsehoods successfully peddled by exiles like Ahmed Chalabi—the press was filled with mea culpas and promises to do better. Iran became the next test.
And it did do better; there have been few of the misleading administration-fed “scoops” so prevalent last time. But it also fell into old patterns. Against a backdrop of war drums, the media often left administration assumptions unexplored and unquestioned: Iran was perfidious, recalcitrant, racing toward nukes. Even now, after the NIE changed the landscape, “There is an enormous selective amnesia regarding Iran in U.S. coverage,” says Ali Ansari, a historian at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, who specializes in Iran-U.S. relations and has long criticized journalists for relying on “worn-out narratives” regarding Iran. “There’s this assumption that the U.S. has always been innocent partner in the relationship. But the two have been equally guilty of mismanaging the relationships and missing opportunities.”
And yet despite long-standing evidence supporting that kind of ambiguous picture, the official narrative tends to prevail.
In the series of basic questions about Iran and its intentions, one of the first should be: How willing have its leaders been to negotiate? “The Iranians are just as skittish as we are,” says Gary Sick, a member of the National Security Council in the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations and a Persian Gulf specialist. “Negotiating with the ‘Great Satan’ is a very hard thing for them to do politically. I’ve compared it to a teeter-totter—when one side is up, they don’t want to negotiate, and vice versa. Finding a point of equilibrium is very hard to do.”
There does appear to have been an opportunity for equilibrium that, with little notice in the media, was passed up not by Iran but by the Bush administration.