Weapons of Mass Deception

By Patrick Clawson

Published April 16, 2004, issue of April 16, 2004.
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With all the attention to Condoleezza Rice’s testimony to the 9/11 Commission and the fighting in Iraq, it’s been easy to overlook the explosive news about Iran’s nuclear program. In early April, Iran announced it will start building a “research” reactor which just so happens to be of the right design and size to produce the plutonium needed for nuclear weapons. Tehran also told visiting International Atomic Energy Agency director general Mohamed El-Baradei that the IAEA would only have until June to investigate the many mysteries created by Iran’s constantly changing explanations about its past undeclared nuclear activities.

The Iran developments, coupled with Libya’s recent revelations about its nuclear programs and the famously missing Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, show the enormous gaps in American intelligence. Contrary to the impression created by the fixation on Iraq, American intelligence agencies do not always exaggerate the dangers — quite the contrary.

In the last year, both Iran and Libya have acknowledged to the IAEA that they had much more advanced nuclear programs than they had previously reported and than American intelligence agencies had suspected. Washington had no idea that Libya had acquired the complete plans for a nuclear bomb from Pakistan’s bomb designer, A.Q. Khan. Nor did the intelligence agencies know that Libya had much of the equipment for the centrifuges needed to produce bomb-grade uranium — though fortunately not all of the equipment.

Iran got away with even more. Tehran now acknowledges that it had manufactured hundreds of centrifuges, plus engaged for 18 years in a wide array of unreported nuclear research, much of which is directly applicable to nuclear weapons manufacture and has few plausible civilian uses. While we do not know exactly what American intelligence agencies knew and when they knew it, the scale and complexity of the Iranian and Libyan nuclear programs go well beyond anything ever hinted at by the intelligence agencies in their many public reports about proliferation. In short, the lesson from the three countries — Iraq, Iran and Libya — is how little we knew about where their nuclear programs stood. That is a very different lesson than what one could conclude by looking at Iraq alone.

And it is a troubling lesson, for it suggests that we cannot be sure we know what risks still lurk out there. That is particularly true for Iran, which has been repeatedly found over the last year to have told us only what we had already ferreted out. IAEA inspectors have done an amazing job at teasing information out of samples they took from Iranian sites. Confronted with the evidence, Iran has had to repeatedly change its story. In February, Iran admitted to the IAEA that it had a second, more advanced enrichment program which was, coincidently, located on a military base. In other words, Iran has continued to hide aspects of its nuclear program that have not yet been detected by international inspectors or suspected by American intelligence.

If the news is bad about how much we can rely on our intelligence, the news about what the Bush administration is doing in the face of these problems is better. Washington’s main approach has been to work with Europe and with international agencies, particularly the IAEA. Even though El Baradei, the IAEA director general, was outspoken in his opposition to American claims and policy during the lead up to the Iraq war, the Bush administration’s approach to Iran has been to work with the IAEA to secure a tougher international stance and to get Iran to give IAEA inspectors better access.

When France, Germany and England took the lead in working out an Iranian agreement to suspend uranium enrichment, the Bush administration welcomed the step, while properly cautioning that the Iranians might undermine the accord. That is exactly what the Iranians have repeatedly done, forcing the European powers to battle them over issues such as whether Iran could continue making centrifuges as long as they did not use them. (Iran gave way to European pressure in February.) This week’s tussle is over Iran’s announcement it will soon open a uranium conversion plant, an important part of the chain from natural uranium to enriched bomb-grade fuel; on March 31, the Europeans deplored the Iranian statement and pressed them to reverse course.

Just as surprising as the Bush administration’s emphasis on multilateralism has been its reliance on old-fashioned diplomacy, though that is not necessarily such a good thing. In fact, the Libya deal looks like the kind of grand bargain the United States has made for years with some Middle Eastern dictators: if they provided minimal cooperation on geostrategic issues, Washington would remain silent on domestic reform. That sounds rather like what President Bush criticized in a major November 2003 address on the importance of reform in the region: “We must shake off decades of failed policy in the Middle East…. No longer should we think tyranny is benign because it is temporarily convenient.”

As Bush explained, when the United States has allowed Middle Eastern rulers to crack down on their opposition, the young have turned to radicalism and anti-Americanism. The onus is on the Bush administration to show that the deal with Libya is not part of this failed pattern. Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi’s son and heir-apparent, Seif al-Islam, has said, “Libya must be a democratic and open country.” We should tell Libyans how much we agree, and we should offer to train Libyans in the skills needed for democracy.

Democracy is important not only for Libya but for the entire Middle East. The Bush administration is pushing for the June G-8 summit to focus on the so-called Greater Middle East Initiative for democratization. That initiative will be as important for American security as any deal with dictators about weapons of mass destruction. And nowhere in the region have the hopes for democracy faced more disappointment than in Iran, which seemed a few years ago to be on the path toward more openness.

We should beware the “grand bargain” which Iran’s hardline mullahs have, according to the Financial Times, offered to discuss with Washington. They propose attractive geopolitical concessions — possibly including ending their nuclear program — but only in return for the West agreeing to work with them, which in practice means abandoning the cause of democratic reform. The West would not benefit from abandoning the most democratic mass movement in the Middle East in return for a geostrategic deal with Iran’s brutal dictators.

For one thing, the stability of the present Iranian system is by no means clear. While the hardliners are determined to hang on to power, the people hate them. Furthermore, there is little point in making a deal with a regime that breaks deals regularly and uses this deal-breaking as a bargaining chip to extract further concessions: remember the Iran-contra affair, in which Iran released some hostages only to take more.

Iran, Libya and Iraq taken together show the difficulty of the problem of nuclear proliferation. The limitations of our intelligence services means that the dangers will not be clear and present until a rogue explodes a bomb.

The American people will have to decide how much risk we are willing to accept before we act in the face of uncertain information. Similarly, we will have to decide between accepting the short-term benefit of a strategic bargain on proliferation with a dictatorship and the risk that leaving in place a tyranny that will feed the terrorism and instability for which the Middle East is famous. These decisions are not easy, and we need a serious national debate about the trade-offs.

Patrick Clawson is deputy director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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