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Reading Seymour Hersh’s latest piece in the New Yorker, I can’t help but get déjà vu.
Hersh reports that the recent (classified) 2011 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear weapons program reaches the same conclusion as the 2007 NIE that Iran had a nuclear weapons program but halted it in 2003.  Despite the two conclusions, many politicians and other policymakers remain steadfast in their own public conclusions that contradict the last two NIEs.
All of this brings me back to the build-up to war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Yes, Saddam was being “cagey” about his perceived weapons program, but he had a reason.  He didn’t want the world–Iran in particular–finding out that he really didn’t have one.  So, in defying the west and giving the weapons inspectors the run around, he kept the illusion alive.   He needed the idea of a weapons program to deter his neighbor and avowed enemy.
According to Hersh’s source, a retired senior intelligence official, Iran may have had a similar calculus.  Hersh reports, that the 2011 version initially included a finding that concluded Iran ended its program in 2003 because it was aimed at Saddam and since he had been toppled it was no longer necessary. That point was ultimately removed from the final draft, because, according to Hersh’s source, there wasn’t enough hard evidence to support that conclusion.
This is in direct contrast to the conclusions drawn by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and touted in his recent speech to a joint session of Congress last week.  He says that Iran stopped its weapons program because it feared military action.
“The more Iran believes that all options are on the table, the less the chance of confrontation,” Netanyahu said before Congress.  In reality, it is precisely these types of threats that may actually provide the rationale for Iran to pursue a nuclear deterrent.
So, these two contrasting conclusions bring Iran’s intentions into question.  As a European diplomat says in Hersh’s article, “is Iran behaving in a way that would be rational if they were not developing a nuclear weapon?”  The diplomat concludes, “Their behavior only makes sense if their goal is to have the bomb.”
Is it though? The case of Saddam demonstrates that sometimes states bluff or appear cagey to achieve strategic goals other than simply hiding a weapons program.  In Iran’s case, standing up to the United States and the perception that it may have an advancing nuclear weapons program gives it prestige, presents it as a top regional power
As Seymour Hersh points out in his article, former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei discusses this very point in his recent memoir, “Tehran is determined to be recognized as a regional power….even if the intent is not to develop nuclear weapons” it “sends a signal of power to Iran’s neighbors and to the world.”
By ignoring this alternative reading of Iran’s behavior, or hyping perceived threats to advance more hawkish policies domestically, we run the risk of miscalculating Iran’s intentions or even reinforcing a narrative they seek to advance as a strategic interest unto itself.  And a policy that is based in the “popular” reading of Iran’s behavior could actually help push Iran to actually developing a nuclear weapon.  We still have time to prevent making this strategic error, but its unclear anyone in Washington has actually learned the lessons from Iraq.

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