ZAA NKWETA, PRESENTER/PRODUCER: Controversy over the National Intelligence Estimates report regarding Iran’s nuclear capability continues. The report states that Iran has halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Neoconservatives have been calling the report sabotage, time to undercut the White House. Senior Editor Paul Jay speaks with Senior News Analyst Aijaz Ahmad about the NIE’s report and the contentions that surround it.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Aijaz, the NIE report essentially says there was no weapons program since 2003. It says they have high confidence there was one before 2003, which has given the Bush administration a hook to put their coat on, saying that there was a secret weapons program, there may be one again. But the political mood has certainly changed about what the Bush administration can do and can’t do now. And they seemed to know this was coming. Bush and the administration has been talking more about the threat of having the knowledge to make nuclear weapons. And clearly they had this intelligence estimate, they were getting ready for it. Now that they’ve positioned that, how much is this intelligence estimate actually really going to change what this administration might do?
AIJAZ AHMAD, SENIOR NEWS ANALYST: Well, that depends on the kind of pressure that has built upon the administration, Paul, because, as you quite rightly say, they changed their rhetoric. Now another theme that is being pursued in The Washington Post, New York Times, and so on is why do they need a nuclear enrichment program at all? Cheney is particularly pushing that line, that the very fact of an enrichment program shows that they are pursuing a weapons program in the future.
JAY: What is your assessment of this? Because that’s certainly one of the things we hear quite a bit. They have so much oil, why would they need a nuclear energy program?
AHMAD: Well, the interesting part of it is that at the time when Cheney was the chief of staff for President Ford, the United States pushed the line that Iran should pursue uranium enrichment and tried to sell eight reactors worth $6.4 billion in 1976.
JAY: Why isn’t the oil enough of an energy source for Iran to generate electricity?
AHMAD: One, it is a depleting source. When you are talking of building alternative energy resources, Iran is not the only country doing that. Every country is trying to do that, because ten, twenty years down the line there’s going to be much less oil. Secondly, oil is fetching very high prices for Iran, and Iran would like to build cheap electricity through other sources and sell oil at high prices.
JAY: The report says that Iran is a rational country. They look at a cost-benefit analysis, how they make decisions. The table has been set now for negotiations. Outside of the Bush administration, in terms of the candidates, Democrat and Republican, do we see any possible future president that would really be willing to take up unconditional negotiations?
AHMAD: Now the administration is positioning itself to trash the report. The question is what kind of pressure is going to be put upon it? And Obama particularly had said that we need to negotiate with Iran. Logically, this report should strengthen that particular argument, not only for Obama, for everyone else, and puts pressure on people like Hillary Clinton. The second issue is the allies of the United States, it is for these countries now to stand up and say, “Your own estimate is saying that there is no nuclear weapons program, that even if Iran were to start a nuclear weapons program sometime in the future, they will not be able to make a weapon until 2015, that is to say, eight years down the line. It is for these allies to put the pressure on the administration, to push it towards that negotiation that ElBaradei has been asking for. ElBaradei alone has said in response to this estimate that it partially vindicates Iran’s position. Inside Iran now there is a lot of discussion. Iran is willing to begin those negotiations. In fact, that is how it reads the NIE, as giving it an opportunity to open those negotiations. It is now for the U.S. public opinion, for the Democratic candidates, for European allies of the United States to put that pressure on the administration.
JAY: Part of the analysis and punditry that’s going on around this document is the marginalization of the neocon group. It was suggested they’re on the defensive, they’re losing power. The force that was behind this move towards an attack on Iran, it’s more than just a few personalities, and these people aren’t likely to go away quite so easily. Who do you think this represents? And how significant a defeat is this for them, for those political forces?
AHMAD: Paul, I’ve always believed that the issue of the neocons was always exaggerated. Neocons are a component of the American right wing. They are not the whole of that right wing. Rumsfeld was not a neocon. Dick Cheney has never been a neocon, even though his policies converge with the policies of neocons. So the disappearance of Wolfowitz or Richard Perle or something doesn’t mean that the right-wing, radical character of the Bush administration is somehow gone. At the same time, people like Elliot Abrams are very powerful in the administration. Cheney is pretty much running the U.S. foreign policy. They’re all within the mainstream of that right-wing radicalism. And they have all risen up. Bolton has said that this is something of a coup on the part of the intelligence agencies.
JAY: Is he right?
AHMAD: No, I don’t think so. No one has ever presented any evidence whatsoever that Iran has ever had a nuclear program. If anything, this NIE estimate itself is wrong in saying that it is sure that there was such a program before 2003. That gives a handle, in fact, to people like Rice and Cheney and so on.
JAY: But in terms of Bolton’s accusation of it being a coup of sorts, and many of the neocons are talking about a deliberate attempt to sabotage Bush and the administration. The fact that it’s released, the kind of languages it uses, is in direct opposition to what Bush and Cheney have been saying. So in that respect, sixteen intelligence agencies sign on, is that a kind of a coup, as Bolton says?
AHMAD: I would say that the ability of the intelligence services to do a professional job is what we expect them to do. To characterize that as a coup is itself a neocon exaggeration of a sort that takes one’s breath away. Sixteen different agencies do not collude in misrepresenting. The same Bolton also says that this is politics, this is not [crosstalk]
JAY: Oh, I don’t think Bolton is saying it isn’t true. I think it’s the fact that they’re getting together to tell the truth is the coup.
AHMAD: Bolton specifically says that they should do intelligence gathering instead of making foreign policy. That is to say, he is debunking the intelligence content of it.
JAY: So what’s next for the Bush administration?
AHMAD: They will say that the very knowledge, the very pursuit of the knowledge of nuclear technology is a danger. Today, Rice has again said that it remains to be dangerous, the very fact that it is pursuing any kind of enrichment poses a danger, and so on and so forth. The administration, I do not think, is at all taking it as a basis for any change in its policy. It now will depend on the kind of pressure that can be mounted in the country upon this administration.
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