PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: On Tuesday, December 4, President Bush addressed the White House press gallery, defending his position on Iran after a report from the National Intelligence Estimate revealed that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Here’s what the report said:
(TEXT ON SCREEN)
We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.
Here’s what President Bush said at the press conference:
White House Press Conference
December 4, 2007
GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT: I think it’s very important for the international community to recognize the fact that if Iran were to develop the knowledge that they could transfer to a clandestine program, it would create a danger for the world. And so I view this report as a warning signal that they had the program, they halted the program, and the reason why it’s a warning signal is that they could restart it. And the thing that would make a restarted program effective and dangerous is the ability to enrich uranium, the knowledge of which could be passed on to a hidden program.
Joining us to discuss the implications of this report and President Bush’s reaction is Babak Yektafar, editor-in-chief of washingtonprim.org and a regular analyst for the Real News Network. He joins us from Washington, D.C. Babak, what do you make of the report and what do you make of the president’s reaction?
BABAK YEKTAFAR, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, WASHINGTONPRISM.ORG: Well, I think, first of all, it’s important to take this report and really look at it within the given context. It’s important to realize that the report itself is not necessarily an analysis from the intelligence community in a sense where you hear different types of opinions about what this really means and how U.S. policy should or should not change in regards to Iran. This is essentially a gathering of intelligence, an upgrade of what they call intelligence indicators, intercepts of communication between high levels of the Iranian government and such. So it’s important to keep that in mind. However, on the face of it, of course, on a sort of surface level, if you will, it seems that it will threaten the hand of those people who are favouring negotiations. If you look at the administration, of course, we’re talking more along the lines of a fixation with the right and to a certain extent Mr. Gates. But on the other hand, the important thing about this also, and a sad thing to a certain extent, is the ambiguity of this particular report, which is very similar to the kinds of reports that IAEA, the International Atomic [Energy] Agency, regularly sends out. There are some aspects of it that you can take in a positive manner, and there are some aspects of it that are negative: first of all, the way this particular recent NIE debunks the one that came out two years ago, undermines this current one. How reliable is this intelligence? Two years ago, it essentially said that Iran is actively pursuing a weaponization program, nuclear weaponization program, and now it’s debunking it. So that in itself is important to take into consideration. To a certain extent I think President Bush is right, in a sense, that it does not necessarily change the true essence of the problem. As long as the U.S. is pushing for this notion that Iran is a danger, the policies are going to continue. However, what remains to be seen is whether or not the international community, which the White House has tried so hard to keep together confronting Iran, whether or not that will hold, and more importantly whether the sanctions, even the existing sanctions, are going to be strengthened or not.
JAY: The fundamental objective right now of the Bush administration, whether it’s because they’re really concerned about nuclear weapons or for other regional geopolitical interests, but the main strategy is: isolate Iran. In turn, getting European partners on, certainly to try to get Russia and China to cooperate, they have to position this somehow within international law. And it seems, actually, what this report has done and the way Bush is using this report is in some ways actually to strengthen their case. I’ll play you a piece from the White House press conference where he was asked about this specifically:
REPORTER: The non-proliferation treaty doesn’t prohibit a country like Iran from having the knowledge to enrich uranium. Are you setting a different standard in this case and a different international obligation on Iran? And is that going to complicate the efforts to keep the pressure on when it comes to sanctions at the United Nations?
BUSH: The problem that most of the world has seen in Iran stems from the fact that they hid their program. That’s what the NIE says. The ’68 agreement that Iran signed contemplated full transparency and openness. They didn’t contemplate a regime that would have a covert nuclear weapons program—all the more reason for the international community to continue to work together.
Bush essentially is saying is that Iran does have a special place within international law. Because they hid their program, they kind of lost their right somehow to enrich uranium for civilian purposes. What do you make of that argument? And how will this play out? First of all, is there any truth to it? And second of all, how will it play out?
YEKTAFAR: There is a certain level of truth to it. I think, again, it’s going to be hard, I believe, to convince the more reluctant partners in this sanctions regime. You use a word, and I think that is the core of the issue here, and that’s the issue of trust. The fact of the matter is this particular NIE report that came out essentially said, and obviously, according to them, if we are to believe it, there is a smoking gun that says that Iran was actively pursuing some sort of a nuclear weaponization program until 2003. Now, how far they had gone by then and how far the enrichment program that they restarted since early last year helps them to be able to restart that weaponization program if they choose to do that.
JAY: Has the IAEA actually found evidence of this secret program? ‘Cause Iran certainly denies that they were doing it.
YEKTAFAR: No. No. The IAEA insists in its report, even though, as I mentioned before, most of the reports are ambiguous in terms of Iran’s cooperation and clarifying certain issues that still remain on the table. But IAEA has gone out of its way, just basically saying that there is no proof that Iran has used its nuclear program to develop nuclear weapons in any shape or form.
JAY: Even prior to 2003?
YEKTAFAR: Yes. I mean, what they essentially have said is that they were following a track, if you will, towards that goal, but there is nothing that indicates that they were anywhere near the kind of capabilities, the path the 2005 National Intelligence Estimate was indicating about Iran. So that’s a problem that the United States has to deal with, and that’s why I think President Bush is kind of falling back on this, well, even them having the knowledge should not be acceptable by the international community because we cannot trust them, since the report says that up to 2003 they had this covert operation for weaponization, nuclear weaponization.
JAY: Is there any reason for us to believe that this is true that there was a covert program prior to 2003, a covert weapons program? Certainly there wasn’t full transparency about an enrichment program towards nuclear energy, but is there any evidence it was a nuclear weapons program prior to 2003?
YEKTAFAR: We don’t have reliable intelligence. The IAEA says that, essentially, they don’t have any proof that this was the case. We can only rely on intelligence that we get from the U.S. intelligence agencies. And most are from the Israeli intelligence services, actually. There is nothing concrete that essentially says that Iran is doing that. There are some cases where they had bought a material from A. Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist, earlier and some sort of cooperation with North Korea. And of course there are some questions about the missile program that Iran has, the ballistic missiles and such, and some of those programs does not make any sense unless it was there to accommodate some sort of a nuclear warhead and things of that nature. So those issues, but there’s nothing concrete that says, here it is, Iran has been and is actively going after this nuclear weaponization program.