Is the CIA trying to undermine the White House?

December 13, 2007

Phyllis Bennis: NIE debate rages (1 of 2)

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Phyllis Bennis: NIE debate rages (1 of 2)


Story Transcript

ZAA NKWETA, PRESENTER/PRODUCER: Controversy continues over the National Intelligence Estimate report on Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities. It states,

NIE REPORT, NOVEMBER 2007 (TEXT ON SCREEN): We judge with high confidence that in the fall of 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.

The NIE further assesses that,

[REPORT]: Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure–

And also,

[REPORT]: indicates Tehran’s decision’s [sic] are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.

Senior editor Paul Jay talks with Phyllis Bennis, senior analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C.

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Phyllis, the White House reaction to the National Intelligence Estimate document remains more or less what Bush said in his press conference when it was first released. And here’s what he said:


VOICE OF 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 effort to keep the pressure on when it comes to sanctions at the United Nations?

GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT, U.S.: 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. If somebody hid their program once, they can hide it again.


JAY: So Bush’s reaction fundamentally is that this NIE estimate kind of helps his cause. Even though there may not be a secret weapons program now, there always could be. So what do you make of the White House reaction, and what do you make of the way this debate’s unfolding?

PHYLLIS BENNIS, SENIOR ANALYST, THE INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Well, on the political level, the White House has very little options beyond this claiming that it’s all possible because of their earlier policy. They’re taking the position that only because of the sanctions, because of the pressure, did Iran stop its nuclear program in the first place. We should keep in mind, Paul, we’ve still seen no evidence that there ever was a nuclear weapons program. This is simply asserted in the NIE document, in the National Intelligence Estimate document.

JAY: And yet, in fact, you’d think if there was such evidence, it would have been turned over to the IAEA, to ElBaradei, and as far as we know, no such evidence has ever been given to them.

BENNIS: Well, exactly. And, in fact, Mohamed ElBaradei, the director of the IAEA, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year and partly in response for being serious and refusing to cave in to U.S. pressure, has said very directly the key words “no evidence.” There is no evidence that he has seen that there is a nuclear weapons program.

JAY: Or was.

BENNIS: Or was. He does say, we don’t have all the information. Iran is coming forward, but a little more slowly than we would like. They’re not fully transparent yet. But there is no evidence.

JAY: So you would think if the intelligence agencies that produced this document had such evidence, they would have turned it over to him, and he would have been obligated to verify it and react to it.

BENNIS: Absolutely. It is one of the obligations of all signatories to the non-proliferation treaty, which includes both Iran and the United States, to cooperate with the IAEA. So if there was this kind of evidence and it was not turned over, it really goes to the question of what is the U.S. hiding it for? The U.S. becomes the one who’s hiding evidence if that were the case. Again, we simply don’t see yet that there’s any evidence that there ever was this kind of a nuclear weapons program.

JAY: So we know that the White House had this document for quite some time, whether Bush saw it in August, after August, before August. The people that make strategy and policy in the White House knew this estimate was coming, and for the last few months they’ve been kind of repositioning their argument. As President Bush said in this clip, that the very knowledge of how to enrich uranium gives you the capacity to build a bomb, and in this press conference he says not on my watch will they even have that knowledge, and they position the argument that way.

BENNIS: This has been something, as you say, that has been going on for some months now, and it’s a very dangerous development, because essentially what the Bush administration is doing is lowering the bar, lowering the level at which they can claim that by their own standards—not based on international law, not based on the NPT, but by their own individual standards of the United States—we are not going to allow Iran to have the knowledge to build a nuclear weapon. The problem of course is Iran already has that knowledge and has for many, many years. It’s the basic problem of the non-proliferation treaty, that says that every non-nuclear weapons state has the right to produce nuclear power for peaceful uses. And once you know how to produce nuclear power, once you know how to enrich uranium for nuclear power, you know how to build a bomb. It doesn’t mean you can. You need better equipment, faster equipment, more equipment. But you have the knowledge for it, certainly. And the notion of what President Bush is saying—and it’s been true for quite a while now—is that Iran’s violation of the NPT isn’t all he’s concerned about. He doesn’t even really say they’re in violation, they don’t have the right to enrich uranium, but simply we don’t trust them, they had a secret program, and therefore we say they don’t have the right to have it, we’re going to take away that right.

JAY: Now, when you look at the substance of Bush’s argument and the substance of the NIE report, the report really doesn’t take away that knowledge argument, but the politics has. The way it’s being played in the media and the press, political players on both sides of the fence, to some extent, have all said with some sigh of relief, “Now you can’t attack Iran.” And maybe one of the best examples of this is Larry [“korb”] on the Blitzer show, and we’ll take a look at that clip. (05:08) …


[“KORB”]: The main thing to me is Iran is like any other nation. They’ll look at cost benefits and make a judgment. They’re not some crazy people.


JAY: And that seems to be the general tone or tenor of the reaction, that Iran is in fact a rational country, you can negotiate, you can do business, and not the kind of insane image of an Ahmadinejad, which all the media had as their image of Iran as a whole, not just of Ahmadinejad, up until just prior to this report. What does all this represent?

BENNIS: Well, on the media level, I think, clearly we’re looking at a longstanding history in the United States that certainly began in Iran with the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, the U.S.’s guy, who we should remember, he was the one who started Iran’s nuclear weapons program—weapons, not nuclear power.

JAY: As [“korb”] pointed out in that interview, it was the mullahs that stopped it, then restarted it again.

BENNIS: Exactly. After 1979. Restarted it again when Iraq emerged as a major threat, when Iraq invaded Iran. That was when.

JAY: [crosstalk] they say restarted again, ’cause we still don’t know it.

BENNIS: We still don’t know. They say that’s when it happened. If it did, it was probably based on the fear of Iraq, which was at that time backed by the United States and was a very powerful country. But on the question of the media, we saw right from the beginning of the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, the emergence of the Ayatollah Khomeini as leader of the opposition in what became the Islamic republic, this kind of demonization of Islam, of Iran, of the individuals. You remember back in 1979, 1980s, all of the T-shirts with targets with Khomeini’s face on it. That’s been transferred very easily, very easily to Ahmadinejad. And the idea is, they represent evil. It’s not just that they’re not responsible nations. This cuts into that. The IAEA reports have always said that, and the NIE now, the National Intelligence Estimate of the U.S intelligence agencies, now confirms what we’ve been saying all along: Iran makes its decisions on a rational basis like almost all other countries. I would say perhaps my country, the United States, might be the exception these days. It doesn’t seem that we’re behaving in such a rational way. But most countries make their decisions about nuclear weapons, about going to war, on a rational cost-basis analysis.

JAY: And anyone that knew Iran knew this to be the case [crosstalk]–

BENNIS: Absolutely [cross talk]—

JAY: And, maybe the real issue to emerge, at least one of the issues to emerge, is the horrible role of the mainstream media on this issue, who for the last six months have been helping the White House create the atmosphere for a military attack, completely buying into all the nuclear assumptions [cross talk]—

BENNIS: well, I think [cross talk]—

JAY: Now, all of a sudden, they can do a flip.

BENNIS: Yeah. It’s been a big problem. I don’t think it was quite as bad this time around as we saw in the run-up to the Iraq war. I think this time even some of the media realized that they were going to be accused in the same way that the intelligence agencies were much more careful this time around. They were not willing to be as pressured. And we’ve seen some change in the mainstream media as a result. But to a large degree, certain assumptions were never challenged.

JAY: Well, the assumption that there was a nuclear weapons program [cross talk]

BENNIS: Exactly [cross talk]—

JAY: [Cross talk] was never in question.

BENNIS: That’s the key one. Some of the justification for U.S. war in response was challenged, but the fundamental notion—of course Iran had a nuclear weapons program—no one ever challenged that except for voices on the left that were not listened to very often. So I think that is a very key factor. The other thing that’s very important here, though, is that we’re hearing from other countries, from the NATO countries, from the permanent members of the United Nations [Security Council], Germany, the other countries that have been involved with the U.S. in this diplomacy around Iran, in the imposition of sanctions against Iran, many of these governments are now saying, well, this is sort of a relief that Iran apparently doesn’t have an active program, but we’re not so sure it changes the policy. The NATO high command made a decision just a couple of days ago saying that going ahead with extreme escalation of sanctions is appropriate. So the fact that realistic governments are looking at this and saying, “Well, this doesn’t have to change anything,” is very worrying, because what that says is they’re responding to the political pressure of the Bush administration, and not the kind of rational decision making that the NIE says Iran engages in.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.