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Scrutinizing the Threat from Iran

In the lead up to war in Iraq, misinformation about weapons of mass destruction went virtually unchallenged by the mainstream media. But three reporters for Knight Ridder newspapers (now McClatchy) were skeptical, and their probing investigation of the Bush administration’s justifications for war eventually proved prescient. Bill Moyers featured the Knight Ridder reporters in his … Continued

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In the lead up to war in Iraq, misinformation about weapons of mass destruction went virtually unchallenged by the mainstream media. But three reporters for Knight Ridder newspapers (now McClatchy) were skeptical, and their probing investigation of the Bush administration’s justifications for war eventually proved prescient.

Bill Moyers featured the Knight Ridder reporters in his 2007 documentary Buying the War, about the media’s failure in the run-up to the Iraq war. We caught up with one of them, Jonathan Landay, now a senior national security and intelligence correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, to get his thoughts on the current standoff with Iran.

Lauren Feeney: Do you see a parallel between the lead up to war in Iraq nine years ago and the drumbeat of war with Iran that we’re hearing now?

Jonathan Landay: There’s been some effort to draw parallels between the Iranian program and the Bush administration’s case about the late dictator Saddam Hussein. The fact is, in Saddam’s case there were enormous amounts of evidence produced by U.N. inspectors showing that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction programs had been discovered and eliminated. And after the inspectors were thrown out, Saddam wouldn’t have been able to reconstitute the country’s nuclear program by the time the Bush administration came to office.

The situation is completely different with Iran. There are IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors in the country, so what Iran is doing is known.

The fact is that over the last several years, beginning with the discovery of an undeclared uranium enrichment site near the holy city of Qom, it has become apparent that Iran is increasing its production of what’s known as low-enriched uranium.

The IAEA also has information that indicates that Iran was, at least up until 2003 or 2004, conducting research into designing a nuclear missile warhead and researching conventional high-explosive implosions which are used to trigger nuclear warheads. And the IAEA issued a very significant report on all of this in November in which it said that some aspects of this research may still be continuing in secret.

The documentary evidence that the IAEA has accumulated raises serious questions about what Iran is doing, and that evidence runs a gamut, beginning with the fact that Iran kept its program secret from the IAEA for 18 years. If it was benign and for peaceful purposes, why did they feel they had to keep it a secret?

Feeney: So unlike in Iraq, where the evidence of weapons of mass destruction was flawed, you see ample evidence that Iran has been working towards a nuclear weapon. How about the media’s coverage? Do you see any parallels there?

Landay: I think the media has been much more discerning. Much of what the media is reporting has been based on evidence that has been put into the public arena by the IAEA. There are also a number of very prominent think tanks that have obtained documentation on their own raising significant questions about the nature of the Iranian program.

There appears to be a consensus within the American intelligence community that Iran stopped work on a nuclear weapon in 2003, but that it has continued various aspects of its nuclear program that it could eventually use if it decided that it wanted to go that route. There’s not a great deal of difference between what the IAEA is saying and what the U.S. intelligence community is saying.

You asked why we’ve been hearing this drumbeat — well, the Israelis have been deliberately turning up the volume on this drumbeat recently. But curiously, when Mr. Netanyahu made his speech to the main American Israeli lobbying group during his recent visit, he said the Israeli policy and the American policy were the same. He also said that some of us believe that there’s not much more time left for diplomacy. He could have said some of us don’t believe there’s any more time for diplomacy. He said there’s some time left. That indicates that the Israeli government doesn’t believe that the Iranians are about to produce a nuclear weapon any time soon.

It’s possible that the war drums that the Israelis were turning up through the media were not intended as a warning that they were about to launch an operation, but rather were intended to put pressure on the United States and the other powers involved to juice up the economic sanctions against Iran, which we’ve seen that happen. I mean, what country in the world is going to announce an attack? Well, we did it actually with the invasion of Iraq — but with an operation of this nature? The Israelis are not going to advertise their intention beforehand.

Feeney: So it sounds like what you’re saying is that Iran has a nuclear weapons program that could be reawakened at any time, but it’s dormant right now, and war is not imminent.

Landay: Here’s what I’m saying: The Iranians have learned how to enrich uranium. The process that they’re using to produce what they say is low-enriched uranium is the same process that’s used to produce the highly-enriched uranium that you need for a nuclear weapon. They know how to do it — the only question is how long it would take them to produce enough highly-enriched uranium for a nuclear warhead. Some people believe that it could be a matter of months if they decided to go that course.

But when you make a nuclear weapon, you can’t just make just one, because once you’ve let it go, you are open to retribution and retaliation from whoever it is you’ve used that weapon against. So just being able to produce one doesn’t do you a hell of a lot of good, and to produce a number of them would take a lot more time. Then they’d probably need to test the weapon that they produced, and would need even more highly-enriched uranium for that. And during all of that of course, IAEA inspectors and monitoring systems are present at their enrichment sites, at least the known ones.

The red line that the Obama administration appears to have established for when they believe diplomacy may have run its course is in the event that Iran orders the IAEA inspectors out of the country. At that point you have to worry about not knowing what the Iranians are up to.

Feeney: If Iran were to cross that line, then what do you think would happen?

Landay: Then I’d say we are on a course for a military confrontation.

Feeney: You’ve said that both Obama and Netanyahu are willing to give this time, but what about Ahmadinejad? There’s this question of whether or not he and the Iranians are rational actors — are they likely to push the situation over the edge?

Landay: Look, Persian culture is thousands of years old. They invented chess. These guys know how to be diplomats. I believe they are totally rational actors, of course. They look very closely at their interests — the preservation of their power, the preservation of the regime. If there were a conflict, the future of that regime would be in doubt.

Feeney: So then why do we still hear this drumbeat of war from politicians and the media?

Landay: The politician’s greatest device is the exploitation of fear. They want to present themselves as being the toughest — the guy or the lady that you should put your trust in because I’m going to keep you secure. And so yes, this issue has been used and abused, particularly I think by the Republican presidential candidates, who use it to try to portray President Obama as weak on this issue. And yet, when you get down to it, their proposals are virtually the same as Obama’s.

Nobody wants a war. The United States has been at war now for 10 years. Nobody wants another war.

Feeney: Who do you think is getting this story right? Who should people turn to if they really want to understand it?

Landay: The IAEA. All of their reports are publicly available. Listen to the IAEA. They got Iraq right.

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