The politicians, pundits, and intelligentsia are up in arms about the revelation that Iran has been developing a new nuclear facility that will house centrifuges to enrich uranium. A look at why Iran is regarded as deserving condemnation over this reveals quite a bit about the intellectual culture of political commentary in the U.S.
The Obama administration announced that U.S. intelligence had been monitoring the site for several years, reportedly since 2006. The announcement was that Iran had a secret site in violation of its obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), and that the site was intended to be used to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon. Media commentary has strayed little from this basic formulation.
The timing of the announcement was no great mystery. It came four days after Iran had formally declared the site to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in commitment to its obligations. In other words, it was no longer a secret at the time the U.S. declared the “secret” site. But the adjective or an equivalent like “clandestine” has stuck.
U.S. pronouncements that it had known of the facility for years should have come as no surprise. If the U.S. actually first learned of it when Iran declared the site to the IAEA, it would not want to look as though it had been caught off guard. This story is also useful because it allows the U.S. to argue that Iran only declared the site because it learned that the U.S. knew about it, rather than out of good faith and commitment to its obligations under the NPT.
The story that the U.S. has known about it is likely enough. This would mean the intelligence community must have then taken the site’s existence into consideration when it produced the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that said Iran at the time had no nuclear weapons program, an assessment U.S. intelligence still stands by. In other words, if the declarations of foreknowledge are true, the U.S. intelligence community doesn’t judge the facility to be part of a nuclear weapons program. This minor problem with the claim that the site was intended as part of a weapons program is easily enough glossed over, though.
The accusations that the site was a violation of Iran’s legal obligation were likewise no great surprise. At least one analysis of the situation (James M. Acton at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) has pointed out that Iran is only required under its safeguards agreement with the IAEA to declare the site at least 6 months before uranium is introduced into it (the IAEA has announced that Iran has said this has not yet occurred, which is plausible enough, given that the site is still under construction). This fact was used to show how “unambiguous” it was that, as the title tells us, “Iran Violated International Obligations on Qom Facility”. It is “clear”, Acton tells us, that Iran did not declare it soon enough to meet its legal obligations. In short, we may presume either that Iran will be guilty of introducing uranium into the site within six months or that Iran would have been guilty of doing so if only reality hadn’t taken this course, which is the same thing as saying that Iran is already guilty of doing so.
The general argument follows logic of a similar nature. As noted, one assumption taken on faith is that Iran only declared the site because its hand was forced. Iran would have kept the site a secret if reality hadn’t taken its present course. Since this is hypothetically true, simply because it’s declared to be so, it’s as good as if it were actually true; which is, of course, impossible to either prove or disprove. But no evidence is required; it’s enough merely to speculate and for media commentators to relay the hypothetical as fact.
Other syllogisms employed by pundits follow suit. The reason Iran would have kept the site a secret, of course, is because it is intended to enrich uranium for a nuclear bomb. And we know Iran intended to make a bomb because we know it would have kept the site secret if only it hadn’t declared the site to the IAEA, and we know the only reason to keep the site secret would be to produce a bomb. And so on.
There is pretty much a consensus among analysts that if Iran were to go ahead and produce a nuclear weapon, it would have to first kick out the IAEA to avoid detection, thus projecting their intentions and rendering the action moot anyways. But we’re supposed to believe this was no more an impediment to Iran’s lust for nukes than the watchful eye of U.S. spy satellites that it knows are tracking every inch of the country.
There is a parallel to the revised argument for the invasion of Iraq that although the country had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it was enough that Saddam intended to develop them. This is a fact because the U.S. government declared it to be true after first having declared it to be true that Iraq actually had WMD, and we know that we can trust the government.
Similarly, Iran must be condemned because it had intended to make a nuclear bomb, which we know because it had kept the existence of its new uranium enrichment facility undeclared until it didn’t. And we know Iran wouldn’t have declared its existence if it hadn’t known that the U.S. knew about it, which is how we know that Iran knew that the U.S. knew, and which proves that Iran had intended to use the site to make a bomb. We know all of this simply as a matter of faith, of course.
There are other parallels. The absence of evidence for WMD prior to the invasion of Iraq was proof that Saddam was hiding them, just as Iran’s having met the requirement of its safeguards agreement to declare the site is proof that it has been acting in bad faith.
Also a demonstration of Iran’s bad faith is the fact that the site was a secret before it wasn’t, the fact that Iran met its obligation under the NPT notwithstanding. Meeting its obligations to the IAEA are not evidence of good faith on Iran’s part, but rather clearly demonstrate how evil Iran’s intentions are, and so forth.
Of course, now that the site is no longer a secret, it will do Iran little good towards making a bomb, unless it wants to openly flaunt the NPT and thereby invite military attack from the U.S. or Israel. Of course, if Iran had truly intended to keep this secret, it most likely, instead of making the self-defeating declaration to the IAEA and thereby sacrificing the supposed purpose of all their efforts, would simply have tried to deny that the site was related to its nuclear program.
But such observations are just minor obstacles for the U.S. media. They are easily enough put out of mind, no matter how obvious or elementary. Thus, the fact that the U.S. warning to Iran to come clean about its nuclear program was elicited by the act of Iran coming clean about its nuclear program elicits no comment in the media.
This kind of analysis is taken quite seriously among U.S. commentators, which is in itself a powerful statement about the commitment of the American intelligentsia to the state religion and faithfulness to its high priests in Washington. It serves as a lesson the rest of the world surely cannot have failed to comprehend, even if its outrageous irrationality manages to escape most American observers.