Hersh vs. the IAEA on Iran’s Nukes

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In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Sy Hersh has a long story on what he says is a discrepancy between the intelligence community’s most recent estimate of Iran’s nuclear goals and the Obama administration’s assessment of and reaction to Iran’s intentions.

The central argument of the story is:

There is a large body of evidence… suggesting that the United States could be in danger of repeating a mistake similar to the one made with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq eight years ago—allowing anxieties about the policies of a tyrannical regime to distort our estimations of the state’s military capacities and intentions.

That sentence’s syntactic opacity should be a tip-off to readers. The thesis starts off strong by declaring a “large body of evidence” for something, then retreats to declare that the evidence only “suggests” the U.S. “could be” making a mistake “similar to” the one the U.S. made in Iraq. The thesis also maps the main problem of the story—strength in reporting and weakness in analysis.

Hersh confuses two separate issues: the intelligence community’s assessment of the state of Iran’s weapons program and the administration’s policymaking vis-a-vis Tehran. The two are linked, but not absolutely dependent.

Hersh provides reporting that the intelligence community’s new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran shows no hard evidence of an effort to build a bomb. He quotes several people that have seen the NIE who say it provides no new evidence of a program to make a nuclear weapon, and he puts some new reporting on the table about unsuccessful clandestine efforts to produce that evidence, including a variety of sensors located around Iran, for example in street signs and fake roadside rocks.

Hersh takes that reporting and assumes that Iran’s intentions can only be deduced from an active effort to produce a nuclear weapon, and that the administration should only be making its policy based on whether such an active program exists or not. Unfortunately for him, the International Atomic Energy Agency simultaneously delivered a report to its board showing seven highly detailed other reasons for suspecting Iran’s intentions. Per the NYT:

The nine-page report raised questions about whether Iran has sought to investigate seven different kinds of technology ranging from atomic triggers and detonators to uranium fuel. Together, the technologies could make a type of atom bomb known as an implosion device, which is what senior staff members of the I.A.E.A. have warned that Iran is able to build.

The seven categories of technology all bear on what can be interpreted as warhead design: how to turn uranium into bomb fuel, make conventional explosives that can trigger a nuclear blast, generate neutrons to spur a chain reaction and design nose cones for missiles.

It is the job of the U.S. intelligence community to lay out the evidence, or lack thereof, regarding Iran’s nuclear program. They did that in the NIE, and Hersh reports that out. But it is the job of the administration to make policy based on the totality of Iran’s behavior, and on any number of other factors contributing to U.S. interests, and Hersh fails even to begin the analysis of that U.S. policymaking.

Hersh’s own sources for the NIE material seem repeatedly to be trying to make this point to him, perhaps via the New Yorker‘s notoriously thorough fact checkers. His first source on the NIE is “convinced that Iran is intent on becoming a nuclear state,” the article says. Likewise, the article reports that Thomas Pickering, the former diplomat, as arguing for a different policy approach to Iran from that of the administration, but then quotes him saying “there are indications of intent.”

In the end, though, the piece’s biggest problem is not the failure to discuss how policy should be made when hard evidence of an Iranian nuclear program is lacking but evidence of Iranian bomb-making intention exists. It’s that Hersh scares the readers up front by “suggesting” a mistake “similar” to the Iraq war “could be” imminent, but never bothers even to come back to the idea.

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