I commented the other day on Hillary Clinton's answer to a question about a hypothetical Iranian nuclear attack on Israel. Senator Clinton had declared: "If I'm the president, we will attack Iran... we would be able to totally obliterate them."
In my view, Senator Clinton's comments were reasonable and unexceptionable. I trust her position on national security, and I should have been worried if she'd said anything else. But it appears that, in the UK press at least, there are commentators determined to present her comments as "Incendiary talk". I had a brief exchange today with one such objector, a guest contributor to The Independent's "Open House" blog, Anthony Painter. I don't know Painter's writings (a criticism of me, not of him, as he writes for Tribune, which I ought to follow more closely), but his criticism of Senator Clinton's position is familiar to the point of being hackneyed.
When asked on ABC News about what she would do if Iran were to launch a nuclear attack on Israel, Hillary Clinton was explicit, “…we would be able to totally obliterate them and those people who run Iran need to know that.”
Forget the fact that the latest CIA National Intelligence Estimate on Iran concludes that the Iranians have suspended their nuclear weapons programme.
I responded to Painter just in the comments thread of that blog, but because what I said appeared to be new to him, I'll repeat it here. If you're seriously going to cite the NIE conclusions, published last December, as evidence of the non-threatening character of Iran's nuclear programme, then there are two points you are duty-bound to add.
First, as was not widely noted at the time, the NIE's definition of what constituted Iran's nuclear programme was heavily circumscribed. In a footnote, the authors commented: 'For the purposes of this Estimate, by “nuclear weapons program” we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.'
To draw conclusions about Iran's nuclear programme but explicitly leave out of the discussion Iran's uranium enrichment activities is some caveat. To refer to the enrichment facility at Natanz as "civil work" is question-begging. There is no need for that facility at Natanz or for the heavy-water plant at Arak - before a single reactor has come into service - if Iran's nuclear programme is intended for purely civil purposes. Other countries that have reactors, such as Sweden, don't seek the capability to enrich uranium, but buy fuel more cheaply on the open market.
Secondly, it isn't just my view that this matters. It's the view of Admiral Michael McConnell, the director of the National Intelligence Council - the body that produced the NIE. On 5 February, only a couple of months after publication of the NIE's conclusions, McConnell testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee. The transcript is here; on page 32, you'll find this exchange between McConnell and Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana (my emphasis):
BAYH: Director, I don't agree with the aspersions that were cast upon the quality of the work of your people in the article that Senator Whitehouse referred to, but I do think there have been -- the work has been mischaracterized in the public domain, as you were pointing out. And it's had some unfortunate consequences. As a matter of fact, it may very well have made it more difficult to achieve the result that our nation was hoping for, which was to find a way to end the Iranian nuclear program without resorting to force. It's made diplomacy much more difficult because of the way this was received around the world, including by the Iranians, the Russians, the Chinese and others. You just mentioned that if you had to do it over again without the heat of the moment, some time to reflect, you would have changed a couple of things. What would you have changed?
MCCONNELL: I think I would change the way that we describe [the] nuclear program; I mean, put it up front, a little diagram, what are the component parts so that the reader could quickly grasp that a portion of it, I would argue, maybe even at [sic] least significant portion, was halted and there are other parts that continue.
That is a remarkably candid admission. What the NIE dealt with was, according to the man who presented it to the Senate Committee, a portion of the programme and "maybe" the least significant such portion at that. It's worth noting that our government saw this commendably quickly last December. In an article in the Financial Times on 10 December, David Miliband wrote:
There are three key elements to a nuclear weapon - the fissile material, the missile itself and the process of weaponising the fissile material for the missile. The US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear programme published this week suggests that Iran has put work on the last of these elements on hold. If so, good. But Iran is still pursuing the other two elements, in particular an enrichment programme that has no apparent civilian application, but which could produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon, despite demands to stop from the United Nations Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The Foreign Secretary was right on this. Every time you see someone in the press invoking the NIE's conclusions on Iran's nuclear programme, you should bear in mind the two points I've stated. Iran's nuclear programme may just be the most important issue in international politics today. No discussion of it is properly informed without noting what the NIE and the director of National Intelligence have said in full.
Iran is an extremist regime but not a totalitarian one. It responds to pressure. Unlike the unstable leadership of North Korea, the mullahs have tried to give the impression (often deceitfully) of adhering to the NPT regime. It is essential they get the message that there will be severe diplomatic costs to continuing with a uranium enrichment programme unrelated to civil applications. The British government has this right. So does the French government. I have no doubt that Senators McCain and Clinton get it too. I wish others did.