Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani, is scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly Tuesday and plans to use the occasion to reach out to world leaders about restarting talks on Iran’s controversial nuclear program. As U.S. President Barack Obama and his administration consider how they should react to the friendlier diplomatic face put forward by Rouhani and his team, they will need to contend with five popular myths about U.S. policy toward Iran’s nuclear program.
1. It’s Iraq all over again. No. For anti-war activists, simply invoking the Iraq War is an easy way to avoid making a fresh judgment on an independent issue. But there’s more than one letter of difference between the two cases. First of all, in 2003 the Bush administration lacked internationally certified evidence that Saddam Hussein’s regime was taking renewed steps toward producing nuclear weapons or even had the capabilities to produce the fissile materials needed for these bombs. All of the Bush administration’s arguments were based on U.S intelligence claims, which we now know were based in turn on extremely poor evidence. By contrast, Iran’s declared uranium enrichment progress is monitored and certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has determined that Iran violated its safeguards agreement with the agency. Iran’s missile tests are public knowledge. And many of the holes in our knowledge of the Iranian program result from Iran’s refusal to ratify an additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement. The uncertainties that do exist surround Iran’s technical ability to make operable nuclear weapons from the highly enriched uranium its centrifuges produce and its intentions to produce such weapons-grade uranium and nuclear weapons.
2. Delay works in Iran’s favor. Not so far. Those who favor military action against Iran argue that Tehran has every incentive to drag out negotiations while it continues installing centrifuges, accumulating medium-enriched uranium and finishing construction of a heavy water reactor at Arak that can produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. All of these steps will provide Iran with multiple and redundant capabilities to build nuclear weapons, making a U.S.—and especially an Israeli—airstrike ever more difficult. Yet most experts estimate that airstrikes would set back Iran’s nuclear program by no more than a few years. By contrast, U.S. intelligence indicates that Iran has effectively shelved its dedicated weaponization program for the past decade because of Tehran’s desire to avoid producing new incriminating evidence that could be detected by international inspectors. From the perspective of 2003, that 10-year delay looks like a better deal than the military option. Whether that calculus will continue to hold is another matter.