As international negotiators prepare for the next round of talks with Iran over its nuclear program, scheduled in Moscow for June 18-19, the United States faces a 21st century version of a “Stevenson moment.” In 1962, in a forceful presentation backed by compelling photographic evidence at the United Nations, Ambassador Adlai Stevenson made the case that the Soviet Union was installing nuclear weapons in Cuba. In addressing Soviet Ambassador Valentin Zorin in the chamber of the Security Council, Stevenson pointedly declared, “Let me say something to you, Mr. Ambassador. We do have the evidence. We have it, and it is clear, and it is incontrovertible.”
When it comes to Iran, however, there is no equivalent of the clear and compelling evidence Stevenson was able to produce. Moreover, the credibility of the U.S. intelligence community is no longer sterling when it comes to such matters. In 2003, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell was able to take a series of devious Iraqi actions that suggested deception and subterfuge and, with the addition of evidence that was later proven to be unreliable or even fabricated, build a case for an Iraqi weapons of mass destruction program. Yet after the subsequent invasion, the United States did not find the “retroactive evidence,” as Charles Krauthammer called it, that would have validated the prewar arguments. As a result, Washington has long found it more difficult to argue that Iran’s lack of compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency combined with its failure to disclose all of its atomic assets is itself ipso facto proof that Tehran is actively developing nuclear weapons.
This is why Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statements to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Beijing are so interesting. Putin told Ahmadinejad, “We have always supported the right of the Iranian people to modern technologies, including the peaceful use of atomic energy. But I want to emphasize that it is peaceful we are talking about. You know our position.”