The Envoy

U.S. remains uncertain about Iran nuclear intent, Sy Hersh argues

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Veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh argues in a subscription-only piece in the latest New Yorker that the U.S. intelligence community still is not certain whether Iran has decided to make nuclear weapons.

Hersh notes that the analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency judge that Iran's nuclear program was not primarily directed against Israel, Europe or the United States. Rather, the U.S. military intelligence analysts believe that Iran was seeking nuclear capacity chiefly to deter Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whom the United States overthrew in 2003. Iran and Iraq had long vied for geopolitical dominance in the region, and fought a brutal war from 1980 to 1988 that killed more than half a million people.

When senior U.S. intelligence officials briefed Congress on the intelligence community's updated 2011 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program in February, they "made clear that U.S. intelligence officials simply did not know whether Iran would become a nuclear state," Hersh writes of the still-classified document.

In spite of the intelligence community's reported uncertainty about Iran's intent, Hersh argues that Obama administration officials have made frequent public pronouncements relaying the assumption that Iran clearly intends to get nuclear weapons. In this way, Hersh notes, they are echoing a policy refrain they inherited from predecessors in the Bush administration.

"President Obama has been prudent in his public warnings about the consequences of an Iranian bomb, but he and others in his Administration have often overstated the available intelligence about Iranian intentions," Hersh writes.

In addition to the U.S. pattern of allegedly exaggerating the intent behind Iran's nuclear push, Hersh argues that U.S. policy to Iran--which hinges mainly on ramped-up pressure on Iran to change its behavior--has been a failure.

Senior State Department arms control adviser Robert Einhorn recently estimated that international economic sanctions may have cost Iran $60 billion in much-needed energy investments--with little result to show so far. Einhorn acknowledged in March, Hersh writes, that "sanctions have not yet produced a change in Iran's strategic thinking about its nuclear program."

Hersh then relays some interesting, unofficial, "Track II" diplomatic work spearheaded by retired senior U.S. diplomats trying to get the United States and Iran to pursue more meaningful diplomatic engagement.

"I am concerned that a narrative has developed that will limit debate and cut off America's options" on Iran, said Iran scholar Trita Parsi. "The idea that diplomacy has been exhausted is laughable. It is not easy, and the Iranians have not been helpful." Parsi said that in earlier, similar efforts to jumpstart sensitive negotiations with other countries, the United States has devoted years to the basic process of getting discussions started.

It's worth getting ahold of the full article--even if White House officials told Politico's Mike Allen they were rolling their eyes at the Hersh piece. After all, the White House has shown itself to be quite mindful of domestic political pressures to stake out a more hardline position on Iran--and Iran's recent internal infighting has meanwhile made it difficult for Iranian diplomats to pursue any meaningful engagement with the international community.

(Journalist Seymour Hersh in undated photo released by The New Yorker May 21, 2004: Matt Dellinger, HO/the New Yorker/AP)

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