Bolton’s Big Iran Con
There’s no evidence behind the national security adviser’s dire warnings about Tehran’s nuclear intentions.
Here’s the dire warning National Security Advisor John Bolton brought Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Jan. 6: “We have little doubt that Iran’s leadership is still strategically committed to achieving deliverable nuclear weapons.”
I have found zero evidence to support Bolton’s claim. It is unclear who “we” means, but it certainly does not include the American intelligence community. They have found exactly the opposite.
While it is currently trendy to fact-check Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, allow me to suggest that it matters more — a lot more —when statements made by the national security advisor are untrue. This four-Pinocchio claim is a true whopper and has serious national security implications.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats certainly does not agree with Bolton. He testified to the Senate last year that Iran “wants to preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” which expressly forbids Iran from ever having nuclear weapons. He said that the accord “has also enhanced the transparency of Iran’s nuclear activities, mainly by fostering improved access to Iranian nuclear facilities.” That is, we have increased our already formidable ability to detect any Iran violations. The International Atomic Energy Agency concludes, and U.S. intelligence agencies agree, that Iran remains in strict compliance with the deal that shrank and then largely froze its nuclear complex.
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In his 2017 statement, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community,” Coats was crystal clear on the issue of intent: “We do not know whether Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.” That is, Bolton has no basis for his statement. “We” — the U.S. intelligence agencies—do not believe that Iran is committed to building nuclear weapons.
Nor is this a new judgement, one that Bolton might have somehow missed in the press of his duties. Paul Kerr, in his comprehensive 2018 report for the Congressional Research Service, finds: “Since at least 2007, the U.S. intelligence community has issued unclassified assessments that Iran has not decided whether to develop nuclear weapons. According to the 2007 NIE, ‘Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons’ until fall 2003, after which Iran halted its nuclear weapons program ‘primarily in response to international pressure.’”
These political intentions are important because Iran clearly has the industrial and technological basis to build at least first-generation nuclear weapons. It is not clear whether Iran has mastered all the techniques for an advanced weapon or has the design for such a weapon. But there is little doubt that it eventually could build them, should it embark on a crash effort. It is the political decision not to do so that prevents their production.
If Bolton’s claim were true, then Iran might break out of its nuclearagreement at any minute and race to a bomb. We’d be on hair-trigger alert in the region. We might have to take military action to destroy Iran’s remaining nuclear infrastructure before they surprised us with a bomb. Or as Bolton pithily put it in his 2015 oped, “to stop Iran’s bomb, bomb Iran.”
I have no idea where Bolton is getting the intelligence to support this claim. Even the much-ballyhooed documents stolen from the so-called Atomic Warehouse by Israeli agents only show that Iran had the framework for a nuclear weapons program in place by 2003, but not that they ever did much beyond vague plans. The intelligence community stands by its assessment that Iran abandoned the program in 2003. “There is literally nothing new here,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a weapons expert who examined the documents. NBC News reported that “Lewis' view was echoed by American intelligence officials, who told NBC News that while the documents may contain new details, the story they tell — that Iran once had an unauthorized nuclear program — is an old one.”
We may be uncertain how much knowledge the Iranians retain about weapon construction 16 years later, but the Iran anti-nuclear deal was constructed on a worst-case assessment, according to Stephen Mull, who led the U.S. effort to implement the agreement. “We built this deal in a way that it rested on what we can measure and verify,” he said in 2016. “How much fissile material is there? How big is Iran’s enrichment capacity? Does the international community through the IAEA have the capability to investigate any suspicious activity anywhere in the country?” and so forth.
So what explains Bolton’s bizarre claim? Is he learning from his boss, copying President Trump’s practice of lying about even the most obvious and provable facts?
Bolton’s deceptions predate Trump. He honed the technique in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when he engaged in a systematic effort to subvert the intelligence on Iraqi programs and bury any evidence contrary to his claims, including: “We are confident that Saddam Hussein has hidden WMD and production facilities." (No, we weren’t and no, he didn’t.)
As Peter Beinart notes, to read Bolton’s columns and speeches over the past two decades “is to enter a cocoon. His writing is filled with assertions—about the purity of America’s intentions, the motivations of its adversaries, the uselessness of diplomacy, and the efficacy of war—for which he offers either feeble evidence or no evidence at all.”
A survey of Bolton’s former colleagues by ProPublica concluded that he skews intelligence, that he “resists input that doesn’t fit his biases and retaliates against people he disagrees with.” In short, we have a national security advisor whose temperament and tendencies nearly exactly mirror those of the president — an exceptionally dangerous situation.
Trump’s mendacity may encourage Bolton’s, but he needs precious little prompting. As the secretary of state continues this week and next on his overlapping anti-Iran tour of the Middle East, we should brace for a stream of false claims every bit as strong as the ones coming from the White House.
In particular, we should spend at least as much time fact-checking their claims as we do those of the youngest member of Congress, whose exaggerations may prove embarrassing, but are unlikely to be fatal. Bolton’s and Pompeo’s falsehoods are paving the way for a Middle East war that will make the dispute over the wall with Mexico look like a border dust-up.