Almost ten years to the day of the foolish invasion of Iraq, the discrepancy that existed between the media description of the Iraqi threat and the non-manipulated assessment of the U.S. intelligence community is being seen again — but this time on Iran.
Iran is often described in the media as irrational, suicidal and hell-bent on getting a nuclear weapon and destroying Israel. These themes are so oft repeated that they are almost treated as self-evident truths.
That’s why it’s so fascinating to read Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s Worldwide Threat Assessment report that was presented to the U.S. Senate today.
As Director of National Intelligence, Clapper has more access to confidential intelligence reports than anyone else in the U.S.. He not only sees all of the U.S.’s intelligence, but also much of what the Israelis, Europeans and even Russians and others share with the U.S.
There are three key judgments Clapper makes on Iran that must be given due attention.
First, Clapper indirectly explains why efforts by the Israeli Prime Minister and the U.S. Congress to draw a red line for war at the point where Iran would have the “capability” to build nuclear weapons is unwise. In short, Clapper indicates that Iran already is there. Drawing this red line would mean war. The Director of National Intelligence writes:
Tehran has developed technical expertise in a number of areas — including uranium enrichment, nuclear reactors, and ballistic missiles — from which it could draw if it decided to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons. These technical advancements strengthen our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons.
He then adds two critical points: “This makes the central issue its political will to do so,” [emphasis added] while pointing out that “Iran could not divert safeguarded material and produce a weapon-worth of [Weapons Grade Uranium] before this activity is discovered.”
In short, this means that efforts to prevent Iran from the capacity are futile, but we still have the ability to catch Tehran and take action if it were to attempt to rapidly construct a nuclear weapon.
What we have to focus on is to influence Tehran’s presumed desire or sense of need for nuclear weapons. As the intelligence report states, “Iran is developing nuclear capabilities to enhance its security, prestige, and regional influence…” [emphasis added].
That’s a very different situation than the one typically described in the media. It is a situation in which issuing threats and pressures towards that end arguably increase Iran’s desire for a nuclear deterrence. The greater Tehran’s sense of threat from the U.S. — whether military or economic — the greater the lure of nuclear deterrence will be. Indeed, Clapper adds that “Iran’s nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran.”
This brings us to the second key point Clapper makes: While Clapper states that Iran has hegemonic aspirations, much of its strategy is described as defensive. Its missile program, for instance, is “an integral part of its strategy to deter — and if necessary retaliate against — forces in the region, including U.S. forces,” according to Clapper.
This is not to say that Clapper discounts or dismisses the challenge Iran poses to the U.S., but his assessment is devoid of the panic-stricken and sensationalist narrative that hints of the coming Iranian land invasion of the U.S. and its desire to destroy Western civilization.
Making the rulers in Iran bigger than they are ultimately serves Tehran — not Washington.
The third take-away from Clapper is a testament to the faulty trajectory we find ourselves on. He writes:
Iran is growing more autocratic at home and more assertive abroad… Supreme Leader Khamenei’s power and authority are now virtually unchecked, and security institutions, particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), have greater influence at the expense of popularly elected and clerical institutions…. Meanwhile, the regime is adopting more oppressive social policies to increase its control over the population, such as further limiting educational and career choices for women.
Clapper lists three factors for this regrettable development: elite and popular grievances, a deteriorating economy, and an uncertain regional dynamic.
The first factor is the doing of the regime itself. The regime stole the votes of the population in 2009 and its intensified repression has only deepened its unpopularity. The third factor — the uncertain regional dynamic — is out of the control of both the regime and the U.S. government.
The second factor contributing to Tehran’s intensified repression at home and assertiveness abroad, however, is due to a combination of the regime’s economic mismanagement and the blind, indiscriminate sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies. Clapper lists in his report how “Iran’s financial outlook has worsened since the 2012 implementation of sanctions on its oil exports and Central Bank.” Yet, he points out, “growing public frustration with the government’s socioeconomic policies has not led to widespread political unrest.” Instead, regular Iranians have seen greater repression at home.
Contrast Clapper’s report with the media discourse — on our options to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, the effect of sanctions or Tehran’s aims — and scary flashbacks from 2003 and Iraq appear.
The White House may have some obvious reasons not to push back against the panic-stricken media narrative too aggressively or too openly, including a desire not to inadvertently signal laxness to either Iran or Israel.
The media itself, however, does not have this excuse.