America's Top Spy: We Don't Know Whether Iran Is Even Trying to Build a Bomb

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What I am about to mention is not "news" and will be familiar to people following the Iran story. But it is important. Precisely because there is so much daily chatter about a possible military strike on Iran, it is worth going back to make sure this part does not vanish from the public record or front-of-mind consciousness.

This past week, the leaders of the U.S. intelligence community said that they were not sure that Iran was even trying to build a nuclear weapon.

Why does this matter? Much of the mounting chatter about Iran takes absolutely for granted that its leaders have a bomb-building program under way. Thus the only questions worth asking are:
  - How close are they?
  - How dangerous would they be?
  - What would it take to stop them?
  - How much time does anyone else have to fend them off, before it's too late?

But here is what happened last week.

1) At a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last Tuesday, Olympia Snowe of Maine had this exchange with James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence -- who was appearing with David Petraeus of the CIA. Emphasis added:

Senator Snowe: I gather we agree with the fact that Iran has not made the decision to weaponize at this point. Director Clapper, do you agree on that?

General Clapper: Yes, but they are certainly moving on that path, but we don't believe they've actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon.

I heard this exchange while I was driving around yesterday (on C-SPAN radio -- yes, now you know my darkest secret). You can see a video of the whole hearing at C-Span's site, and a reference to the exchange on the CFR site.

2) Before that hearing, Clapper released his "Worldwide Threat Assessment," available online in PDF. The relevant Iran portions say:

We assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so.  We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons....

We judge Iran's nuclear decision making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran.  Iranian leaders undoubtedly consider Iran's security, prestige, and influence, as well as the international political and security environment, when making decisions about its nuclear program.

DNIIran.pngObviously this doesn't resolve the whole issue. US intelligence has been wrong on such matters before, to put it mildly. (Although warnings that Iran is close to having the bomb are decades old.) Just now Jeffrey Goldberg, who emphasizes that he is the anti-bombing camp, posts a reminder of the reasons to be wary of Iran.

Still: the next dozen times you hear about how to cope with Iran's "headlong" or "inevitable" or "destabilizing" progress toward building a bomb, reflect for a minute that in the judgment of the U.S. intelligence community, we are not sure that they even trying. And reflect on the factors the Iranian leadership may be weighing as it makes this choice.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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