The Phantom Menace

Article excerpt

Byline: Kurt Eichenwald

While he was vice president in the previous administration, Dick Cheney repeatedly insisted America needed to bomb the Iranians to snuff out their nuclear ambitions; so did Senator John McCain and innumerable other politicians - Republican and Democrat, domestic and foreign.

But what if it's all hysteria? Could Iran be little more than a phantom menace?

Interviews with military strategists and foreign and domestic intelligence officers, and a review of the 34 years of warnings about the Iranians' threat to America's vital interests, all show that the doomsaying is based on suspicion, supposition and precious little hard data. It is, in many ways, a repeat of the supposed threat from Iraq that led to war - except this time, the intelligence world knows there are no weapons of mass destruction.

Now, with signs of a potential thaw in the relationship between the United States and Iran, numerous experts on the region say it is vitally important to have an accurate picture of the Persian Gulf state's nuclear capabilities and aspirations. Last week, President Barack Obama spoke by telephone for 15 minutes with Iran's recently elected president, Hassan Rouhani - the first time leaders of the two countries have spoken in three decades - and they discussed this nuclear issue. The conversation, which enraged hard-liners in the United States, Israel and Iran, was a prominent step in a diplomatic dance by the White House that began shortly before Rouhani assumed the presidency in August.

Among the biggest naysayers was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who dismissed the tete-a-tete as foolishness, and sneered that Obama had been seduced by a deceitful campaign of smiles by Rouhani.

Moreover, Netanyahu said, there was reason to be deeply afraid of Iran's nuclear program. "Within three to five years, we can assume that Iran will become autonomous in its ability to develop and produce a nuclear bomb, without having to import either the technology or the material," he said. "[The nuclear threat] must be uprooted by an international front headed by the U.S."

Wait -- sorry. That was not a quote from Netanyahu about the Obama-Rouhani conversation. That came from a speech he delivered to a near-empty Knesset plenum in January 1995. That's right: Netanyahu demanded that the United States take action against Iran because it would soon develop nuclear weapons 18 years ago. In other words, Netanyahu's track record on this topic is so lousy.

For a better assessment, try the United States Army War College, which, as that branch's most senior military educational institution, trains high-level Army personnel in strategy and research. "Iran is not a threat to American vital interests,'' says Christopher J. Bolan, a former army intelligence officer who served on the national security staffs of vice presidents Gore and Cheney, and who now teaches military strategy at the war college. "They don't want nuclear weapons. I think it has just been overly alarmist when folks are advocating a more aggressive reaction."

That is similar to the conclusion in the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, an authoritative assessment of national security issues that reflects the judgments of 16 American intelligence agencies. According to that analysis, Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003, and earlier this year, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said, "The intelligence we have is [Iranian leaders] have not made the decision to proceed with the development of a nuclear weapon.''

Some hard-liners in the West insist that such reasoned analysis and predictions cannot be applied to Iran because its leaders are lunatics. But, according to one Pentagon intelligence official, government security agencies worldwide have concluded that Iran's leadership is level-headed and its decisions are reached in a formalized way.

"They are not crazy, and they are not stupid,'' says Gawdat Bahgat, a professor of national security affairs who specializes in Middle Eastern policy at the National Defense University, an institution chartered by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that provides high-level military training on national security strategy. …