Iran enriching? Yes. Building a bomb? Probably not.

Petraeus_panetta

Photo: David Petraeus and Leon Panetta, now CIA director and Secretary of Defense respectively, doubt Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Creative Commons/Flickr user U.S. Embassy Kabul Afghanistan

The New York Times today reported that U.S. intelligence officials remain skeptical that Iran is building a nuclear bomb.

Recent assessments by American spy agencies are broadly consistent with a 2007 intelligence finding that concluded that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program years earlier, according to current and former American officials. The officials said that assessment was largely reaffirmed in a 2010 National Intelligence Estimate, and that it remains the consensus view of America’s 16 intelligence agencies.

This amid a growing furor about Iran’s nuclear program, in which media are widely citing official reports of expanded enrichment efforts, but failing to make a key distinction:

There is no dispute among American, Israeli and European intelligence officials that Iran has been enriching nuclear fuel and developing some necessary infrastructure to become a nuclear power. But the Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence agencies believe that Iran has yet to decide whether to resume a parallel program to design a nuclear warhead — a program they believe was essentially halted in 2003 and which would be necessary for Iran to build a nuclear bomb.

To say uneqivocally that Iran is a nuclear threat is analog to saying that every Republican voter who owns a gun poses a legitimate threat to the life of the president.

The Times article is careful to make that distinction, as are U.S. intellicence officials. The story hints at the reason why:

Iran’s efforts to hide its nuclear facilities and to deceive the West about its activities have also intensified doubts. But some American analysts warn that such behavior is not necessarily proof of a weapons program. They say that one mistake the C.I.A. made before the war in Iraq was to assume that because Saddam Hussein resisted weapons inspections — acting as if he were hiding something — it meant that he had a weapons program.

As [David A. Kay, who was head of the C.I.A.’s team that searched for Iraq’s weapons programs after the United States invasion] explained, “The amount of evidence that you were willing to go with in 2002 is not the same evidence you are willing to accept today.”

The Times makes no mention of the role it played in the 2002 invasion of Iraq with some extremely sloppy reporting by the paper’s own Judith Miller that helped sway public opinion in favor of the invasion.

It seems the Times and few others learned from this mistake, as American and Israeli media run away with fear-driven half-truths, failing to deal exclusively in facts and leaning instead on speculation about the meaning of what isn’t known.

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