by Sharmine Narwani

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs have been on a roll since Friday defending Iran’s assertions that it is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

You heard right.

In response to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent claims that Iran had enriched uranium to the 20% level required for medical isotopes at the Natanz enrichment facility, Gibbs declared:

“The Iranian nuclear program has undergone a series of problems throughout the year. We do not believe they have the capability to enrich to the degree to which they now say they are enriching.”

If that is the case, then how on God’s earth can the Iranians enrich uranium to the 90% level required for a nuclear bomb?

Natanz, where the alleged enrichment took place – or according to US officials, didn’t – is the site that Israel most threatens to bomb. The Jewish state claims that Iran is on the verge of producing a nuclear weapon. Or maybe not. Last June, Israel’s Mossad Chief Meir Dagan extended the date for when Iran could produce weapons grade uranium or have “breakout capacity” to 2014.

While the US media rallied to cover Ahmadinejad’s declaration on Thursday that Iran was now a “nuclear state,” Gibbs dismissed those assertions, responding that “Iran has made a series of statements that are far more political than they are. They’re based on politics, not on physics.”

So which is it? Is Iran working on a nuclear bomb or not? Let’s look at the evidence most recently cited by US officials.

Speaking on Sunday at a US-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar where the US secretary of state is conducting a three-day tour – in part to persuade Persian Gulf allies to support Obama’s initiatives to contain a nuclear Iran – Clinton said there was mounting evidence that the Islamic Republic was pursuing a nuclear weapon.

“The evidence is accumulating that that’s exactly what they are trying to do…Iran has consistently failed to live up to its responsibilities. It has refused to demonstrate to the international community that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful,” she said.

When asked to point to evidence of a nuclear program, US State Department Spokesman PJ Crowley was quoted by Al Jazeera as saying:

“Given the current trajectory that Iran is on – the fact that it still has centrifuges spinning, and the fact that it is unwilling to constructively engage the international community – we have to assume that Iran is pursuing a nuclear programme.”

He continued: “Given all the steps that Iran has taken and all the actions that Iran refuses to take, we can only begin to draw the conclusion that Iran’s intentions are less than peaceful.”

If that is the basis on which the US is assembling a multi-national alliance to apply economic sanctions on the Iranian government, then it is deeply flawed premise. For one, it is virtually impossible to assess “intentions” when there is no real communication with the Islamic Republic, and therefore no way to anticipate or know its psyche.

A hostile stance toward US foreign policy is not a compelling barometer for assessing a country’s preparedness to engage in risky belligerent actions – neither is negative rhetoric or political posturing as Gibbs suggests. If that were the case, we would need to act on the perceived “intentions” of half the world’s nations.

Secondly, for every one of the handful of allies who have bought in to our “intentions” theory, there are ten nations who do not see an Iran of harmful intentions. And it isn’t just China and Russia that are hesitant. It is Brazil, Turkey, India, Qatar – important US allies – and the vast majority of the 118-nation Non-Aligned Movement.

A Rand report commissioned by the U.S. Air Force Directorate of Operational Plans and Joint Matters to take a fresh look at Iran’s military, economic and religious strengths and limitations, last spring cautioned the administration to differentiate between Iran’s rhetoric and its actions, an important factor in assessing intentions:

“Its revolutionary ideology has certainly featured prominently in the rhetoric of its officials,” the report says. “However, the record of Iranian actions suggests that these views should be more accurately regarded as the vocabulary of Iranian foreign policy rather than its determinant.”

The Report concludes that, in spite of its rhetoric and the concerns of neighboring states, Tehran does not seek territorial expansion or ideological exportation of its Islamic revolution. Instead, the report cautions that “the ideology and bravado of Iran’s President Ahmadinejad and its religious leader Ayatollah Khamenei mask a preference for opportunism and realpolitik — the qualities that define ‘normal’ state behavior.”

The reading of events in the world is a major driver of US foreign policy formulation. Which is why these determinations should be taken out of the hands of elected officials and political appointees and placed squarely in the laps of area specialists of the non-ideological variety. There could be no better example of this than the Iraq WMD debacle, where American political ideologues pursued an agenda based on their “perceptions” and skewed world view rather than on reality and accumulated intelligence data.

And now we face more of the same erroneous logic regarding Iran’s nuclear program, where “evidence” is based on perceived “intentions” rather than on indisputable fact. Which is why the number of nations willing to participate in rigorous sanctions against the Islamic Republic is miniscule compared to those against.

Worse yet, Gibbs and Kouchners statements last Friday reveal that we know there is no real evidence of a growing Iranian nuclear capability. If they can’t even enrich uranium to 20%, then they can’t make a bomb – period.

First published on February 16, 2010 at the Huffington Post.

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