The U.S. government should be more cautious in its statements about Iran’s nuclear intentions. If we want the Iranians to sit at the negotiating table, we need to stop faulting them for things we are not sure about. As our executive director John Isaacs said last month, “Negotiations with Iran are more likely to bear fruit if Iranians don’t feel like the United States is officially accusing them of being dead-set on going nuclear.”
The recent testimony by Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair is a step in the right direction. Blair told Congress this month that Iran has not yet made an executive decision to convert its low-enriched uranium stocks into highly-enriched fuel that could be used for nuclear weapons. Neither has Iran decided to develop the technology needed to load an atomic bomb onto a ballistic missile, according to Blair.
Whether or not the Islamic Republic has made up its mind to develop a nuclear weapon makes an enormous difference to U.S. strategy. “If we definitely know what Iran wants to do, that they are planning to build a nuclear weapon, then it is indeed a very dangerous situation,” Isaacs noted on NPR’s Morning Edition in February. “If they’re only moving in that direction and haven’t made a final decision, not only does that take some time urgency off, but it also means there’s an opportunity for the Obama administration to try to launch some negotiations with the Iranian leadership.”
Iran can move toward a nuclear bomb “if it chooses to do so,” said Blair (emphasis mine.) Added Blair: “Although we do not know whether Iran currently intends to develop nuclear weapons, we assess Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop one.” This leaves the window open for U.S.-Iranian diplomacy.
With his carefully picked words, Blair walked a fine line and aimed to strike a cautionary but not overhyped note about available intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program. Blair set a useful example for officials to follow when discussing delicate questions regarding Iran.
Blair’s statements, however, seem to have created quite a bit of confusion. Blair appeared to contradict earlier statements by CIA director Leon Panetta, who told Congress that, based on the information he’d seen, “there is no question” that Iran is seeking a nuclear capability. Something similar happened earlier this month when Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen told journalists that Iran had enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon on the same day that Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared that Iran “was not close to a weapon.”
If administration officials can’t get their message straight, how can we expect the Iranians to know where we stand? The Obama administration should stay away from the microphones when debating what is inside the minds of Iranian leaders. Blair’s nuanced language is welcome and should be the standard throughout the executive branch.