Scrutinizing the Threat from Iran

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Jonathan Landay in 'Buying the War'

In the lead up to war in Iraq, misinformation about weapons of mass destruction went virtually unchallenged by the mainstream media. But three reporters for Knight Ridder newspapers (now McClatchy) were skeptical, and their probing investigation of the Bush administration’s justifications for war eventually proved prescient.

Bill Moyers featured the Knight Ridder reporters in his 2007 documentary Buying the War, about the media’s failure in the run-up to the Iraq war. We caught up with one of them, Jonathan Landay, now a senior national security and intelligence correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, to get his thoughts on the current standoff with Iran.

Lauren Feeney: Do you see a parallel between the lead up to war in Iraq nine years ago and the drumbeat of war with Iran that we’re hearing now?

Jonathan Landay: There’s been some effort to draw parallels between the Iranian program and the Bush administration’s case about the late dictator Saddam Hussein. The fact is, in Saddam’s case there were enormous amounts of evidence produced by U.N. inspectors showing that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction programs had been discovered and eliminated. And after the inspectors were thrown out, Saddam wouldn’t have been able to reconstitute the country’s nuclear program by the time the Bush administration came to office.

The situation is completely different with Iran. There are IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors in the country, so what Iran is doing is known.

The fact is that over the last several years, beginning with the discovery of an undeclared uranium enrichment site near the holy city of Qom, it has become apparent that Iran is increasing its production of what’s known as low-enriched uranium.

A satellite image shows a suspected nuclear enrichment facility under construction inside a mountain located north of Qom, Iran. September 2009. (AP/DigitalGlobe)
A satellite image taken Sunday Sept. 27, 2009 shows a suspected nuclear enrichment facility under construction inside a mountain located north of Qom, Iran. (AP/DigitalGlobe)

The IAEA also has information that indicates that Iran was, at least up until 2003 or 2004, conducting research into designing a nuclear missile warhead and researching conventional high-explosive implosions which are used to trigger nuclear warheads. And the IAEA issued a very significant report on all of this in November in which it said that some aspects of this research may still be continuing in secret.

The documentary evidence that the IAEA has accumulated raises serious questions about what Iran is doing, and that evidence runs a gamut, beginning with the fact that Iran kept its program secret from the IAEA for 18 years. If it was benign and for peaceful purposes, why did they feel they had to keep it a secret?

Feeney: So unlike in Iraq, where the evidence of weapons of mass destruction was flawed, you see ample evidence that Iran has been working towards a nuclear weapon. How about the media’s coverage? Do you see any parallels there?

Landay: I think the media has been much more discerning. Much of what the media is reporting has been based on evidence that has been put into the public arena by the IAEA. There are also a number of very prominent think tanks that have obtained documentation on their own raising significant questions about the nature of the Iranian program.

There appears to be a consensus within the American intelligence community that Iran stopped work on a nuclear weapon in 2003, but that it has continued various aspects of its nuclear program that it could eventually use if it decided that it wanted to go that route. There’s not a great deal of difference between what the IAEA is saying and what the U.S. intelligence community is saying.

You asked why we’ve been hearing this drumbeat — well, the Israelis have been deliberately turning up the volume on this drumbeat recently. But curiously, when Mr. Netanyahu made his speech to the main American Israeli lobbying group during his recent visit, he said the Israeli policy and the American policy were the same. He also said that some of us believe that there’s not much more time left for diplomacy. He could have said some of us don’t believe there’s any more time for diplomacy. He said there’s some time left. That indicates that the Israeli government doesn’t believe that the Iranians are about to produce a nuclear weapon any time soon.

It’s possible that the war drums that the Israelis were turning up through the media were not intended as a warning that they were about to launch an operation, but rather were intended to put pressure on the United States and the other powers involved to juice up the economic sanctions against Iran, which we’ve seen that happen. I mean, what country in the world is going to announce an attack? Well, we did it actually with the invasion of Iraq — but with an operation of this nature? The Israelis are not going to advertise their intention beforehand.

Feeney: So it sounds like what you’re saying is that Iran has a nuclear weapons program that could be reawakened at any time, but it’s dormant right now, and war is not imminent.

Landay: Here’s what I’m saying: The Iranians have learned how to enrich uranium. The process that they’re using to produce what they say is low-enriched uranium is the same process that’s used to produce the highly-enriched uranium that you need for a nuclear weapon. They know how to do it — the only question is how long it would take them to produce enough highly-enriched uranium for a nuclear warhead. Some people believe that it could be a matter of months if they decided to go that course.

But when you make a nuclear weapon, you can’t just make just one, because once you’ve let it go, you are open to retribution and retaliation from whoever it is you’ve used that weapon against. So just being able to produce one doesn’t do you a hell of a lot of good, and to produce a number of them would take a lot more time. Then they’d probably need to test the weapon that they produced, and would need even more highly-enriched uranium for that. And during all of that of course, IAEA inspectors and monitoring systems are present at their enrichment sites, at least the known ones.

The red line that the Obama administration appears to have established for when they believe diplomacy may have run its course is in the event that Iran orders the IAEA inspectors out of the country. At that point you have to worry about not knowing what the Iranians are up to.

Feeney: If Iran were to cross that line, then what do you think would happen?

Landay: Then I’d say we are on a course for a military confrontation.

Feeney: You’ve said that both Obama and Netanyahu are willing to give this time, but what about Ahmadinejad? There’s this question of whether or not he and the Iranians are rational actors — are they likely to push the situation over the edge?

Landay: Look, Persian culture is thousands of years old. They invented chess. These guys know how to be diplomats. I believe they are totally rational actors, of course. They look very closely at their interests — the preservation of their power, the preservation of the regime. If there were a conflict, the future of that regime would be in doubt.

Feeney: So then why do we still hear this drumbeat of war from politicians and the media?

Landay: The politician’s greatest device is the exploitation of fear. They want to present themselves as being the toughest — the guy or the lady that you should put your trust in because I’m going to keep you secure. And so yes, this issue has been used and abused, particularly I think by the Republican presidential candidates, who use it to try to portray President Obama as weak on this issue. And yet, when you get down to it, their proposals are virtually the same as Obama’s.

Nobody wants a war. The United States has been at war now for 10 years. Nobody wants another war.

Feeney: Who do you think is getting this story right? Who should people turn to if they really want to understand it?

Landay: The IAEA. All of their reports are publicly available. Listen to the IAEA. They got Iraq right.

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  • Anonymous

    Israel is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (Pakistan and India are the only other two non signers), and a known nuclear power.  Why do they get to choose who does and doesn’t  get to have nuclear arms, when they themselves don’t play by the rules? 

  • Marta

    The illegal invasion in Iraq that led to war was out of the Revenge against Saddam. Saddam refused to get his butt out after being inticed to invade Kuwait. Bush Sr. wanted to bring down the Monarcy of Kuwait, take control of the oil, & put in a pipe line. Saddam refused to get his butt out when Bush ordered, and Bush lost out. Iran it is similiar, because the Iranians ousted the puppet Shah, who was allowing Bush to take 80 percent control of the oil, and Bush wanted revenge. Had a dirty election to make his son, Bush Jr. president, took  the Jr. 8 years ,–along with Israel, to pressure Iran into a conflick to give an excuse to invade. Again for the control of Iran’s oil, and putting in the  pipe line. I expect Israel will self themselves a catastrophe, blame Iran and the US. will  jump in to help Israel.  The whole Middle East  mess comes down to the Greed of Oil for the oil companies, and the want of land for Israel.

  • Krautwingnut

    The whole debate about Iran is pure nonsense.  Just because a country develops a nuclear weapon is no reason to believe they plan to use it.  More likely is the fact that Iran wants to be a member of the “nuclear club” for their own protection.  As a deterrent to Israel using one on them.  They are not stupid and realize the rain of nuclear desttruction that would rain on them in retaliation.  After all they are surrounded by nukes from: France, England, Pakistan, India and Israel and would be blasted off the face of the earth. We should immediately lift the embargo and let the Iranian people live in peace.  What right does Israel, Britain or the US have to bully Iran?

  • Anonymous

    In the seventies, Professor Kistenmaker, the inventor of the uranium enrichment process, was on
    Dutch TV when the Dutch and German Governments were building a uranium enrichment facility in Almelo, Holland. It was the same time that first America, a few weeks later Russia, declared that they had developed the neutron bomb and the Professor was asked his opinion. Surprisingly he said that it was a hoax, as it was physically impossible. Then he added that people are technically
    so illiterate that they will believe anything they are told, provided it comes from a reliable source. According to my information from a friend in Holland, this centrifuge enrichment process solely separate Uranium-235 from Uranium- 238 and that the weapon grade Plutonium- 239 can only be produced in nuclear reactors. The present discussion among the nuclear scientists is to build either Uranium or Thorium reactors. Even tough Thorium reactors have many advantages, most countries
    specifically selected Uranium reactors, because they could produce weapon grade Plutonium- 239,while Thorium reactors, also could create weapon grade Uranium- 237, but that is extremely difficult to handle (for terrorist) due to its very high Gamma radiation. If this information is correct, why then
    is Israel and America so concerned with Iran enriching uranium with centrifuges? IF we are concerned with weapon grade plutonium, shouldn’t we more focus on countries that already
    have nuclear reactors? OR was Professor Kistenmaker right when he said that people will believe
    any thing, provided it comes from a reliable source and aren’t we again be pulled into a war based
    on incorrect information?

  • Lobsterman

    Israel has not call for the complete destruction of Iran as the Iranian government has called for Israel’s destruction.  Israel has a right to defend itself from any country threatening it.

  • Anonymous

    Unlike Israel, Iran has not attacked its neighbors.  In the last 1000 years, Iran has not attacked its neighbors. 

    Iranian politicians, just like those in the US and elsewhere, use fear, and act tough to overcome that fear, to stay in power.  There is no justification to attack another country over words.  Sticks and stones . . .

  • Vivek Jain

    articles and websites about the Iran situation here:

  • Vivek Jain
  • Vivek Jain

     Nonsense, Lobsterman.

    Ahmadinejad did not call for genocide.
    The leaders of Israel are the aggressors and frequently violate international law, just as Washington does. 

  • norooz
  • norooz

                                        ‘Israel Loves Iran’ Campaign Grows Online campaign is designed to prevent a nuclear attack between the two nations…

    This comment has been down-ranked into oblivion. View comment
    You have not right to carry out this operation or Error this operation.
    Loading comments…
    Message in the bottle. From people of Iran to people of Israel

  • Unsanitorial

    So Israel is Washington’s Mini-Me?

  • Unsanitorial

    Your account is the graphic novel version but summarizes real events.
    You make the Bushes super villains when the truth is they are a minor Oligarch dynasty. (April Glaspie took orders from higher up.)
    So now you see Israel cooking another false flagged incident?
    You could be correct. (Charleston or Seattle could be nuked.)
    It worked 11 years ago. 
    People turn to the edgy mid-season network shows about models as cops
    mistaking police-worship for reality.
    “Oh worship the Police,
    All glorious above, 
    And gratefully sing,
    Their wonderful love.”
    The clothes, the cars, the whizbang forensics, clever interrogation- not like the Homer-pants doughnut shops at all.
    Keep whittlin’ on that there Bill of Rights secret security state.
    It’d make a right purdy “big stick.”
    Get some Respeto. Scare the Occupy outta them!

  • Unsanitorial

    Plausible scenario. Your opposable thumbs got it tight.
    Question: How can we expect to curtail school bullying when terror-state bullying and financial bullying are our Way O’ Life? Children need wholesome role models.
    So do voters (who are kept childish). Which bully do you support?

  • Unsanitorial

    It was a great stemwinder but you debunked it, Spoiled-sport.
    Dick Cheney’s telltale heart gonna getcha.Too much knowledge is a dangerous thing (to Empire).I sometimes wonder if Sam Clemens could endure the debriefing Mike Daisy got from Ira Glass: “So, when you told us you actually saw a 3-legged jumping frog in Calaveras County, that was a lie! In truth you were only in California 3 weeks and never in Calaveras County, and you did not in fact see any jumping frogs or any wagering over a frog jumping contest. Is that correct?!”Clemens: “Accounts of my journalism have been greatly exaggerated.” (sniffling in microphone)Bye- Gotta go down to Niger (second G optional) fer some yeller cake.They meme it like a homecoming game and provide the anticipated scenario.Our dwarfed colonized minds eat it up.

  • Rpaustex

    Allright, enough is enough. You’re obviously well read and intelligent. We get it. But you write like you’re high as a kite or bipolar off your meds. Chill, man.

  • eileen fleming

    PLEASE report on Israel’s WMD and view Israeli TV report based on Mordechai Vanunu’s photos shot in 1985 that led nuclear physicists to conclude Israel had manufactured upwards of 200 nuclear warheads by 1986.

    Vanunu told me:

    “Did you know that President Kennedy tried to stop Israel from building atomic weapons? In 1963, he forced Prime Minister Ben Guirion to admit the Dimona was not a textile plant, as the sign outside proclaimed, but a nuclear plant. The Prime Minister said, ‘The nuclear reactor is only for peace.’

    “Kennedy insisted on an open internal inspection. He wrote letters demanding that Ben Guirion open up the Dimona for inspection.

    “The French were responsible for the actual building of the Dimona. The Germans gave the money; they were feeling guilty for the Holocaust, and tried to pay their way out. Everything inside was written in French, when I was there, almost twenty years ago. Back then, the Dimona descended seven floors underground.

    “In 1955, Perez and Guirion met with the French to agree they would get a nuclear reactor if they fought against Egypt to control the Sinai and Suez Canal. That was the war of 1956. Eisenhower demanded that Israel leave the Sinai, but the reactor plant deal continued on.

    “When Johnson became president, he made an agreement with Israel that two senators
    would come every year to inspect. Before the senators would visit, the Israelis would build a wall to block the underground elevators and stairways. From 1963 to ’69, the senators came, but they never knew about the wall that hid the rest of the Dimona from them.

    “Nixon stopped the inspections and agreed to ignore the situation. As a result, Israel increased production. In 1986, there were over two hundred bombs. Today, they may have enough plutonium for ten bombs a year.”

  • GradyLeeHoward