The False Premise Of The Iran Debate

November 23, 2011 1:19 pm ET — Walid Zafar

Being a hawk means never having to say you're sorry.

The Iraq war did not discredit the idea of war, but it certainly should discredit the people who strongly promoted it. In fact, it has in most circles. But among conservatives, such people still have the standing to be taken seriously when they promote another war based on false premises, exaggeration and lies.  Although most of the Iraq deceivers are out of government today, they still populate think tanks, op-ed pages and, most troubling, the campaigns of most of the GOP candidates for president.

Case in point: At last night's GOP presidential debate, Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, one of the loudest cheerleaders for the Iraq war, addressed the candidates:

Good evening. I'm Danielle Pletka. I'm the Vice President for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Yesterday the United States and the U.K. slapped new sanctions on Iran. But we haven't bought oil directly from Iran in over 30 years. We've had targeted sanctions on Iran for more than half that time. Nonetheless, Iran is probably less than a year away from getting a nuclear weapon. Do you believe that there is any set of sanctions that could be put in place that would stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon?


The question about sanctions is a good one. She acknowledges that the sanctions she's advocated have failed and she wants to know if the candidates will consider further sanctions to deter Iran's nuclear ambitions and slow down its program. But the premise of the question is not just false, it's completely fabricated.

Either Pletka has seen intelligence that literally no one else in the world has access to or, despite being a scholar at one of the most renowned conservative think tanks, she's just lying through her teeth.

While there is genuine concern about Iran's nuclear ambitions, there is no evidence that Iran is less than a year away from having a bomb. Take a look at this: The Christian Science Monitor's Scott Peterson has chronicled more than 30 years of warnings that an Iranian bomb was imminent. As he wrote, "Breathless predictions that the Islamic Republic will soon be at the brink of nuclear capability, or — worse — acquire an actual nuclear bomb, are not new. ... And yet, those predictions have time and again come and gone."

But Pletka, rather nonchalantly, suggests Iran will have a bomb before the next presidential election, something that nobody with any standing here or in Israel claims.

So where does Pletka get her one-year prediction? Not from the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) recent report on Iran's nuclear program. As Greg Thielmann and Benjamin Loehrke point out, the report by the IAEA in no way states that Iran will have a nuclear bomb "less than a year" from now, as Pletka coolly asserted last night. On the contrary, the report is consistent with the findings of the controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that Iran had stopped its weapons program in 2003.

Testifying before a House oversight subcommittee this month, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl cautioned lawmakers that there is no evidence that Iran has decided to pursue a nuclear weapon. "When you have groups estimating one year or two years until [Iran] could have a testable nuclear devise, [sic] the important caveat is it is from a decision by the Iranian government to 'dash' for a nuclear device. There is no evidence that this decision has been made," he said.

That still leaves us with an important question. Neither the U.S. nor the U.N. has accused Iran of actively working on a nuclear device. So where did Pletka get this information that Iran is "probably less than a year away from getting a nuclear weapon?" If history is any indication, she "probably" made it up.

UPDATE: Pletka has written a blog post on the American Enterprise Institute site clarifying her comment:

While many in the journalism world focused on the quasi-answers to that question from the candidates, many Twitterati were more consumed by my "less than a year" assessment, challenging me to cite a source. Okey dokey folks.

She cites two pieces that support her contention that Iran could rapidly develop a weapon. One of them is co-authored by her husband (which she doesn't note) and the other, if you follow the link, states that "predicting when Iran might obtain nuclear weapons is highly uncertain."

She writes: "Quibblers will suggest that there are important 'ifs' in both these assessments. And yes, the key 'if' is 'if' Iran decides to build a bomb. So, I suppose when I said 'less than a year away from having a nuclear weapon,' I should have added, 'if they want one.'"

That's as much of a retraction as we'll ever get.