- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Iranian nuclear threat is much ado about nothing, says reporter Seymour Hersh. Writing in the latest issue of the New Yorker, the professional left-wing cynic ignores numerous signs that the Islamic Republic is dead set on achieving nuclear-weapons capability and claims there is “a large body of evidence … suggesting that the United States could be in danger of repeating a mistake similar to the one made with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq eight years ago - allowing anxieties about the policies of a tyrannical regime to distort our estimations of the state’s military capacities and intentions.” For Mr. Hersh, it’s the “WMD issue” all over again.

The comparison is dubious. Saddam never had working nuclear reactors, something the Islamic regime in Tehran openly brags about. Iraq also never approached Iran’s current missile capabilities. Had Saddam possessed in 2003 what Iran has right now, the George W. Bush administration would never have been dogged by leftist critics like Mr. Hersh with never-ending charges of “intelligence failure.”

Mr. Hersh cites recent National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) on Iranian Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities, which he says found “no conclusive evidence that Iran has made any effort to build the bomb since 2003.” He leaves out some of the fine print from the 2007 NIE, such as that the alleged halt was only for “at least several years,” and beyond that, the United States did “not know whether [Iran] currently intends to develop nuclear weapons” but was “keeping open the option.” Furthermore, the NIE narrowly defined “weapons development” only as warhead design, excluding Iran’s extensive uranium-enrichment program. Since 2007, this program has expanded outside the control and supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), despite Tehran’s pledges it would accept international controls. Even the 2007 document found that Iran would be “technically capable of producing enough [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 timeframe.” We currently are in the second year of that window.

The 2007 intelligence estimate was roundly criticized when it was released as a heavily politicized document intended to stall Bush administration momentum for dealing with the threat posed by Tehran. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad mockingly called the document a “declaration of surrender” by America. The 2011 NIE, which won’t be released in an unclassified version, reportedly walks back the conclusions reached in 2007. The mullahs’ admitted pursuit of uranium enrichment and lack of cooperation with the IAEA are clear indications that something is amiss. In 2009, top-secret technical notes leaked from Iran’s nuclear program detailed Tehran’s research on a neutron initiator, the device that sets off a nuclear detonation. This mechanism has no peaceful “dual-use” purpose but is only used for weapons. It’s the trigger of the atomic smoking gun.

The Islamic Republic is an existential challenge to countries in the the Middle East. On Monday, Israel’s Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon said, “An Iran possessing nuclear weapons would be a threat to the entire civilized world,” and that he hoped the international community would “take joint action to avert the nuclear threat posed by Iran, even if it would be necessary to conduct a preemptive strike.” The Stuxnet computer virus, widely believed to have originated in Israel, pushed back the timeline for Iran’s uranium-enrichment program by about four years. While cyber-attacks may buy time, they will not dissuade Tehran from its nuclear ambitions. It’s worth remembering that every initial nuclear test in history by an adversary power took the U.S. intelligence community by surprise.