But why should North Korea keep the nuclear tests secret? asks Rühle. North Korea proudly advertised its previous nuclear tests. But the North Korean tests of 2006 and 2009 used bombs with a plutonium core. The 2010 tests, according to Lars-Erik de Geer’s calculation, employed enriched uranium. North Korea might have secretly enriched uranium on a sufficient scale to produce sufficient explosive material for two test bombs. But the more likely explanation is this, Rühle concludes:
The second explanation would be that North Korea conducted a nuclear test for a foreign entity, in this case, an Iranian explosive. That would be a sensation, although not quite a surprise, to be sure. Intelligence services have observed a close degree of cooperation between North Korean and Iranian experts over a period of years for the preparation of a nuclear test, although the previous assumptions centered on the prospect of an underground nuclear test in Iranian territory.
It became known a few days ago that the International Atomic Energy Agency has a document showing that it was the religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini himself who decided in 1984 to resume the nuclear weapons program suspended by the overthrow of the Shah. As his successor Ayatollah Khamenei declared, an Iranian nuclear weapon is viewed as the only way to protect the Islamic revolution and to prepare the way for the arrival of the Imam Mahdi. In Khamenei’s words, an Iranian nuclear arsenal is a deterrent in the hands of the holy warriors. With this sensational report from Tehran’s inner leadership circle it becomes clear that Khomeini’s often-cited fatwa that nuclear weapons are not compatible with Islam was a purely deceptive maneuver. Iran has been totally committed to becoming a nuclear power for decades.
Elements of Rühle’s story can be challenged by experts, to be sure. But the German analyst is making a point that has been lost in the fog of spin in Washington: It is outrageously wrong to proceed against an opponent like Iran in the presumption that intelligence agencies can accurately assess the precise degree of progress towards a nuclear device so that the U.S. government can fine-tune a response. Yet that is precisely what President Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg on March 2nd: “Our assessment, which is shared by the Israelis, is that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon and is not yet in a position to obtain a nuclear weapon without us having a pretty long lead time in which we will know that they are making that attempt.”
No intelligence professional could support that sweeping, and entirely indefensible, assertion from the president. American intelligence failures regarding nuclear weapons proliferation have been numerous and notorious. The CIA famously failed to give any advance warning of India’s first nuclear test, and was raked over the coals for this lapse at the time. Jeffrey Goldberg’s failure to challenge Obama’s statement turned the exchange into a public relations exercise rather than a news interview. A cub reporter for a college newspaper would have known enough to ask, “How can you be sure that we will detect an Iranian nuclear bomb before it’s ready? What’s our track record of detecting nuclear bombs elsewhere?”
When intelligence agencies use the term “evidence,” what they mean is incontrovertible proof. “Hard evidence” of Iranian nuclear intentions in intel-speak, as Rühle points out, means specifically that a nuclear test already has been conducted. When intelligence officials use this terminology, they are saying in plain English that their political masters are giving Iran the presumption of innocence, as Rühle wrote. The intelligence chiefs did not say that there was no “information” and no “reliable reports” that Iran is trying to get hold of nuclear weapons as fast as it possibly can, only that there is no “hard evidence.” By definition, one obtains this kind of “hard evidence” only when it is too late.
Update: Obama’s speech to AIPAC contained the bizarre assertion that “war talk” had pushed up the price of oil and therefore helped the government of Iran. By that logic, Obama shouldn’t mention a military option, and the United States should tell the world that use of force is out of the question.