Juan Cole Gives Iran the Benefit of the Doubt

Intellectually grappling with a man of University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole's knowledge base is an intimidating task, but an appearance he made on MSNBC on September 19 cannot go unchallenged. Cole, in remarkable fashion, downplayed the threat from Iran’s nuclear program and gave the regime a benefit of the doubt that he never gave the Bush administration and the dreaded neoconservatives.

“I think American intelligence has a very good idea of what’s going on [in Iran],” he said. “It seems clear that they are not pursuing a nuclear weapon, but they are pursuing the capability to close the fuel cycle, which means that in the future, if they change their mind, they could start up a weapons program.”

Note his word usage -- “if they change their mind.” Cole apparently believes that Iran’s current intent is not to enable a later production of weapons, which he admits their activity would facilitate, but to genuinely develop nuclear energy for civilian purposes. This is a sentiment he voiced in an interview in March where he said that the Iranians are consuming increasingly large amounts of petroleum and, therefore, they have a need to become more energy efficient and a civilian nuclear program could be an answer to that problem.

Cole then undercut his own argument by saying that it would be wiser for the Iranians to end their enrichment of uranium in order to get sanctions lifted, permitting foreign companies to help them tap their natural gas reserves. Surely the Iranians would have considered this option if their main objective was economic survival, but instead we see them investing mightily in this nuclear program that is causing them all sorts of international grief that exasperates their problems.

It’s also interesting how in the printed March interview he refers to how Iran is “allegedly” supporting Hamas, as if the regime’s support to the terrorist group isn’t a foregone conclusion. Somehow, in Cole’s mind, U.S. intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program is reliable, but not so much when it comes to supporting terrorism.

Let’s contrast how comfortable he is in trusting the Iranians with his attitude towards the Bush administration.

“The same techniques used to get up the Iraq war are now being applied by the political right in the United States, including President Bush, to Iran. These include innuendo, guilt by association, vague fears, and hyped capabilities. If Bush gets a second term, it seems very likely that his administration will make war on Iran.” -- July 21, 2004.

“We know that Cheney, the neocons, and other factions in the Bush administration desperately wanted to get up a war against Iran so as to overthrow its government.” -- February 14, 2006.

He even theorizes that these neocons deliberately hampered the CIA’s efforts to stop proliferation to Iran because “that very success would make it harder to justify a war on Iran.”