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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.”

While the war-mongering Bush administration is accused of secretly plotting to trick the country into an ill-advised military campaign in Iran (which never comes to fruition), the Iranian regime’s word is trusted, despite its past history of concealing and lying about key nuclear sites, and according to the very National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) Cole cites, working on actual nuclear weapons until 2003.


Cole uses the NIE of 2007, which the intelligence community reportedly still stands by, to argue that Iran isn’t “pursuing” a nuclear weapon. After the uproar following the document’s publication, then-Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell said he regretted the document’s phrasing on the issue and clarified that by “nuclear weapons” work they meant that activity related to covert enrichment and warhead development had ceased in 2003, but that Iran’s overt nuclear program could be a building block towards the pre-planned, eventual creation of a nuclear weapon. Even in the area of explicit nuclear weapons development, only “moderate confidence” was expressed that such work had not been restarted.

Furthermore, if the intelligence on the matter is as “clear” as Cole says, then why has French President Sarkozy said it is a “certainty” to his intelligence service that Iran is working on nuclear weapons? A German intelligence report also said that nuclear weapons work “can be observed in Iran even after 2003.” Why the discrepancy?

He mentions that people involved in the program have defected, likely a reference to former Deputy Defense Minister Ali Reza Asghari, who switched sides in 2007 and is rumored to have provided some of the key information influencing the NIE. However, Asghari also says that Iran was financing the Syrian nuclear program being built with North Korean help, perhaps as a way of outsourcing its covert activity, and had secret nuclear sites that would be used if the overt program was shut down.


In other words, the term “nuclear weapons program” as used in the NIE of 2007 was misleading because it didn’t include the overt energy program as part of the term. Thus, McConnell has regrets about the phrasing.

So, what’s more likely: that Iran suddenly decided in 2003 that it no longer wanted nuclear weapons, or that it stopped because it had made satisfactory progress in the area and made a wise decision to focus on the steps necessary before the actual construction of a weapon? If it’s the latter, then this idea has worked because the IAEA says that Iran now has the capability to produce a nuke.

Such a move would reduce the traces of illegal activity and would allow Iran to more safely develop the expansive infrastructure required for the final phase of becoming a nuclear weapons state. Yet, from Cole’s appearance, viewers would believe that Iran has decided against obtaining nuclear weapons and the West’s excitement over its nuclear energy program is misplaced.

In a recent interview with NBC, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Iran was not trying to build nuclear weapons because “we don’t need nuclear weapons. Without such weapons, we are very much able to defend ourselves.” When the reporter emphasized that he was not ruling out developing them in the future, he replied with, “You can take from this whatever you want, madam.”


The script is being written. The infrastructure to develop a nuclear weapon is being built and, one day, due to some “aggression” by Israel or the U.S., Iran will declare it has “changed its mind,” to use Juan Cole’s words, and must have nuclear weapons. This won’t be an act in reaction to some misguided Western foreign policy decision but the completion of a long-range scheme. But that’s okay; maybe they’ll “change their mind” again.

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