A reality check on Iran

The congressional hawks on Iran didn’t get what they came to hear today from U.S. intelligence chiefs.

Instead of underpinning the argument for military strikes on Iran — (remember Iraq?) — Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, came to a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill with plenty hedging on the Iranian nuclear capability.

In the past week or so, President Obama himself (on Feb. 5) and State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland (on Feb. 9) have spoken about the Iranian “nuclear weapons program.” It might be a slip or a deliberate linguistic shift introduced into the public domain. But in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Clapper repeated today that the Iranian leadership had not taken the decision to produce a nuclear weapon, a view repeated elsewhere on Capitol Hill by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Even if the decision were taken, it is “technically feasible” for Iran to produce a nuclear weapon in one to two years but “practically not likely,” Clapper said. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — who is on record as saying he wants the United States to “neuter” Iran — looked positively disappointed.

What’s more, Burgess said that despite the Iranian bluster about closing the Strait of Hormuz and ballistic missile threats emanating from Tehran, Iran “is unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke a conflict or launch a pre-emptive attack” against the United States and its allies. As for Israel, Burgess and Clapper said they did not believe the Israeli government has decided to strike Iran.

Even when asked about Panetta’s earlier assertion that Israeli strikes on Iran could set back the Iranian nuclear program by two years, Clapper was cautious. He added that there were “many imponderables” that would affect how quickly Iran would be able to rebuild.

So amid all the escalating hysteria over the Iranian nuclear program, this was a welcome reality check. These are the facts from the U.S. intelligence agencies. Let’s bear them in mind in the coming weeks when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes to town.