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While President Obama’s unanticipated Nowruz holiday greeting to Iran generated
considerable press attention, his video wasn’t really this week’s big news
related to the Islamic Republic. Far more important was that a senior
defector–Iran’s former Deputy Minister of Defense Ali Reza Asghari–disclosed
Tehran’s financing of Syria’s nuclear weapons program. That program’s
centerpiece was a North Korean nuclear reactor in Syria. Israel destroyed it in
At this point, it is impossible to ignore Iran’s active efforts to expand,
improve and conceal its nuclear weapons program in Syria while it pretends to
“negotiate” with Britain, France and Germany (the “EU-3”). No amount of video
messages will change this reality. The question is whether this new information
about Iran will sink in, or if Washington will continue to turn a blind eye
toward Iran’s nuclear deceptions.
That the Pyongyang-Damascus-Tehran nuclear axis went undetected and
unacknowledged for so long is an intelligence failure of the highest magnitude.
It represents a plain unwillingness to allow hard truths to overcome
well-entrenched policy views disguised as intelligence findings.
Key elements of our intelligence community (IC) fought against the idea of a
Syrian nuclear program for years. In mid-2003, I had a bitter struggle with
several IC agencies–news of which was leaked to the press–concerning my
testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the Syrian program.
Then Sen. Joe Biden made the Syria testimony an issue in my 2005 confirmation
battle to become ambassador to the United Nations, alleging that I had tried to
hype concern about Syria’s nuclear intentions. (In fact, my testimony, in both
its classified and unclassified versions, was far more anodyne than the facts
Key IC agencies made two arguments in 2003 against the possibility of a
clandestine Syrian nuclear weapons program. First, they argued that Syria lacked
the scientific and technological capabilities to sustain such a program. Second,
they said that Syria did not have the necessary economic resources to fund a
These assertions were not based on highly classified intelligence. Instead,
they were personal views that some IC members developed based on public
information. The intelligence that did exist–which I thought warranted close
observation of Syria, at a minimum–the IC discounted as inconsistent with its
fixed opinions. In short, theirs was not an intelligence conclusion, but a
policy view presented under the guise of intelligence.
How wrong they were.
As for Syria’s technical expertise, North Korea obviously had the scientific
and technological ability to construct the reactor, which was essentially a
clone of the North’s own at Yongbyon. Moreover, it is entirely possible that
Syria’s nuclear program–undertaken with Pyongyang’s assistance–is even more
extensive. We will certainly never know from Syria directly, since Damascus
continues to deny it has any nuclear program whatever. It’s also stonewalling
investigation efforts by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
As for Syria’s ability to finance a nuclear program, Iran could easily supply
whatever Syria might need–even in a time of fluctuating oil prices. Moreover,
given Iran’s hegemony over Syria, it is impossible to believe Syria would ever
undertake extensive nuclear cooperation with North Korea without Iran’s
acquiescence. Iran was likely an active partner in a three-way joint venture on
the reactor, supplying key financial support and its own share of scientific
knowledge. Cooperation on ballistic missile programs between Pyongyang and
Tehran is longstanding and well-advanced, and thereby forms a basis of trust for
nuclear cooperation. Moreover, both Iran and North Korea share a common
incentive: to conceal illicit nuclear weapons programs from international
scrutiny. What better way to hide such programs than to conduct them in a third
country where no one is looking?
Uncovering the North Korean reactor in Syria was a grave inconvenience for
the Bush administration. It enormously complicated both the failing six-party
talks on North Korea and the EU-3’s diplomatic efforts with Iran, which
Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice so actively
Mr. Asghari’s revelations about Iranian financing of Syria’s nuclear
program–if borne out–will have precisely the same negative impact on Obama
administration policies, since they track Mr. Bush’s so closely. In fact, the
two administrations’ approaches differ only to the extent that Mr. Obama is
poised to pursue policies, like face-to-face negotiations with Iran, that the
second term Bush State Department wanted to do, but faced too much internal
dissonance to implement.
The Nowruz video reflects the dominant view within the Obama administration
that its “open hand” will be reciprocated. It’s likely Iran will respond
affirmatively to the near-plaintive administration request to “engage.”
And why not? Such dialogue allows Iran to conceal its true intentions and
activities under the camouflage of negotiations, just as it has done for the
past six years with the EU-3. What’s more, Iran will see it as confirmation of
U.S. weakness and evidence that its policies are succeeding.
There is very little time for Mr. Obama to change course before he is
committed to negotiations. He could start by following Iran’s money trail.
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.
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