The Bushehr reactor last October.(Majid Asgaripour/AFP/Getty Images)

With the three-day weekend over, Seymour Hersh’s article on Iran’s nuclear program (or lack thereof), currently subscription-only, can be pored over. While providing the necessary caveats—about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric, Iran’s serial lack of cooperation with international inspectors, its “desire to become a nuclear state sometime in the future”—Hersh argues that the international consensus, endorsed by a classified U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (N.I.E.) released earlier this year, that Iran indeed has a current nuclear weapons program, is far too sure of itself. Iran’s nuclear program, at this point, may actually be entirely peaceful. He reports:

Despite years of covert operations inside Iran, extensive satellite imagery, and the recruitment of many Iranian intelligence assets, the United States and its allies, including Israel, have been unable to find irrefutable evidence of an ongoing hidden nuclear-weapons program in Iran.

Attention is to be paid to Hersh, but careful attention: He is a top—arguably unparalleled—national security reporter, who has broken stories from My Lai to Abu Ghraib (also, this), but he is also frequently a polemicist with an argument to make. The joke is that Seymour Hersh, the byline, publishes edited stories of credible reporting and mostly objectively analysis, and Sy Hersh uses extreme rhetoric in public forums to push an anti-national security apparatus agenda. This article is squarely Seymour’s work: It breaks the news that the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that Iran’s nuclear weapons program targeted Iraq, not Israel, and that it, according to a “retired senior intelligence official,” is not “ongoing,” but that these insights were not incorporated into February’s N.I.E. However, the piece ultimately reads as much as an argument, and ultimately an unconvincing one, particularly coming only a few days after the International Atomic Energy Agency revealed that it has found new, “possible military dimensions” to Iran’s program.

Here are his main points in favor of taking an extremely skeptical outlook on the existence of an Iranian nuclear bomb program:

• Hersh reports that the D.I.A. concluded that Iran’s program was geared toward Iraq, and that when Iran shut it down following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, it kept it shut down.

• Despite the fact that “Natanz and all Iran’s major declared nuclear installations are under extensive video surveillance,” he writes, I.A.E.A. inspectors “have been unable to find any evidence that enriched uranium has been diverted to an illicit weapons program.”

• “The N.I.E. makes it clear that U.S. intelligence has been unable to find decisive evidence that Iran has been moving enriched uranium to an underground weapon-making center,” and that the estimate finds that “nothing significantly new had been learned to suggest that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon.”

• “Most Israeli experts agree that Iran does not now have a nuclear weapon and fear regional proliferation more than they do attack.”

• Finally, all of those who argue or otherwise give the impression that Iran does have a nuclear weapons program—including Iran—have other reasons to maintain that it does. Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters need the program to exist so that the military option can be kept on the table; the United States needs it to exist so that sanctions, which are in fact aimed at effecting governmental reforms or perhaps regime change, can be continued, extended, and enforced; and Iran—which exhibits all the characteristics of a regime trying to hide a nuclear weapons program—needs it to exist so that it can achieve its very real desire for regional power (this last theory courtesy Mohammed ElBaradei, former I.A.E.A. head and current putative candidate for Egyptian president).

The arguments are not uncompelling. They provide a check on thinking with 100 percent certainty that this program exists (we were also, of course, 100 percent certain that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction). However, ultimately, Hersh is unpersuasive, and the N.I.E., the reams of reporting, and certain troubling facts, like Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity, continue to suggest that Iran’s nuclear weapons program, though perhaps delayed (by sanctions and sabotage, including Stuxnet—a word that does not appear in Hersh’s article), does in fact exist.

In fact, we know that pronunciations on Iran’s nuclear weapons program often have as much to do with advancing the speaker’s agenda as reality, and so Hersh, who seems to advocate either acceptance and containment of an Iranian bomb or the internationalization of Iran’s peaceful program to head off a bomb—and, either way, clearly to advocate engagement with the Islamic Republic—is no different. Hersh argues that Turkey, being strongly against an Iranian bomb, would not be doing the booming business it is with Iran if it believed Iran had a weapons program; but who is to say that should push come to shove Turkey would not align against Iran, or that Turkey’s continued link to Iran comes out of a desire to replace the U.S. as the regional broker? Hersh cites the 2007 N.I.E.’s conclusion that Iran had not successfully weaponized its nuclear technology; but what if (as that same N.I.E. suggests) Iran has taken other prerequisite steps toward having a nuclear weapon? Hersh argues that U.S. intelligence has not found further evidence and that Natanz is video-taped; but what if U.S. intelligence is simply missing something or what if the weapons program is being done, as is suspected, at the reactor at Bushehr (another word that doesn’t appear in his article)?

ElBaradei, who has his own political interests for not offending Iran, can argue, “All I see is the hype,” but sometimes the hype exists for a reason. To Seymour Hersh’s credit, he also quotes a “senior European diplomat” who provides the simplest and most convincing analysis of the situation:

Yes, it may very well be the case that there is no evidence of developing a nuclear weapon. To me, that is not the whole basis of making a judgment. The more important questions are: Is Iran behaving in a way that would be rational if they were not developing a nuclear weapon? And the answer on that is very clear—their behavior only makes sense if their goal is to have the bomb. And are they doing the other elements of developing a bomb? And they definitely are.

But go to your local newsstand and, as they say, read the whole thing.

Iran and the Bomb [The New Yorker]
Related: Inspectors Pierce Iran’s Cloak of Nuclear Secrecy [NYT]
Sy Hersh Says It’s Okay To Lie (Just Not In Print) [NY Mag]
Earlier: Iranian Nukes: Probably Delayed