“AP Exclusive: Intel Report says Iranian president wants to develop nuclear arms openly,” reads the headline of an Associated Press story today. The report has been widely picked up with various headlines including Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth writing, “Ahmadinejad said to be pushing for open nuke work.”
The AP’s “exclusive” comes from “an intelligence assessment shared with The Associated Press” by “a nation with traditionally reliable intelligence from the region,” and depicts “Ahmadinejad as wanting to move publicly to develop a bomb.” But the AP buried the lede. Later in the article they point out that neither the intelligence assesment they viewed nor U.S. assessments put much weight on Ahmadinejad’s desire, or lack thereof, for a nuclear weapon. The real power, it would seem, lies with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It reads:
Proliferation expert David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security says his briefings from European government officials who have seen the latest U.S. intelligence assessment on the Islamic Republic seem to support the assessment shared with the AP that Khamenei is worried about how the world would react to a nuclear-armed Iran.
Indeed the real story in the AP’s “exclusive” is that Khamenei holds the power to decide if Iran will pursue a nuclear weapon, and he is deeply ambivalent about the potential benefits of doing so:
Ahmadinejad is pushing “to shake free of the restraints Iran has imposed upon itself, and openly push forward to create a nuclear bomb,” says the assessment shared with the AP. But Khamenei, whose word is final on nuclear and other issues, “wants to progress using secret channels, due to concern about a severe response from the West,” says the report. […]
One theory voiced by government officials and private analysts is that Iran might be looking to reach the level just short of making nuclear weapons — but able to do so quickly if it feels threatened. That would fit in with Khamenei’s reported cautious stance.
In any case, Ahmadinejad seems to be further weakened by the dispute.
Reading the tea leaves of Iranian domestic politics is more of an artform than a science, but broad consensus seems to be forming the Khamenei is not in favor of the immediate acquisition of nuclear weapons and Ahamadinejad, regardless of what position he has taken on the subject, is deeply weakened politically.
Questions might be asked about why the AP, and “a nation with traditionally reliable intelligence from the region” are eager to stoke fears around Ahmadinejad’s supposed support for a nuclear weapon while, in the same assessment, acknowledging that he is increasingly irrelevant and doesn’t make the final decisions about the country’s nuclear program anyway.