The interesting story floating around since his disappearance on a pilgrimage to Mecca last summer came to some conclusion yesterday with the announcement of Shahram Amiri's defection. Amiri, a nuclear scientist in his 30s did not return from Mecca last summer and at the time Iran accused Saudi Arabia of either facilitating his kidnapping or directly handing him over to the US. Let's say for the sake of argument that he did indeed defect completely of his own free will as reported yesterday. The real story, after months of being debriefed by the CIA, is the complete lack of a smoking gun emerging out of his information and the vague statements released yesterday, or "The dog that did not bark."
There are certainly a number of short reports to review on this story: One can take the mainstream ABC report: "Exclusive Intelligence Coup" OR some of the international sources: BBC, Al Jazeera English and Middle East Online. All of these articles contain the middling statement with slight variation which appears with ABC's exclusive:
"...the scientist has been extensively debriefed, and has helped to confirm US intelligence assessments about the Iranian nuclear programme."
What does the US intelligence community believe about Iran's nuclear program? Most will remember that the 2007 NIE report told us that Iran had suspended the drive to nuclear weapons. Is that what was "confirmed." OR Was it something more dramatic? I doubt it. If Shahram Amiri provided definitive evidence that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons this would likely have been announced. This is the dog that is not barking. However, for most reading about this story it will, no doubt, present a fresh opportunity to put the words "Iran" and "nuclear" in the same story again, and we will be seeing the usual suspects over the next few days speculating about the menace that Iran presents.
Power in Iran's government, despite appearances to the contrary, remains difused. While Khamenei as Supreme Leader, and Ahmadinejad as President certainly hold a great deal of power, other parts of the governemnt maintain authority too. The Revoltionary Guards, aka the Pasdaran, exert a great deal of influence in the governemnt, the economy and society. Conflict with the West allows this government to maintain cohesion about where to go in the future. There are likely some throughout the power structure who desire to pursue nuclear weapons. Khamenei himself, and many other religious leaders, however, have issued pretty definitive statements that nuclear weapons are, "Un-Islamic." The compromise on this issue appears to be the pursuit of enrichment capability. The ability to enrich certainly gives the ability to produce, in the future, "weapons grade" uranium. This capability does not mean that weapons are a definitive endpoint. At this time, based on the amount of Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) Iran has, if they could enrich to "weapons grade" they might have enough for a couple devices. In the balance of power, a couple devices does Iran little good, while the uranium from those "potential" devices could be used to generate a great deal of nuclear electricity.
On the other hand, consider that "controversy" over Iran's nuclear program might be exactly what the Ahmadinejad/Khamenei coaltion desires. External threats are always useful politically, and few issues display Western double standards better than the nuclear issue. The West has a huge problem with Iran developng nuclear weapons while over 90% of such weapons are in the hands of the US and the Russians, and Israel has hundreds of them? This plays very well in domestic politics for Ahmadinejad and other hard-liners. Can we please stop playing their game for once? From what I can tell, most of the people of Iran would appreciate it if we did, and they could get back to the business of reforming their authoritative state.