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In Iran nuclear debate, words matter

In the debate on whether or not Iran has ambitions to build a nuclear weapons, semantics are significant.
Last modified: 24 Sep 2013 23:24

We have a saying here at Al Jazeera English: "Words matter".

It's a pretty simple thought, but it also seems to be regularly forgotten by the US news media.

Here's an example: most of the news media has labeled this latest fight in Washington as leading to a possible "government shutdown". That term conjures images of all the US Navy's ships streaming back to their ports, flights grounded for lack of air traffic controllers, criminals running amok as the FBI collectively goes to the beach. All of that isn't going to happen, of course, because critical government departments will continue to function. "Government shutdown” doesn't convey that -  but it's easier to say. 

The same case could be made about Iran and its nuclear programme. Often in Washington, from officials and journalists, it's "Iran's nuclear weapons programme". The "weapons" part has been repeatedly questioned, but that hasn't stopped it from becoming the usual way to speak about it. It should be obvious, but that one added word changes everything. Officials know that, and they know more often than not they can get away with it.

President Barack Obama's speech at the UN General Assembly was the  perfect example. He first referred to "Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons" and later described it as "Iran's nuclear programme". It's become the norm for his administration, too. For example, this is what White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said from the podium on September, 19, 2013: "And the president has made it his policy from the time he ran for office and took office that he is willing to meet with and the United States is willing to have bilateral negotiations with Iran if Iran is serious about addressing the problem that the international community asserts that exists, which is that Iran continues to pursue a nuclear weapon."

Sounds pretty cut and dried, but this is what the top presidential advisor Ben Rhodes said to reporters the very next day: "We do believe, though, that there is time and space, that Iran has not taken steps, for instance, to break out and weaponise its nuclear programme. So even as we move with a sense of urgency here, we do believe that there's time and space to pursue diplomacy."

That seems to me like a very confused message, but I might be the only one who sees it that way. A few months ago, I was talking to a well-respected colleague in the White House press corps. I mentioned there is no public evidence that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon. He looked at me as if I had just said that I had seen unicorns jumping the moon while sporting Prada handbags. It seems to be a well-accepted fact among Washington journalists that Iran's nuclear program is, in fact, all about building a bomb. It may be, but I can only go off the information that officials have made public. This is what we know: 

The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate from US intelligence agencies said this:

"We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons programme; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons."

The 2011 National Intelligence Estimate – still classified, but leaked to some media said:

"The new estimate might not directly contradict that judgment (2007), Hill sources report, but could say that while the intelligence community has not determined that Iran has made the strategic decision to build a nuclear weapon, it is working on the components of such a device." (I don't give "leaked" snippets credence as it is very easy to spin the evidence you can't actually read or question. )

The 2013 IAEA assessment:

"The Annex to the Director-General's November 2011 report provided a detailed analysis of the information available to the Agency, indicating that Iran has carried out activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device. This information is assessed by the Agency to be, overall, credible. Since November 2011, the Agency has obtained more information which further corroborates the analysis contained in that Annex."

There are many in Washington and around the globe who don't talk about those official reports because it doesn't suit their agenda. There are many who want to make it about enrichment levels. Their argument is what matters is whether Iran has the material that could go into a nuclear bomb, regardless of whether it has the ability or intention to actually build one. That is a lower threshold for any response.

Now that President Barack Obama has told the world the US will negotiate with Iran and others over its nuclear programme, perhaps it is a good time to remember what they are really negotiating. After all, words matter, and so does evidence. It's a lesson many in the US have apparently yet to learn.