Back in June 2002, as the Bush administration started pushing hard for war with Iraq by focusing on fears of the unknown—terrorists and weapons of mass destruction—Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained that when it came to gathering intelligence on such threats, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Elaborating, Rumsfeld told a news conference: "There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don't know."
Now there's a crisis brewing with Iran. And the same basic problem applies: what is known, what is suspected, what can be only guessed or imagined? Is danger clear and present or vague and distant? Washington is abuzz now, as it was four years ago, with "sources" talking of sanctions, war, regime change. In 2002, despite a paucity of hard evidence, Iraq was made to seem an urgent threat demanding immediate action. "We don't want 'the smoking gun' to be a mushroom cloud" is the memorable phrase used by the then national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Given the results of Washington's rush into the Iraqi unknown, concern is growing about U.S. policy toward Iran. Yet the Iranian case is very different—and more dangerous. The latest report from the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency, released last Friday by Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, makes it clear that Tehran is defying U.N. demands that it freeze its nuclear activities. European and American diplomats are considering resolutions calling for unspecified consequences—and, according to European sources, they have contingency plans for sanctions outside the United Nations if they're blocked by Russian or Chinese vetoes. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, lest there be any doubt about his stand, said, "The Iranian nation won't give a damn about such useless resolutions."
With the confrontation raising questions about future oil supplies, and fears growing that a seemingly crazy regime may soon acquire atomic bombs, the IAEA and Western intelligence agencies are working overtime to separate fundamental facts from guesswork and propaganda. [Read More]