Much of the current debate surrounding Iran's nuclear aspirations centers on the National Intelligence Estimate report which "judge[s] with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program." While such reports tend to be accepted as authoritative — witness the ongoing political maelstrom caused by it — it is imperative to bear in mind that they are ultimately subjective, sometimes built atop the flimsiest evidence. Even the report is prefaced with the following caveat: "These assessments and judgments generally are based on collected information, which often is incomplete or fragmentary…In all cases, assessments and judgments are not intended to imply that we have 'proof' that shows something to be a fact or that definitively links two items or clauses."
And so the report relies on "estimative language," with words like "probably," "likely," "might," and "may," predominating, and a continuum of predictions ranging from "remote" to "almost certainly." Still, the report admits that, "A 'high confidence' judgment is not a fact or certainty, however, and such judgments still carry a risk of being wrong" — such as when NIE stated in 2005 (two years after "Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program") that "[We] assess with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons."
All intelligence analyses aside, when it comes to the issue of whether Iran means to acquire nukes, a bit of common sense is all that's required. Indeed, in certain situations, "intelligence" can be, if not superfluous, misleading.
Common sense, on the other hand, dictates that any nation — especially under-privileged, non-Western countries — would simply love to posses nuclear weapons. After all, once all the niceties and impotent talk at the U.N. fail, we still live in a world where military might is the ultimate deciding factor in all international affairs, and nuclear armaments are the ultimate expression of military might. Might is what allowed the U.S. to invade Iraq (partially based, incidentally, on faulty intelligence), despite the lack of widespread support at the U.N. That said, the international desire to acquire nuclear weapons is, quite ironically, most downplayed and misunderstood in the West, which itself is armed to the teeth with nukes.
This is not altogether surprising: whoever takes something for granted is often unaware of how eager others are to have it. And so, while a liberal and secular West may think that the ultimate answer to humanity's problems revolves around ending poverty and respecting all religions and creeds alike (since none of them are true anyway), under-privileged nations still maintain the traditional approach to politics: Might makes right. Hence, the desire for nukes.
When it comes to Islamist regimes, such as Iran, the desire to acquire mankind's ultimate expression of power should be even more obvious. Not only does Iran share the same "survival of the fittest" mentality predominant among under-privileged nations — often coupled with feelings of cultural superiority and disdain for the "other," which can manifest as extreme nationalism and xenophobia — but the religion of Islam itself only augments these traits by giving them divine sanctioning. In other words, if under-privileged nations would love nothing more than to acquire the ultimate expression of power — with all the accompanying security, prestige, and subsequent wealth — how much more can be expected from theocracies whose constitutions are based on a religion that preaches nothing less than world dominance (see Koran 9:5 and 9:29, for example, and the exegetical consensus surrounding them)?
An August report compiled by the Congressional Research Service states:
Ahmadinejad believes his mission is to prepare for the return of the 12th 'Hidden' Imam, whose return from occultation [i.e., "hiding"] would, according to Twelver Shi'ite doctrine, be accompanied by the establishment of Islam as the global religion.
In other words, Iran's leadership is pushing for the apocalypse. Moreover, Ahmadijihad has made clear his intention of seeing infidel Israel wiped off the map, in accordance to the eschatological (and canonical) hadith wherein Mohammad said
The Hour [Judgment Day] will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and until the Jews hide behind the trees and rocks and the trees and rocks will say, 'O Muslim, O Servant of God! Here are the Jews! Come and kill them!'
So are we to ignore all this — ignore all common sense and insight into human nature, ignore religious conviction — and instead rely on a report which judges (with "high confidence") that Tehran halted its nuclear program in 2003 (especially when it said the exact opposite in 2005)? As to Iran's intentions, which are the real issue, the NIE report leaves the door wide open: "[W]e do not know whether it [Iran] currently intends to develop nuclear weapons."
When it comes to all things human, such as politics, "objective" science cannot always help; the irrational is, and always will be, a predominant factor in human relations that cannot be quantified and analyzed. But a little cognizance of human nature — common sense — goes a long way.
Bottom line: Yes, Iran wants to acquire nuclear weapons.
Raymond Ibrahim is the editor of The Al-Qaeda Reader, translations of religious texts and propaganda.