Now that the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear intentions
has had a few days to cool off, how does it look? A few reflections:
1. Iran's nuclear program is alive and well. Yes, I know the very first of
the NIE's "key judgments," the one that launched a thousand headlines, is that
"Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program" in the fall of 2003. But what that
first sentence giveth, a footnote to that sentence taketh away: "By 'nuclear
weapons program,' " explains Footnote 1, "we mean Iran's nuclear weapon design
and weaponization work. . . . we do not mean Iran's declared civil work related
to uranium conversion and enrichment."
But that's a distinction without a difference, since the accumulation of
enriched uranium is by far the most important component in developing nuclear
weapons. Iran's "civil" uranium enrichment those 3,000 spinning centrifuges
at the Natanz facility in central Iran continues unabated, in defiance of
Security Council resolutions ordering that it stop. Whether the nuclear-fuel
program is labeled "civilian" or "military" is irrelevant. The more uranium the
mullahs enrich, the closer they are to getting the bomb.
The NIE concludes that Iran suspended its "nuclear weapons program" the
actual designing of a nuclear warhead due to international pressure. But
what if Iran halted the work because it has already come up with a satisfactory
design, and now awaits only the enriched uranium to make a weapon? Just last
month, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran possesses the
engineering specs to shape uranium into the hemispheres needed for the core of
a nuclear bomb. What other blueprints does Tehran already have?
2. The NIE is not very reassuring. Once you get past the attention-grabbing
opening line, the estimate is far from a sunburst of good news. For starters,
it is the first NIE to explicitly acknowledge the existence of a covert
nuclear-weapons program in Iran. It has only "moderate" confidence that the
regime hasn't resumed that covert effort, and it admits: "We do not know
whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons."
Moreover, the 16 intelligence agencies whose consensus the NIE reflects "cannot
rule out that Iran has acquired from abroad . . . a nuclear weapon or enough
fissile material for a weapon." They have no doubt that "Tehran at a minimum is
keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons." And they are sure "that
Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity eventually to
produce nuclear weapons." Feel better? Me neither.
3. Chalk up another win for the Iraq war. If the NIE is taken at face value,
the mullahs stopped their efforts to weaponize uranium in 2003 "primarily in
response to international pressure." Now to what could that be referring? There
is only one plausible candidate: the US-led invasion of Iraq and toppling of
Saddam Hussein. Add the Iranians' purported nuclear retreat, then, to the list
of dividends generated by the Iraq war: The overthrow of the Arab world's
bloodiest tyranny. The surrender by Muammar Qadhafi of Libya's weapons of mass
destruction. The arrest of A.Q. Khan, the sleazy Pakistani scientist who for 15
years had been trafficking nuclear technology to Libya, Iran, and North Korea.
The withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.
The failures of the Iraq war are frequently denounced. All the more reason to
take note of its accomplishments.
4. The intelligence agencies' record for accuracy doesn't inspire confidence.
Not everyone embraced the NIE's startling judgment. Even the UN's nuclear
inspectors were dubious. "We are more skeptical," an official close to the
inspection agency told The New York Times last week. "We don't buy the American
analysis 100 percent. We are not that generous with Iran."
Given the history of US intelligence blunders, such skepticism is well
warranted. The intelligence community badly underestimated Saddam's nuclear
progress before the first Gulf War and badly overestimated his stock of WMDs
a "slam-dunk," George Tenet insisted on the eve of the 2003 war. It was
taken by surprise when Pakistan went nuclear in 1998s, just as it had been
stunned when the Soviets went nuclear in 1949. The intelligence agencies didn't
expect Japan to attack Pearl Harbor. They didn't foresee North Korea's invasion
of South Korea, or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, or Saddam's invasion of
Kuwait. They were blindsided by Sept. 11.
Now they conclude that the Iranians have shelved their nuclear weapons program.
Two years ago they concluded the opposite. "Across the board," the bipartisan
Robb-Silberman commission found in 2005, "the intelligence community knows
disturbingly little about the nuclear programs of many of the world's most
dangerous actors." Considering their track record, that sounds about right.