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Dark Suspicions about the NIE

A new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), entitled “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,” has just dealt a serious blow to the argument some of us have been making that Iran is intent on building nuclear weapons and that neither diplomacy nor sanctions can prevent it from succeeding. Thus, this latest NIE “judges with high confidence that in fall 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program”; it “judges with high confidence that the halt was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work”; it “assesses with moderate confidence that Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007”; it assesses, also with only “moderate confidence that the halt to those activities represents a halt to Iran’s entire nuclear weapons program”; but even if not, it judges “with high confidence that Iran will not be technically capable of producing and reprocessing enough plutonium for a weapon before about 2015.”

These findings are startling, not least because in key respects they represent a 180-degree turn from the conclusions of the last NIE on Iran’s nuclear program. For that one, issued in May 2005, assessed “with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons” and to press on “despite its international obligations and international pressure.”

In other words, a full two years after Iran supposedly called a halt to its nuclear program, the intelligence community was still as sure as it ever is about anything that Iran was determined to build a nuclear arsenal. Why then should we believe it when it now tells us, and with the same “high confidence,” that Iran had already called a halt to its nuclear-weapons program in 2003? Similarly with the intelligence community’s reversal on the effectiveness of international pressure. In 2005, the NIE was highly confident that international pressure had not lessened Iran’s determination to develop nuclear weapons, and yet now, in 2007, the intelligence community is just as confident that international pressure had already done the trick by 2003.

It is worth remembering that in 2002, one of the conclusions offered by the NIE, also with “high confidence,” was that “Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions.” And another conclusion, offered with high confidence too, was that “Iraq could make a nuclear weapon in months to a year once it acquires sufficient weapons-grade fissile material.”

I must confess to suspecting that the intelligence community, having been excoriated for supporting the then universal belief that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, is now bending over backward to counter what has up to now been a similarly universal view (including as is evident from the 2005 NIE, within the intelligence community itself) that Iran is hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons. I also suspect that, having been excoriated as well for minimizing the time it would take Saddam to add nuclear weapons to his arsenal, the intelligence community is now bending over backward to maximize the time it will take Iran to reach the same goal.

But I entertain an even darker suspicion. It is that the intelligence community, which has for some years now been leaking material calculated to undermine George W. Bush, is doing it again. This time the purpose is to head off the possibility that the President may order air strikes on the Iranian nuclear installations. As the intelligence community must know, if he were to do so, it would be as a last resort, only after it had become undeniable that neither negotiations nor sanctions could prevent Iran from getting the bomb, and only after being convinced that it was very close to succeeding. How better, then, to stop Bush in his tracks than by telling him and the world that such pressures have already been effective and that keeping them up could well bring about “a halt to Iran’s entire nuclear weapons program”—especially if the negotiations and sanctions were combined with a goodly dose of appeasement or, in the NIE’s own euphemistic formulation, “with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways.”

If this is what lies behind the release of the new NIE, its authors can take satisfaction in the response it has elicited from the White House. Quoth Stephen Hadley, George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser: “The estimate offers grounds for hope that the problem can be solved diplomatically—without the use of force—as the administration has been trying to do.”

I should add that I offer these assessments and judgments with no more than “moderate confidence.”



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