The more we learn about the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, the less “confidence” we can have in its sanguine findings about the state of Iran’s nuclear program.
Today comes news that Israel, one of America’s closest collaborators in intelligence-gathering in the Middle East, has reached very different conclusions. Haaretz quotes Ehud Barak, Israel’s former prime minister and now defense minister (and hardly a hawk), as follows:
“It seems Iran in 2003 halted for a certain period of time its military nuclear program but as far as we know it has probably since revived it.”
His comments go to one of the key weaknesses of the NIE. While it claims with “high confidence” that Iran suspended its nuclear-weapons work in 2003, the report offers only “moderate confidence” that this program has not been resumed.
Some will no doubt dismiss Israeli officials as being alarmist, although they have a larger stake—a life and death stake—than do American intelligence analysts in figuring out the state of Iran’s nuclear program.
Harder to dismiss are concerns from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has long been criticized for being relatively soft on Iran and other proliferators. While Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, greeted the release of the NIE with a “sigh of relief,” others who are involved in his agency’s work are apparently taking a more cautious attitude. The New York Times reports:
“To be frank, we are more skeptical,” a senior official close to the agency said. “We don’t buy the American analysis 100 percent. We are not that generous with Iran.” The official called the American assertion that Iran had “halted” its weapons program in 2003 “somewhat surprising.”
When even some at the IAEA think the U.S. intelligence community is being too generous in its assessment of Iran, that should be cause for serious concern.
And, indeed, whether Iran has restarted its “nuclear weapons program” since 2003 or not, the fact remains that its supposedly “civilian” enrichment work could easily produce a bomb. Indeed, as this New York Times article notes,
After the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain became the first three countries with atom bombs, all the rest hid their military programs to one extent or another behind the mask of peaceful nuclear power. That includes France, China, Israel, India, South Africa, and Pakistan.
A number of experts have even raised the possibility that Iran may have suspended its “nuclear weapons” work in 2003 because it had already come up with a working bomb design, and now only needs to produce enough highly enriched uranium to create a working bomb. The hardest part of making a nuclear weapon is not the design and production of the warhead; it is the production or procurement of the fissile material. It is quite possible that A.Q. Khan, the rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist, may have provided Iran with a working bomb design. Or perhaps the Iranians have gotten what they need from their friends in North Korea, who were also beneficiaries of the A.Q. Khan network.
Whatever the case, the news, even if accurate, that Iran suspended its “nuclear weapon” work in 2003 is hardly cause for celebration. Unfortunately the NIE’s political impact is out of all proportion to its analytical rigor. It will now be harder than ever to get tough international sanctions on Iran.
As noted by CNN, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is claiming “victory,” declaring that “the report said clearly that the Iranian people were on the right course” and that “Iran has turned to a nuclear country and all world countries have accepted this fact.” Much as I would like to think that Ahmadinejad is wrong, in this case I think he has a point.