The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report on Iran continues to distort public debate and understanding. As Emanuele points out in discussing a Times of London article on Iran’s progress toward a weapon, the 2007 NIE was designed to make the 2003 suspension of Iran’s weaponization program its memorable point. Little else that it said made an impression on the public — either its slip to “moderate confidence” on whether Iran had resumed weaponization activity since 2003 or its assessment that Iran suspended the weaponization effort “in response to international pressure . . . guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.” The intelligence community may consider itself fortunate that this analysis was so forgettable. Shortly after its release, John Bolton wrote a comprehensive takedown of it from a uniquely relevant perspective, which included this passage:
[The NIE] implies that Iran is susceptible to diplomatic persuasion and pressure, yet the only event in 2003 that might have affected Iran was our invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, not exactly a diplomatic pas de deux. As undersecretary of state for arms control in 2003, I know we were nowhere near exerting any significant diplomatic pressure on Iran. Nowhere does the NIE explain its logic on this critical point.
“Moreover,” Bolton continued, “the risks and returns of pursuing a diplomatic strategy are policy calculations, not intelligence judgments.” That truth has been at the heart of the public confusion over Iran’s nuclear programs. The character of what we know about them has not, in fact, changed significantly over the past eight years. Rather, the orientation of the U.S. intelligence community to administration policy has shifted.
Based on information recovered in 2004 and subsequent foreign intelligence available to the public in early 2008 (shortly after the NIE’s release), it has been possible for several years now to assess the extent of Iran’s progress over weaponization — independently of what activities were ongoing — and therefore to estimate the worst-case (shortest) time line to a bomb. Revelations of illegal Iranian procurement efforts reinforce pessimistic assessments. If, as the Times of London suggests, Iran has already achieved success with a “multi-point initiation” system in warhead design, it is a finding that fits with other intelligence sources and bolsters current estimates, rather than refuting them.
It is a painful rebuke to the 2007 NIE that after creating a single, crucially misleading impression, its baseline estimate for when Iran could bring together the three elements of a nuclear weapon — fissile material, warhead design, delivery system — looks likely to prove accurate. The 2007 NIE’s projection of 2010-15 for this consummation did not change from its 2005 estimate and has been increasingly corroborated by IAEA-documented Iranian activity and emerging intelligence from multiple sources. But the public remembers only the misleading impression, and U.S. policy has been impeded by it. As Emanuele says, there is “no time left for engagement” — and our running out of time is the 2007 NIE’s legacy.