If the 2007 Iran NIE were a radioactive element, its half-life might extend well beyond the life spans of men and nations. A Wall Street Journal piece from Saturday reveals that its toxic emissions persist: intelligence officials are now “considering whether to rewrite” it. The piece notes, however, that it would be hard to get it rewritten before President Obama’s “informal” December deadline to Iran. Until the NIE is rewritten, its freighted conclusion affords Obama the official latitude to ignore the most threatening implications of any specific development in Iran’s nuclear program, and concentrate on the process—diplomacy, negotiations, deadlines, headlines—rather than its outcome. On paper, it all looks internally coherent.
But how much longer can we wait on this stately process? Iran has been under UN sanctions since 2006. Since the NIE was written, in the summer of 2007, the number of Iran’s operational centrifuges has increased from just under 2,000 to more than 4,500. Iran’s stock of low-enriched uranium (LEU) has increased from 70 kg in late 2007 to more than 1,300 kg by July 2009. The nuclear weapon “break-out” threshold was passed in February 2009; by February 2010 there will be enough LEU for a second weapon. Iran’s weaponization effort through 2003, known to and dismissed by the NIE’s authors as “suspended,” focused on a payload suitable for the existing Shahab-3 missile that can reach Israel. In May 2009 Iran successfully launched a longer-range Sajjil missile that could reach Europe, with a nuclear warhead, by 2015.
Technically, the 2007 NIE did not ignore the uranium enrichment and missile development aspects of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It did not even change the 2005 NIE’s projection of when Iran might achieve a usable nuclear weapon. What it did was unprofessionally showcase a single conclusion about a four-year-old development in the weaponization aspect of Iran’s nuclear program, with the apparent purpose of prejudicing the political debate over preemptive action. It also—again unprofessionally—detoured into policy recommendation with its segment on applying international pressure to Iran.
The community’s current foot-dragging comes off not as judicious but as a ploy to time any revised assessment, yet again, for political impact. The consequences of this practice have unfolded at a relentless pace since 2007. Something Americans need to evaluate critically is the very nature of our thinking about preemption and intelligence. Aren’t the developments the intelligence community has acknowledged to date enough of a pretext for a tougher stance with Iran, up to and including preemption? That decision belongs to our political leaders, after all. It was never intelligence’s call to make.