Commentary Magazine


Topic: National Intelligence Estimate

Obama Must Act on New Iran Intelligence

In 2007, a growing international consensus on the need to stop Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons was hamstringed by a puzzling U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that claimed Tehran had abandoned its ambitions. Though the NIE was disputed by Israel as well as by other sources, this report became the bulwark of foreign policy realists determined to downplay or ignore the danger from Iran. But as Haaretz reports, a new NIE issued in the past month indicates not only is Iran working on such a program but they have made alarming progress on military applications of nuclear power.

The report, which was made known to the paper by both Western diplomats and Israeli officials, reportedly shows U.S. intelligence now concurs with their counterparts in the Jewish state that the Iranian peril is far greater than the Americans were previously willing to admit. This finding makes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s public questions about the West’s willingness to wait for sanctions and diplomacy to work  justified. More to the point, it calls into question the Obama administration’s strategy of kicking the can down the road this year until after the elections.

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In 2007, a growing international consensus on the need to stop Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons was hamstringed by a puzzling U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that claimed Tehran had abandoned its ambitions. Though the NIE was disputed by Israel as well as by other sources, this report became the bulwark of foreign policy realists determined to downplay or ignore the danger from Iran. But as Haaretz reports, a new NIE issued in the past month indicates not only is Iran working on such a program but they have made alarming progress on military applications of nuclear power.

The report, which was made known to the paper by both Western diplomats and Israeli officials, reportedly shows U.S. intelligence now concurs with their counterparts in the Jewish state that the Iranian peril is far greater than the Americans were previously willing to admit. This finding makes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s public questions about the West’s willingness to wait for sanctions and diplomacy to work  justified. More to the point, it calls into question the Obama administration’s strategy of kicking the can down the road this year until after the elections.

Back in 2007, American intelligence was still shell-shocked from its pre-Iraq War failures. If it had been too eager in 2003 to believe the evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, in 2007 it went in the other direction and adopted a see no evil stance that denied what everyone else in the world knew in order to avoid being blamed for a new conflict. But the new NIE ought to change the conversation about Iran not only in diplomatic circles but also on the campaign trail.

This is important because just this past Friday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said American intelligence was “confident that we would be able to detect a break-out move by Iran towards the acquisition of a nuclear weapon” even while the Israelis were expressing concern the allies might not know and act in time. The point is, it is not enough to merely admit that Iran is working on military applications of nuclear power, if the West isn’t prepared to stop the threat before the ayatollahs can order the construction of a bomb. The Israelis believe Iran must be prevented from getting to that point, while the Obama administration thinks it can rely on a last-minute effort to hold off the peril.

It is that complacent attitude emanating from the White House that has encouraged the Iranians to believe they can outwait President Obama. The failure of the P5+1 negotiations have exposed the foolishness of the administration’s reliance on a diplomatic process that only serves to buy Tehran more time to work on a bomb. Similarly, the president’s claim that the sanctions he belatedly and only under great pressure adopted on Iran will convince the ayatollahs to give in is undermined by the waivers granted to the restrictions that have enabled the Iranian economy to keep functioning.

The new NIE finding makes it imperative that Washington start acting as if it is not merely trying to run out the clock on the issue until the president is re-elected. It should also make it clear that the discussion about Israel acting on its own is not “warmongering” on the part of Netanyahu but his recognition that an existential threat to his nation’s existence cannot be ignored. If President Obama is going to continue acting as if all he need do about Iran is to talk about it, the new NIE makes it clear he must be held accountable for this failure.

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CIA: Iran Expands Program But No Nukes?

The evidence of a major expansion of Iran’s nuclear program is a matter of record as far as the CIA is concerned, but the spy agency is still claiming Tehran hasn’t decided to build a bomb. Yesterday, COMMENTARY contributor Bill Gertz wrote in the Washington Free Beacon about the CIA’s official report to Congress on arms proliferation which was delivered in February but which hasn’t come to the attention of the public until now. The report states the bare facts about Iran’s program that are by now a matter of public knowledge since the International Atomic Energy Agency has been putting out regular bulletins about their damning findings.

The acknowledged facts are these: the Iranians have expanded their nuclear infrastructure and continued nuclear enrichment. They have constructed advanced nuclear centrifuges and bringing them online. Even more ominously, a new underground nuclear facility at Fordow has begun production of “near-20 percent enriched uranium,” the material that can be used to produce bombs. But as Gertz noted, the CIA’s report did not note the questions raised by the IAEA about weaponization research that is believed to be going on in Iran.

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The evidence of a major expansion of Iran’s nuclear program is a matter of record as far as the CIA is concerned, but the spy agency is still claiming Tehran hasn’t decided to build a bomb. Yesterday, COMMENTARY contributor Bill Gertz wrote in the Washington Free Beacon about the CIA’s official report to Congress on arms proliferation which was delivered in February but which hasn’t come to the attention of the public until now. The report states the bare facts about Iran’s program that are by now a matter of public knowledge since the International Atomic Energy Agency has been putting out regular bulletins about their damning findings.

The acknowledged facts are these: the Iranians have expanded their nuclear infrastructure and continued nuclear enrichment. They have constructed advanced nuclear centrifuges and bringing them online. Even more ominously, a new underground nuclear facility at Fordow has begun production of “near-20 percent enriched uranium,” the material that can be used to produce bombs. But as Gertz noted, the CIA’s report did not note the questions raised by the IAEA about weaponization research that is believed to be going on in Iran.

That omission is a crucial point in evaluating the CIA’s stance on Iran’s nuclear program. The agency has grudgingly noted the way Iran has proceeded with its nuclear build-up. But it is still sticking to its largely discredited 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that claims the Iranians are not building a bomb. In order to maintain that stance, it must ignore or downplay any evidence that points to weaponization.

As even the New York Times noted last month, American intelligence is still recovering from the black eye it received from its mistakes about Iraq’s weapons stockpile. But the agency’s decision to try to avoid making the same mistake on Iran has led them to buy into an equally fallacious mindset. Moreover, criticisms that the Iraq intelligence was influenced by the politics of the Bush administration is more than matched by the pressure coming from the Obama White House to downplay worries over Iran’s nukes that lend weight to calls for more action and less talk about the threat.

While American intelligence may have been guilty of overselling the threat from Iraq, it now appears to be doing everything possible to avoid taking the blame for a confrontation with Iran. But what the spooks seem to be forgetting is that as bad as the spanking over its Iraq errors was, it will be nothing compared to the anger that will come down on them should their optimistic assessments about Iran be proven false. Moreover, as bare bones as the CIA’s latest report may be, it contains enough to be someday thrown in their faces as proof that they knew the nature of the Iranian threat but refused for political or institutional reasons to draw the right conclusions.

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The Campaign to Ignore the Iranian Threat

In the last week, more evidence of the serious nature of Iran’s nuclear threat has been made public. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has dramatically increased its production of highly enriched uranium that is close to weapons-grade fuel. Much of it is being produced in a mountain bunker in Fordow in northwestern Iran. Friday’s report claimed Iran already has enough enriched uranium to build four nuclear weapons, and the move of the operation to underground bunkers and a larger stockpile of uranium could shorten the time needed for Iran to develop a nuke. All this undermines the credibility of the claims put forward by Iran’s apologists that there is no proof of their intentions to make a bomb. As Frederick Kagan and Maseh Zarif write in today’s Wall Street Journal, “There is no case to be made that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. There is no evidence that Iran’s decision-makers are willing to stop the nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions or anything else.”

The IAEA report, which built upon the evidence in previous releases from the agency, makes all the more curious the efforts by the Obama administration to cast doubt upon the idea that Iran is working towards building a bomb. U.S. intelligence sources have been plying the mainstream press with spin about the data coming from Iran while even citing the long-discredited 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that claimed Iran had abandoned its weapons program. Given the volume of findings about Iran’s nuclear project and Tehran’s refusal to take steps that would reassure the international community they are not working toward a bomb, the Pollyanna-like faith that the Islamist regime poses no nuclear threat to the world is, at best, naive, and, at worst, a cynical attempt to prevent any Western or Israeli effort to forestall the danger.

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In the last week, more evidence of the serious nature of Iran’s nuclear threat has been made public. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has dramatically increased its production of highly enriched uranium that is close to weapons-grade fuel. Much of it is being produced in a mountain bunker in Fordow in northwestern Iran. Friday’s report claimed Iran already has enough enriched uranium to build four nuclear weapons, and the move of the operation to underground bunkers and a larger stockpile of uranium could shorten the time needed for Iran to develop a nuke. All this undermines the credibility of the claims put forward by Iran’s apologists that there is no proof of their intentions to make a bomb. As Frederick Kagan and Maseh Zarif write in today’s Wall Street Journal, “There is no case to be made that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. There is no evidence that Iran’s decision-makers are willing to stop the nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions or anything else.”

The IAEA report, which built upon the evidence in previous releases from the agency, makes all the more curious the efforts by the Obama administration to cast doubt upon the idea that Iran is working towards building a bomb. U.S. intelligence sources have been plying the mainstream press with spin about the data coming from Iran while even citing the long-discredited 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that claimed Iran had abandoned its weapons program. Given the volume of findings about Iran’s nuclear project and Tehran’s refusal to take steps that would reassure the international community they are not working toward a bomb, the Pollyanna-like faith that the Islamist regime poses no nuclear threat to the world is, at best, naive, and, at worst, a cynical attempt to prevent any Western or Israeli effort to forestall the danger.

As Kagan and Zarif point out, much of the current debate about Iran is utterly disingenuous. The attempt to draw analogies between Iran in 2012 and the intelligence failures that preceded the invasion of Iraq fall flat when you realize there isn’t much about Iran’s program that has been kept secret. While the contradictory and often confused statements of American intelligence chiefs about Iran seem more about their desire to atone for past mistakes completely unconnected with present dilemmas, the attempt to raise the Iraq precedent seems solely intended to halt any discussion about what to do about the specter of an Iranian bomb.

The plain fact of the matter is the Obama administration does not wish to be forced to make a decision about Iran. It prefers to spend the next eight months of the presidential campaign reiterating the president’s tough rhetoric about not letting the Islamist regime attain nuclear capability while not actually having to do much, if anything, to fulfill its pledges on the issue. Thus, its priority now is to pressure Israel not to take action on its own that might upset this scheme of prevarication. But any argument based on the premise that further negotiations or engagement with Iran constitute a fruitful path towards resolution of this problem is not serious. Nor can much hope be placed in the administration’s irresolute dedication to pursuing sanctions which it appears China and Russia will sabotage.

There are, as Kagan and Zarif stipulate, good reasons to fear the results of any resort to force against Iran by either Israel or the United States. But, as they say, arguments against attacking Iran should be made in a straightforward manner and not disguised by dishonest attempts to cloud the truth about the nature of this threat.

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