On a practical level, the new National Intelligence Estimate makes it less likely than ever—and it was never that likely to begin with—that the Bush administration would strike Iran before leaving office, which may have been the point of the document. But there is much less than meets the eye in the details of the NIE itself—or rather the portions that were released publicly—to reach any conclusions about whether and to what degree we should be worried about Iran’s nuclear weapons development.
The headline of the NIE is contained in the first line: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”
That sounds reassuring until you read further down:
Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so. For example, Iran’s civilian uranium enrichment program is continuing. We also assess with high confidence that since fall 2003, Iran has been conducting research and development projects with commercial and conventional military applications—some of which would also be of limited use for nuclear weapons.
In short, while Iran’s nuclear-weapons program may have been suspended (the NIE expresses only “moderate confidence that Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007”), the “civilian” nuclear program is going forward. What the NIE doesn’t spell out is that it’s fairly easy to convert a civilian nuclear program into a military nuclear weapons program. All you need is the appropriate “scientific, technical, and industrial capacity”—which the NIE says “with high confidence that Iran has”—and some highly-enriched fissile material, which Iran is trying to produce.
The NIE notes that “Iran resumed its declared centrifuge enrichment activities in January 2006, despite the continued halt in the nuclear weapons program” and that “Iran made significant progress in 2007 installing centrifuges at Natanz.” And that’s only in Iran’s declared program; as the NIE notes, there could be a covert production program.
Based on what we know, the NIE concludes that, although its “very unlikely,” “the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon is late 2009”—i.e., two years from now. More likely, Iran might not have the capacity to produce enough HEU until 2010 or perhaps not until 2015.
To write off the danger of an Iranian nuke based on this report, you would have to assume that there is little chance of the mullahs turning their “civilian” nuclear program toward military uses—an assumption which relies upon interpreting Iranian intentions in a fairly benign way. The NIE acknowledges the lack of American knowledge about what the Iranians are up to:
We do not have sufficient intelligence to judge confidently whether Tehran is willing to maintain the halt of its nuclear weapons program indefinitely while it weighs its options, or whether it will or already has set specific deadlines or criteria that will prompt it to restart the program.
So at the end of this NIE you come away knowing not much more than when you started. Basically you are left with the knowledge that the Iranians are pursuing nuclear work that probably won’t result in a bomb in the next couple of years but that could produce a weapon sometime thereafter. And most of those key judgments are delivered with only “moderate confidence.” Given the intelligence community’s consistent track record of being wrong in the past, especially about other nations’ nuclear programs (the CIA has been surprised in the past by, among others, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, India, and Pakistan) that doesn’t inspire much, well, confidence.