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The Unbearable Obsolescence of 2007

That is the year the U.S. intelligence community seems to still be living in. With the revelation today that Iran is building a second, undeclared uranium-enrichment facility at Qom, this glinting emerald emerges from the “Intelligence Community Q&A talking points”:

Does the IC still judge that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program?

  • Yes, we still assess that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. We obtain new information all the time and are constantly reassessing Iran’s nuclear program.

Perhaps the IC does still hold to this assessment. But its silence on why began long ago to appear inexplicable, and increasingly acquires—at best—the aspect of adherence to a counterproductive analytical neutrality. Posing the “question” as the talking-points sheet does, without any inconvenient allusion to other factors, comes off as unforgivably coy. We are way past asking questions without allusions now, after nearly three years of cumulative revelations: about Iran’s persistent mendacity and lack of cooperation with the IAEA; about Western intelligence on Iran’s efforts to build warheads and fit them to missiles; about a German court and a New York prosecutor deeming Iran’s Western collaborators indictable under national nonproliferation laws; and about foreign analysts concluding that Iran had performed enough research and development by 2003 to be able to weaponize a nuclear warhead, as soon as adequate fissile material was available.

What the U.S. intelligence community (USIC) needs to answer is why, with all these factors available for consideration, it persists in stating its 2007 conclusion in its obviously outdated terms. Maybe Iran has not resumed specific, detectable forms of R&D, or resumed suspicious purchases from the West, since 2003. After all, the Western intelligence cited in the secret IAEA assessment unearthed by AP this month, and the evidence in the criminal prosecutions in Germany and New York, both involved information from 2003 and earlier.

But this narrow view ignores too much to be analytically or morally integral. Iran, as demonstrated dramatically today, has been pursuing uranium enhancement secretively. It is no accident that the newly revealed site is near Qom, or that it is located on a military facility. Qom’s hinterland has for some years been a missile R&D and testing site and occupies the southwest point of a triangular area south of Tehran in which a number of missile-related facilities are concentrated. The longer-range, developmental Sajjil missile program has been associated with Semnan, further east, while Qom has hosted the testing of Iran’s existing shorter-range missiles. Given the Obama administration’s recent argument that it is the shorter-range missiles we should be more immediately concerned about—the argument used to justify scrapping the missile-defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic—Qom assumes a timely significance.

These features of Iran’s nuclear activities can be stonewalled, but it is hard to spin them as irrelevant or meaningless. Perhaps that is why the USIC simply avoids addressing them. This is painfully bad intelligence, however. At best, it makes the USIC look unaccountably obtuse. Its more sinister implication—that intelligence is being finagled to make a national policy of verbose passivity look good—could end even worse for the USIC.



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