What a difference a few days can make. In recent weeks, the White House appeared to be gaining serious ground in its efforts to cobble together an international consensus to confront Iran. Today, however, Administration officials are desperately trying to put the pieces of their Iran policy back together. The culprit is the intelligence community’s new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), released publicly on December 3rd. That document offers a dramatically different take on Iran’s nuclear development, asserting that the Iranian regime currently is not in the business of making nuclear weapons.
But is that contention, so damaging to U.S. efforts to contain the Islamic Republic, accurate and sustainable? Closer examination suggests considerable reason for skepticism on at least three fronts.
First, the new NIE provides a misleading picture of the maturity of Iran’s nuclear effort. Its centerpiece is the startling claim that “in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program,” and that such activity had not restarted as of mid-2007. Yet the report also makes clear that its definition of this program excludes “Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.” All of which is more than a little contradictory, since nuclear materiel generated as a result of Iran’s civilian nuclear development, if enriched to a high enough level, can be used for military purposes.
Tehran’s work in this area, moreover, is both significant and mature. This October, French officials went public with the assessment that Iran could begin operating as many as 3,000 centrifuges by the end of that month. That estimate — based on France’s interpretation of International Atomic Energy Agency findings — was subsequently confirmed by Iranian officials themselves, who disclosed in early November that their regime now had 3,000 functioning centrifuges in operation. This represents a critical milestone; according to nuclear scientists, that number of centrifuges operating continuously for a year can generate enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for one nuclear weapon. As a practical matter, this means that — barring technical malfunctions or other unforeseen circumstances — Iran could have the raw material for a nuclear bomb by sometime next fall. Once that occurs, the regime will be able to weaponize it in a mere matter of weeks, if it possesses the proper know-how. All of which roundly contradicts the NIE’s predictions that “Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame.”
Second, the new NIE provides an incomplete picture of Iranian nuclear activities. The scope of its assessment of an Iranian freeze in military nuclear work, the report makes clear, extends solely to the domestic activities of regime entities and affiliates. But nuclear weapons are not only made at home; they can also be bought from abroad. The Iranian regime understands this very well, which is why it is believed to have devoted considerable time and energy to maintaining a presence on the nuclear black market in the former Soviet Union over the past decade-and-a-half, and why it has shown such interest in the clandestine nuclear cartel of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. These inputs have the ability to dramatically accelerate Iran’s nuclear program. At a minimum, therefore, the intelligence community owes the American public an accurate accounting of exactly what it does and does not know about such secondary inputs into the Iranian atomic effort.
The new NIE also needs to be understood in the context of past assessments. The U.S. intelligence community does many things well, but accurately gauging the maturity of foreign nuclear programs is not one of them. Indeed, over the past half-century, U.S. agencies have consistently failed to foresee significant nuclear events in any foreign nation. They famously missed the nuclearization of the Soviet Union in 1949, and that of China in 1964. India and Pakistan’s tit-for-tat nuclear exchanges in 1998 similarly caught them by surprise. More recently, so did North Korea’s abrupt nuclear breakout in 2002. If the U.S. intelligence community now has an accurate take on Tehran’s nuclear program, therefore, it would represent something of a historical anomaly.
Perhaps most dangerously, the new NIE detracts from the American public’s understanding of the nature of the Iranian regime itself. Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, and plays an instrumental role in sustaining and bolstering the activities of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Iran is also active in Iraq, where it has helped expand the lethality of the insurgency against Coalition forces over the past two years. These activities — and the radical expansionist ideology of the regime itself — matter as much, if not more, than the current state of Iran’s nuclear program.
As a practical matter, then, the intelligence community’s new wisdom on Iran changes little. Even if all of the judgments contained in the NIE are accurate, and there is ample reason for skepticism on that score, they do little to diminish the contemporary challenge to U.S. interests that is posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. What they do succeed in doing, however, is significantly diluting American resolve in confronting that threat.