No More Slam Dunks: A Reality-Based Assessment of Iran's Nuclear Capability

Article excerpt

THE BOMBSHELL National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program asserted with a "high degree of certainty" that Tehran had abandoned its nuclear weapons in 2003 due to international pressure and as part of a negotiated agreement with the Europeans. The report stated that even if Tehran were to restart its program, it would not have enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon until 2010 at the earliest.

The NIE is widely seen as a decisive blow to the neoconservatives and Bush administration hawks who have been advocating a preemptive attack on Iran, depriving them of their principle casus belli. They have counterattacked, claiming that the report is based on flawed information or even Iranian disinformation, that the CIA has a history of poor analysis of proliferation issues, and that a politicized intelligence community is out to get the White House and/or Israel.

The political landscape in Washington has not yet shifted dramatically. By demonstrating that Iran has acted as a rational player, the report gives advocates of negotiations without preconditions a stronger hand. Those who still seek war have already re-written their talking points. They argue that as Iranian intentions and plans remain suspect, Teheran must be denied any ability to enrich uranium. On Dec. 4, President Bush stated that the military option remains on the table, while warning seven times that Tehran might use "knowledge" of how to enrich uranium to secretly construct a bomb. Other administration spokesmen have insisted that Iran must be denied the engineering infrastructure to manage the nuclear fuel cycle, even for peaceful purposes. The White House has asserted that it still regards Iran as its major foreign-policy problem.

An alarmed Israel, where the report's conclusions have been rejected by both politicians and media, is considering taking unilateral action against the principle Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz. If Israel were to attack Iran, it would need Washington's help, and U.S. forces would almost certainly be involved in any Iranian retaliation.

The history of how the NIE was developed provides an effective rebuke to those attacking it. Since late 2006, the White House has been aware that the NIE would not confirm the existence of an Iranian weapons program. In January 2007, John Negroponte resigned as director of national intelligence because he backed his analysts and refused to order the rewriting of the key judgments that appeared in the NIE draft. Vice President Dick Cheney's office subsequently demanded several revisions and numerous reviews of the source material. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell is loyal to the president, but, like Negroponte, was unwilling to alter the conclusions for the White House, and the administration eventually became resigned to a final report that it knew would contradict policy.

Contrary to administration claims, when conclusive new intelligence demonstrating that the Iranians had cancelled their weapons program became available in early summer 2007, the White House was informed. It is no coincidence that President Bush and his aides soon began to downplay Iranian nukes and started to emphasize "they're killing our soldiers" to make its case against Tehran. In November, McConnell, under pressure from Congress to finish the NIE, agreed to White House demands that it be kept classified, but when the report was finally completed a month later, an unclassified summary was prepared because of concerns that inevitable leaks by Democrats in Congress would make it appear that the administration was again deceiving the American people.

The actual NIE process makes clear how impossible it would be to cook the books in order to damage the administration. …