Monday, December 3, 2007

Iran - The Good, the Bad, and the NIE

The U.S. has released an unclassified version of the November, 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities. The document assesses with moderate confidence that Iran’s nuclear weapons program, previously thought to be active, has actually been on hold since 2003. This NIE was initiated last year by request of Senator Harry Reid. He also requested that an unclassified version be released when the NIE was completed.

The highlights of the NIE are:

  • It is highly likely Iran had a covert nuclear weapons program until 2003

  • It is highly likely Iran called a temporary halt to that program in 2003

  • It is more likely than not that Iran has not restarted its nuclear weapons program.

  • It is probable that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon.

  • It is possible but highly unlikely that Iran will be able to process and enrich sufficient HEU (highly enriched uranium) for a nuclear weapon by 2009.

  • It is possible that Iran will be able to process and enrich sufficient HEU for a nuclear weapon by 2013, but it is more likely that this will not occur until after 2015.

  • Iran continues to develop the technical capabilities that may be applicable to a nuclear weapons program.

  • It is highly likely that Iran's suspension of its covert nuclear weapon’s program was "primarily in response" to international pressure. "This suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously."

  • The good news is that a major military confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program is off the table for the foreseeable future. Beyond that, there are some questions raised by the NIE:

    1. The usefulness of sanctions and why Iran suspended their covert nuclear weapons program in 2003

    The NIE credits international pressure for Iran’s decision to stop its covert nuclear weapons program. If the NIE is correct, than Iran’s leadership is making decisions on a cost-benefit model. The NIE ignores what would seem to be critical related issues. Specifically, what role, if any, did our invasion of Iraq have to do with Iran’s contemporaneous decision to suspend its covert program, and what effect does our continued presence in Iraq have on Iran’s decision not to restart the program? These "elephants in the room" have significant ramifications for whether we maintain a long term military presence in Iraq. Further, if the theocracy’s decision to suspend the covert program was indeed predicated wholly on sanctions, why hasn’t the theocracy been more cooperative with IAEA inspections and EU negotiations, thus eliminating the need for current sanctions and forestalling future ones?

    2. Whether real sanctions will be achievable in the short run?

    China and Russia have refused to allow significant sanctions to be imposed by the U.N. Security Council. There is some indication that Russia may be changing their position, but China surely won’t and will cite to this latest NIE for justification. Outside of the Security Council, nations with major trade relations with Iran are Germany, France and Italy. Those nations have adamantly resisted significant sanctions, though it appeared that Germany and France, at least prior to the release of this NIE, were willing to go much further in the next round of sanctions. Charles Krauthammer, on Fox News, stated his belief that will still be the case. I have my doubts. The sword of Damocles has just been removed by this NIE and likely with it the strong motivation needed to forgo trade and impose sanctions. It was just a few months ago that the EU refused to forgo even a single euro in trade with Iran to assist the UK in its effort to free its kidnapped servicemembers.

    3. What will be the impact of this report on other Middle East nations that have initiated nuclear programs in response to Iran?

    The NIE seems likely to push back resolution of the Iran issue by years. That is problematic in as much as resolution of the issue would be a major factor in convincing other Middle East nations to forgo their own nuclear programs. The creation of nuclear programs in both Egypt and Saudi Arabia will likely remain on track, and with it, all of the attendant ramifications for a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and the significant increase in the likelihood of terrorists gaining control of nuclear weapons or nuclear material for a dirty bomb. While we may have gained breathing space in regards to Iran's nuclear program, the larger ramifications appear likely only to grow until the issue of Iran's program is resovled.

    4. Are we seeing Iraq in reverse?

    This NIE is from intelligence sources, not from open inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities. According to last weeks IAEA report, Iran is progressively becoming less cooperative with IAEA inspections. The NIE does not address the issue of Iran’s increasing non-compliance with the IAEA. Likewise, the NIE does not address Iran’s operational heavy water plant nor its continued enrichment of fuel for which it has no nuclear reactors to use. I am not saying that the NIE is incorrect or that we should not act in accordance with it. It falls far short, however, of giving me a warm fuzzy feeling that all is right at Natanz. Without any other information, I will assume that this report is not the result of politicized intelligence from agencies that seem to have had their own agenda during the Bush Presidency.

    Predictably as the sun rises each day, the left and the MSM, led by Reuters, has seized on the NIE to imply that President Bush has been less than truthful in his prior assertions, most recently in October, that Iran had an ongoing nuclear weapons program. Moreover, according to the NY Times:

    Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, portrayed the assessment as "directly challenging some of this administration’s alarming rhetoric about the threat posed by Iran." He said he hoped the administration "appropriately adjusts its rhetoric and policy," and called for a "a diplomatic surge necessary to effectively address the challenges posed by Iran."

    I assume this is just typical bombast from Reid and that he is not suggesting that we either forgo more sanctions or negotiate directly with Iran. Years of negotiations and the offer of numerous carrots from the EU have proven entirely fruitless. We have more breathing space, but the threat posed by Iran to the West and the mere existence of their nuclear program in the Middle East continues to be a potentially existential problem.

    The White House response to this new NIE, issued by National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, seems to be measured and correct:

    Today’s National Intelligence Estimate offers some positive news. It confirms that we were right to be worried about Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons. It tells us that we have made progress in trying to ensure that this does not happen.

    But the intelligence also tells us that the risk of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon remains a very serious problem. The estimate offers grounds for hope that the problem can be solved diplomatically — without the use of force — as the Administration has been trying to do. And it suggests that the President has the right strategy: intensified international pressure along with a willingness to negotiate a solution that serves Iranian interests while ensuring that the world will never have to face a nuclear armed Iran.

    The bottom line is this: for that strategy to succeed, the international community has to turn up the pressure on Iran — with diplomatic isolation, United Nations sanctions, and with other financial pressure — and Iran has to decide it wants to negotiate a solution.

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