Those lively minds over at the (always capitalized) Intelligence Community have given us yet another of their entertaining Estimates, this time about the Iranian nuclear-weapons program. You know, the one the Iranians stoutly deny exists, the one they refuse to let inspectors examine, and the one they sometimes acknowledge when on or another of their leaders has a slip of the tongue. They now favor us with slightly more than two pages of “Key Judgments” on this important subject.
Two years ago, the IC — the same IC that claimed to have detailed information about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, that famously missed the boat on al-Qaeda, and that has had at least two spy networks inside Iran rolled up in the past couple of decades — told us it was all but certain that Iran was “determined to develop nuclear weapons.”
Yesterday it reversed field. It said that in fact, two years before the 2005 report, the Iranians had “halted its (covert) nuclear weapons program,” and that the “halt lasted at least several years” and (although the IC is less certain about this) is still in force. There is some disagreement within the IC on this point, however. The Energy Department and the National Intelligence Council apparently agree that something was stopped, but have at least some doubt as to whether the “halt” encompasses Iran’s “entire nuclear weapons program.”
In short, some IC analysts think there is no covert nuclear-arms program at all, while others aren’t so sure. In a moment of candor at a briefing Monday, these gentlemen stressed that Iran has a “latent goal” to develop a nuclear weapon, that “gaps remain” in our information, and that Iran is “probably the hardest intelligence target there is.” And they warn us, in one of their Key Judgments, that the odds are that Iran will develop nuclear weapons. Parse this: “only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons — and such a decision is inherently reversible.” This seems to imply that the “halt” was a tactical move, not a strategic decision.
You certainly can’t criticize them for failing to cover their derrieres.
Nonetheless, despite the “gaps in intelligence,” and despite the Islamic Republic’s well-earned reputation for being one of the most deceptive on earth, the IC goes right ahead and predicts that Iran is quite a long way away from being able to field nukes. The earliest possible — albeit “highly unlikely” — date at which Iran could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon is late 2009, but it’s more reasonable to look to the 2010-2015 timeframe. Interestingly enough, this pretty much corresponds to their 2005 forecast, when they said that if Iran’s technical progress increased, they might have enough weapons-grade uranium “by the end of this decade.” And the IC stresses that Iran has “the scientific, technical and industrial capacity…to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.
All this deals with the Iranians’ ability to enrich uranium on their own. Of course, they could have obtained some from abroad, and the IC admits that they cannot rule out the possibility that Iran has obtained an actual weapon “or enough fissile material for a weapon.”
More derriere protection. And there is still more. After all, the Iranians excel at deception, and we’ve been fooled about the nuclear programs of countries from the Soviet Union to India and Pakistan. Maybe we’ve been fooled again. The IC doesn’t think so, although, in its usual “on the one hand yes, on the other hand maybe” routine, the officials responded to the question in yesterday’s press briefing by reassuring the press that “We gamed more than half a dozen such scenarios,” …But the analysts reached the conclusion such a scenario was “plausible but not likely.”
Tom Joscelyn has wisely warned us to be skeptical about anything that comes from the IC, and he rightly asks about the sources for the new conclusion. There is no point guessing about this, and without such knowledge it’s very difficult to assess the quality of the analysis. But whatever the spooks think they know has to be evaluated in the light of common sense, the views of other countries, and the history of nuclear proliferation. WMD programs are easier to hide than one imagines. After the First Gulf War we were astonished to discover how far Saddam’s Iraq had advanced, for example. To claim we “know” that Iran no longer has a covert nuclear-weapons program is quite a statement. (Remember how we used to say that you can’t prove a negative? The IC seems to know better.)
Moreover, there’s the old smell test. We went from zero to bomb in four years leading up to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at a time when nobody even knew if the thing was doable. On the IC’s account, the Iranians have been at this since “at least the late 1980’s.” (I actually think it didn’t get into gear until 1991, but let’s not quibble.) During that time, almost everything was for sale (and Iran has lots of money), A.Q. Khan was running his bazaar, Soviet nuclear physicists were hired by Tehran, and the Iranians themselves are very smart. Is it likely, that Iran hasn’t been able to build nukes in two decades? No way.
If this NIE is true, the evidence would have to be awfully good. And evidence of that quality has been in famously short supply. These are the same guys who have been telling us for years that Sunnis and Shiites can’t work together, when they should have known that Iranian Revolutionary Guards (Shiites) were trained in the early 1970s by Yasser Arafat’s al Fatah (Sunnis).
Color me an unbeliever.
— Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. He is resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute