So Iran is not pursuing nuclear-weapons capability? That’s a relief. At least that is what the unclassified “National Intelligence Estimate Key Judgments: Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,” known to all as the NIE tells us. I am not trying to be pedantic by quoting the full title; it is important to break the question down into those two key categories, capacity and intent, to understand what the document really means. It certainly does not live up to its hype.
On the capabilities side of the ledger, compare the 2007 NIE’s conclusion about when Iran could achieve nuclear-weapons capability to the 2005 version. Back then the Intelligence Community assessed that it was unlikely that Iran was likely to have a nuclear weapon “before early-to-mid next decade.” In the new NIE, the IC judges that “Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame.” But isn’t that saying the same thing, “early to mid next decade” and “2010-2015?” No, there is a significant difference. In 2005, this capability was five years off; now it is only two years and change.
Uranium enrichment is what sets the timeline. It is the most difficult aspect of the nuclear program, but its pace is highly predictable. The NIE says that “Iran resumed its declared centrifuge enrichment activities in January 2006, despite the continued halt in its nuclear weapons program.” The phrasing is funny — like saying I had a shot of whisky despite my continued abstinence. The Iranians have in fact bragged about their enrichment activities, and declared them irreversible. They claim they are not weaponizing the uranium, yet just last week Iran and the IAEA held a round of talks about traces of weapons-grade uranium found at a research university in Tehran.
On the capability side, the Iranians seem to be keeping up the pace. But the political drama in this country came from the assessment of Iranian intentions. The IC has concluded that Tehran gave up its aspirations to produce nuclear weapons in 2003. But the NIE also tells us “we do not know whether [Iran] currently intends to develop nuclear weapons” and that “Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.” That language does not seem so cut and dried, even if the assessment of Iranian intentions circa 2003 is correct.
Some of the evidence about Tehran’s intent reportedly came from intercepts of Iranian military officers grousing that the politicians were shutting down their program. I was reminded of the January 23, 1968 Pueblo incident, in which a US Navy surveillance ship was seized by North Korean naval forces. As the operation was underway, our spies picked up communications among the Soviets frantically arguing about the crazy North Koreans risking war with the United States. It was not until after the Wall came down that we learned that the intercepts were a ruse. The Soviets had been behind the Pueblo operation all along, seeking to confirm information given them by John Walker, the Navy signals specialist and traitor who began spying for them the previous month. The frenetic communications we picked up had been scripted for our benefit. Good thing the Iranians didn’t know that story, right?
“We judge with high confidence that the [weapons program] halt lasted at least several years,” the NIE says. That is a curious way to put it, since the program is supposed to still be on hiatus. However, the key variable is that halfway between 2003 and today Iran changed governments. Maybe the more cautious then-President Mohammad Khatami did call a halt to the program. We know that Iran closed the Lavizan-Shian nuclear test center in 2003 and later demolished the site. But Khatami was succeeded “several years” later by the bellicose and nuclear-fixated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who called the NIE a “declaration of surrender” by the U.S. It is unlikely that the Ahmadinejad has pursued the same course as his predecessor. Incidentally Khatami sharply criticized Ahmadinejad last week for among other things reenergizing the uranium-enrichment program.
The NIE says that Iran gave up its nuclear weapons programs in 2003 “in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.” All well and good, but shouldn’t mention also be made of how we attacked and overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime with breathtaking speed? How we got the U.N. to go along using WMDs as the primary rationale? How we had hundreds of thousands of troops on Iran’s eastern and western borders? In other words, wasn’t it primarily because they were afraid?
Libya gave up its nuclear program that same year, and no doubt motivated by the same types of concerns. The Libyans stated publicly they were abandoning their program because it no longer served their national interests. Khadafi also rendered extraordinary assistance and cooperation in allowing the United States access to the records of his program, which helped crack the code on the proliferation network of Pakistan’s A. Q. Khan. The cooperation was so thorough and our confidence so high that the U.S. now is giving its blessing to a nuclear power deal between Libya and France.
However, we received no such cooperation from the Iranians, no comprehensive proof that they had abandoned their program. Distinguishing between civilian and military use is mostly semantic since the switch can be made quickly. Iran has the centrifuges turning, and the nuclear material can readily be made weapons grade if they so desire. Furthermore they are still working on intermediate range missiles that can serve as nuclear delivery systems. Why build such expensive weapons if they are only intended to carry relatively small conventional payloads? And while the Iranians may have been afraid of us in 2003, they clearly are not today. The United States is much less capable of mounting operations against Iran than it was four years ago. Moreover, the NIE has at least temporarily killed political momentum for the use of preventive military force against Iran.
But that does not mean force will not be used by others. The U.S. may be seen as in retreat but this will only serve to energize countries in the region that feel threatened. Israel has been looked to for some time to take care of the problem. The international community barely made a peep when the Israeli Air Force bombed a Syrian nuclear facility in September. Iran would be a much more difficult target, but few would object if Israel pulled it off. Meanwhile 13other countries in the Middle East have recently declared their intentions to seek some form of nuclear capability. Proliferation breeds proliferation. We cannot expect to be able to dictate the course of developments in that region when so many countries have such critical interests — up to and including survival — at stake.
The NIE has presented Iran with a major strategic opportunity. Iran’s best move at this point is to open some form of dialogue with the United States. Promote the idea that the “grand bargain” to settle the major issues of the region is possible, play into that instinct on our side. This will serve as a useful shield against attack by third parties, because if negotiations are afoot, we will strongly discourage any other country from taking military action. Keep the talks going for as long as possible. Periodically hint at breakthroughs, settle some minor issues, feed the vanity of diplomacy. Meanwhile move out vigorously on developing a nuclear-weapons capability. When the time comes to test the weapon, foment some kind of small crisis, break off talks (though not too belligerently), conduct the test, and blame the United States for making it necessary. Then call for a new round of talks, particularly about limiting nuclear proliferation in the region. Once Tehran has the Bomb, non-proliferation will be Iran’s number one priority. At least to anyone who might fight back. – James S. Robbins is the director of the Intelligence Center at Trinity Washington University , senior fellow for national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.