Politics & Policy

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The Left isn’t wasting any time to portray recently declassified findings in the latest National Intelligence Estimate as evidence that Iran isn’t such a threat after all. The authors of the NIE assess “with high confidence” that Iran “halted its nuclear weapons program” in 2003 — and that’s about all you’re likely to hear from administration critics and the mainstream media. But it is a very small part of a very big picture — and when you look at that picture, the threat is as great as ever. Here are a few things to remember.

First, the NIE says that Iran was indeed operating a covert nuclear-weapons program up to the fall of 2003. Until now, no NIE had held that such a program existed. The acknowledgement that one did is a big piece of news — even if not many people want to talk about it. Yes, the NIE also claims that Iran suspended weapons-related activities in 2003. But the question for policymakers is whether a regime that has, in the past four years, tried to build atomic bombs, should be trusted with civilian technologies that greatly increase its ability to make a bomb whenever it wishes to do so.

And that’s the second thing to remember about this NIE: It relies on an unrealistic distinction between civilian and military nuclear technologies. When it says Iran suspended its weapons program in 2003, what it means is that Iran isn’t currently designing or building warheads, or other components of nuclear weapons. But it concedes that Iran “made significant progress in 2007 installing centrifuges at Natanz.” And while the NIE judges “with moderate confidence” that Iran “still faces significant technical problems” operating the centrifuges, it does not question that the enrichment of uranium continues.

That matters because Iran’s uranium-enrichment program — while ostensibly for the generation of electricity — could easily be diverted to military use. The primary obstacle to building a nuclear weapon isn’t making the warhead, but securing enough enriched uranium to make the warhead explode. Iran presumably has all the know-how it needs, courtesy of A. Q. Khan. Every step Iran takes toward mastering the nuclear-fuel cycle for “civilian purposes” also enhances its ability to quickly build an atomic bomb. The only thing backing up Iran’s word that it won’t divert nuclear fuel for use in weapons is . . . Iran’s word. What the NIE does not explain — what no one has explained — is why the world’s third-largest exporter of oil and gas needs nuclear power.

Third, consider the NIE’s judgment “that Iran halted the [weapons] program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure,” and that this “indicates Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach.” If you believe that, shouldn’t you believe all the more that the U.N. must impose a third round of sanctions on Iran? Iran continues to enrich uranium in defiance of Security Council resolutions ordering it to stop. If Iran responds to pressure, now is the time to apply more pressure.

Of course, all this assumes that the NIE is accurate and impartial — and there is reason to doubt that. It’s no secret that careerists at the CIA and State have been less interested in implementing the president’s policies on Iran, Iraq, and North Korea than in sabotaging them at every opportunity. Sources close to the intelligence community question the objectivity of the NIE’s Iran conclusions, and tell us that three principal authors of the report are longtime critics of the administration’s policy who have axes to grind.

We can’t know for sure whether the claims in the NIE are correct. What we do know is this: The Islamic Republic is killing Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has exported terror around the globe. It has powerful strategic reasons to want an atomic bomb: to counterbalance American influence, and to become a hegemon in the Middle East. And it continues to enrich uranium while refusing to allow the kind of intrusive and thorough inspections that would allow us to test its claim that it seeks nothing but electricity. Until that big picture changes, it would be irresponsible for any American policymaker to conclude that the Iranian threat had diminished.

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