The NIE: Read past the first line

The release of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) a few days ago created quite a stir, as it included a statement to the effect that Iran had stopped developing nuclear weapons. Many suggest that therefore the US should back off on its aggressive stance toward the Iranian nuclear program. An editorial in our local newspaper is a good example:

But whether Bush wants to acknowledge it or not, the NIE fundamentally changes things. The intelligence community has weighed in, as the principal deputy director of national intelligence told Congress, “to ensure that an accurate presentation is available.” This information should stop irresponsible talk of unilateral U.S. attacks on Iran.

The report’s message is unmistakable. Its first line reads, “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” There is no Iranian “rush to a weapon,” a view corroborated by others, including International Atomic Energy Agency Director Mohamed El Baradei. — Fresno Bee Editorial, Dec. 7, 2007

But maybe it’s best to read beyond the first line. Here are some more excerpts from the NIE:

We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons…

  • We assess with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons.
  • We judge with high confidence that the halt lasted at least several years. (Because of intelligence gaps discussed elsewhere in this Estimate, however, DOE and the NIC assess with only moderate confidence that the halt to those activities represents a halt to Iran’s entire nuclear weapons program.)
  • We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.
  • We continue to assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapon…

We assess centrifuge enrichment is how Iran probably could first produce enough fissile material for a weapon, if it decides to do so. Iran resumed its declared centrifuge enrichment activities in January 2006, despite the continued halt in the nuclear weapons program. Iran made significant progress in 2007 installing centrifuges at Natanz, but we judge with moderate confidence it still faces significant technical problems operating them…

  • We judge with moderate confidence that the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon is late 2009, but that this is very unlikely.
  • We judge with moderate confidence Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame…

Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so. For example, Iran’s civilian uranium enrichment program is continuing. We also assess with high confidence that since fall 2003, Iran has been conducting research and development projects with commercial and conventional military applications—some of which would also be of limited use for nuclear weapons…

We assess with moderate confidence that Iran probably would use covert facilities— rather than its declared nuclear sites—for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon. A growing amount of intelligence indicates Iran was engaged in covert uranium conversion and uranium enrichment activity, but we judge that these efforts probably were halted in response to the fall 2003 halt, and that these efforts probably had not been restarted through at least mid-2007. [emphasis is mine]

In other words: there was a program to build a nuclear weapon that appears to have been halted in 2003, but the production of highly enriched uranium continues, as do other technical developments that are relevant to weapons. Even if a program was halted, it is not clear that all programs have been halted; and even if so, they can be restarted to produce a bomb between 2009 and 2015.

On top of this, it’s even possible that the alleged halt in weapons development is simply a bit of Iranian disinformation! The New York Times reports that

[officials] said that the Central Intelligence Agency and other agencies had organized a “red team” to determine if the new information might have been part of an elaborate disinformation campaign mounted by Iran to derail the effort to impose sanctions against it.

In the end, American intelligence officials rejected that theory, though they were challenged to defend that conclusion in a meeting two weeks ago in the White House situation room, in which the notes and deliberations were described to the most senior members of President Bush’s national security team, including Vice President Dick Cheney.

“It was a pretty vivid exchange,” said one participant in the conversation.

The NIE is in no way the (pardon the expression) bombshell that it has been made out to be. It is interesting to compare Israeli intelligence estimates:

As [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak later told Israeli Army Radio, “It seems Iran in 2003 halted for a certain period of time its military nuclear program, but as far as we know it has probably since revived it.” He added: “We are talking about a specific track connected with their weapons building program, to which the American [intelligence] connection, and maybe that of others, was severed.” The Israeli defense minister implied that the new U.S. assessment was “made in an environment of high uncertainty.”

Israeli intelligence sources told Time that for the past five years, Mossad, Israel’s equivalent of the CIA, had made spying on Iran its top priority, and that its assessment is that Iran would be weapons-ready by 2009. — Time [my emphasis]

The release of this report along with the spin being placed on it suggests that the US is losing its appetite for taking a strong stand against Iran. This is apparently a manifestation of the new American strategy of appease — er, engagement.

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One Response to “The NIE: Read past the first line”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    The ‘spin’ of the report is what is important. It is perceived as saying that Iran has halted its nuclear weapons program. It is thus taken to mean that the U.S. has no real reason to attack Iran in the near future.
    In whose interest is such a ‘spin’?
    Clearly the State Department. But perhaps more importantly the bulk of the military leadership which believes the US is not ready for another major military conflict.
    In any case it now in effect means that Israel is left alone as the only possible actor against the Iranian nuclear program. This worsens considerably Israel’s political position and military option against Iran.
    Another consequence of this is that Bush is passing on the Iranian problem to the next Administration.
    A further likely consequence is that the ‘sanctions’ effort already questionable will be derailed.