When the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) came out in December 2007, I was struck by the emphasis placed on its first sentence — “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program” — in all major media reports, and the almost universal conclusion drawn that the US was not going to take serious action, military or diplomatic, to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons (see “The NIE: read past the first line“).
The New York Times wrote in an editorial,
Tehran, we are now told, halted its secret nuclear weapons program in 2003, which means that President Bush has absolutely no excuse for going to war against Iran.
…and, therefore, far less leverage to get effective sanctions applied. The overwhelming reaction in the press and foreign and domestic political circles was similar: the US is backing off on stopping Iran’s nuclear program.
I argued at the time that anyone actually reading the NIE (the non-classified part that was released) would get the impression that the likelihood of Iran developing deliverable nuclear weapons in the next few years is still as great as ever.
Today former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton said the same thing in a Jerusalem Post interview:
…the NIE “doesn’t say what you probably think it says. Once you get past the first sentence or two, it doesn’t come out that different from the 2005 NIE. All of the attention was focused on the one finding that [Iran halted the weapons-building] aspect of the weapons program, even though later they say that they only have ‘moderate confidence’ that this suspension has continued. That’s a polite way of saying they don’t have a clue what the situation is.”
The document also defines the weapons program as “actual weaponization, that is, fabrication – only a tiny sliver of the total activity required for a country to have a nuclear weapons program. It still remains entirely within Iran’s discretion when and under what circumstances it proceeds to a nuclear weapons capability.”
Iran, it is well known, is continuing with the other parts of the job — the preparation of nuclear explosive material, and the development of delivery systems.
Bolton also expressed his opinion about who was responsible for the release of the report and its wording:
“I know the people who wrote this intelligence estimate,” Bolton continued. “They are not from our intelligence community. They’re from our State Department. It was a highly politicized document written by people who had a very clear policy objective.”
Said objective, in my opinion, being to placate Iran in return for a reduction of the level of violence by Iranian-influenced Shiite forces in Iraq. Has it worked? Maybe:
Gen. David Petraeus has been deservedly praised for tamping down violence in Iraq, but an unlikely character deserves some credit— [Shiite militia leader Moqtada al-] Sadr. Five months ago the firebrand cleric ordered his followers to lay down their arms, and they’ve largely obeyed…
In early December Sadr issued another decree, urging his followers to focus on prayer and religious studies. He’s leading by example. Senior clerics close to Sadr, who did not want to be named speaking about their boss, confirm that he himself is studying to ascend to the rank of ayatollah, using books, CDs and even texts on the Internet. — Newsweek
If this is the correct analysis, then the maneuver provides a short-term gain for a lame duck administration. But it may yet create a much bigger problem for the next President, for the Mideast, and indeed for all of us.