Iran Hawks Down?

The new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program puts hardliners on the defensive.

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For months, intelligence reporters have occasionally noted the absence of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear program that was due to Congress last spring. To some degree, politics and a reported tussle between hawks and moderates were the presumed reasons for the delay. Such suspicions were further aroused last month by reports that Mike McConnell, the U.S. intelligence czar, was insisting that all future NIEs might remain classified.

Which is why many in Washington were caught off guard today, as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released unclassified key judgments of a new NIE on Iran’s nuclear program. Almost nobody had anticipated how dramatic some of the findings would be, and how devastating for the hawks’ case for near-term military action against Iran. “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear program,” stated the NIE, innocuously titled “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,” in Key Judgment A.

“Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005,” it continued further down. “Our assessment that the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously.”

The intelligence community’s judgment that Iran is responsive to international diplomatic pressure bolstered those in and outside the administration arguing for continued tough diplomacy to get Iran to change its behavior. And it infuriated hawks who’d been arguing for a more aggressive approach. “The NIE is a breathtaking repudiation of the policy arguments advanced by administration hardliners in recent years that Iran’s march toward a nuclear weapons program is relentless and inexorable,” a Democratic Senate staffer who has closely followed Iran’s nuclear program told Mother Jones.

“This is a blockbuster development and requires a wholesale reevaluation of U.S. policy,” said nonproliferation expert Jon Wolfsthal, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a statement released by the National Security Network. “This NIE suggests that outside pressure and scrutiny has turned off Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”

Those advocating a tougher line toward Iran naturally had a different take: “I would say that the new NIE reflects very nicely the character of the U.S. intelligence community, which is very highly confident,” Patrick Clawson, an Iran proliferation expert and deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Mother Jones with evident sarcasm. “You might think that an agency that is issuing a report that says its 2005 judgment was wrong would have a lot of caution about what it says it knows now.

“They were wrong about the nuclear programs of Iraq, Libya, South Africa, and Pakistan,” Clawson continued. “They were wrong about every nuclear program. And now they come along and say they were wrong about the Iranian nuclear program [in 2005] and now they are ‘highly confident.’ I would think they would rather be a little humble.”

Paul Pillar disagrees. As the former top National Intelligence Council officer for the Middle East, he knows his way around the NIE process. “I think the thing reeks with humility,” said Pillar, who is now with Georgetown University. He characterizes the new NIE’s tone as full of qualifiers: ‘”We have low confidence on this, moderate conference on that…’ If there is one upfront statement…”

The NIE released today had been held up for more than a year. At a House Armed Services Committee hearing on global threats this summer, the CIA’s top intel analyst indicated to Mother Jones during a break that the delay was due in part to new intelligence that the United States had obtained. The source of that intelligence has not been revealed, but comments by national security advisor Stephen Hadley today suggested the United States had received new information a few months ago and that a conclusion on the NIE’s findings was reached only last Tuesday. Incidentally, last Tuesday was the date of a major White House-sponsored Middle East peace conference held at Annapolis, Maryland. Further comments by Hadley revealed that administration principals such as Vice President Cheney had been briefed on the NIE two weeks ago.
Also noteworthy was the fact that, as reported by the Washington Post‘s Walter Pincus, McConnell had recently said he’d decided against releasing unclassified NIE summaries in the future at all. McConnell “said that he does not want ‘a situation where the young analysts are writing something because they know it’s going to be a public debate or political debate,'” Pincus reported.

While that argument may have merit, Pillar noted, McConnell probably felt he had to release a summary, given the dramatic conclusions. “Confronted with this particular judgment on this issue, if I were [director of national intelligence], I wouldn’t sit on it either,” he said.

“The primary, number one judgment—that military efforts have apparently been discontinued in 2003 and still discontinued as of middle of this year—it is impossible for the community to sit on a judgment like that,” Pillar continued. “That they have high confidence suggests they have some fairly good reporting. That is pretty significant.”

In a press release today, Dr. Donald Kerr, the top deputy director for national intelligence, presented the decision as a correcting of the public record. “The Intelligence Community is on the record publicly with numerous statements based on our 2005 assessment on Iran. Since our understanding of Iran’s capabilities has changed, we felt it was important to release this information to ensure that an accurate presentation is available.”

Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) praised the intelligence community’s pro-active behavior. “The key judgments show that the Intelligence Community has learned its lessons from the Iraq debacle,” Rockefeller said in a statement. “It has issued judgments that break sharply with its own previous assessments, and they reflect a real difference from the views espoused by top administration officials.”

But the Washington Institute’s Clawson said that the new NIE left out an important fact implied by its findings. It says nothing, he noted, about what effect the halt in Iran’s nuclear weapons program has on its ability to weaponize fissile material manufactured for its civilian program. “If the information they are providing here about Iran’s production of highly enriched uranium is correct,” he said, “the reported halt in the weapons program has no effect.”

The NIE estimated that Iran could have enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon by 2009 at the earliest, “but this is very unlikely,” it stated. “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.” In other words, the NIE seems to argue that the Bush administration can defer the decision about whether to act on Iran’s nuclear program to the next administration—if it chooses.

The Democratic Hill staffer who follows Iran policy closely offered a note of caution to anyone convinced the NIE would stymie the hardliners. It could also set back efforts to get a third round of economic sanctions through the UN Security Council, he warned, and thereby weaken the effectiveness of those pushing for a non-military approach. “Failure of the sanction drive at the UN may give Cheney et al. the opportunity to convince the president that the diplomatic route is now closed and the United States must move to more direct military pressure.”


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