It would be accurate to deem Tuesday’s Washington Post article - which described the latest, still-classified National Intelligence Estimate concerning Iran - as a bombshell. The NIE, according to the Post, pushes the date for Iranian nuclear ability back a full decade, far beyond other popular estimates. A rough three to five year figure has long been the private and sometimes public refrain of the Bush administration’s heavy hitters, officials such as Secretary Rice, Secretary Rumsfeld, and Vice President Cheney. Obviously, much to the delight of the Post, there exists a serious disconnect.
So which side is right? The NIE is basically the current consensus of the multiple agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community, written in a form digestible for policy makers, i.e. intel cliff notes. Since the debacle concerning the NIE’s estimate on Iraqi WMDs, the formulation process has been geared to highlight dissent and downplay consensus, ostensibly giving readers a broader view of the internal discussion. Unfortunately for politicians looking for a policy direction concerning Iran, this particular NIE has apparently been “carefully hedged,” indicating the frequent use of qualifiers (possibly, quite probably, likely, etc.).
What does the intel community base its latest NIE assertions on? It seems - if publicly available assessments are to be believed - not much. An indicator of this intelligence scarcity was the recent Robb-Silberman report, which expressed concern over America’s ability to make any accurate assumptions concerning Iranian intentions, declaring that the intelligence community knew “disturbingly little” about Iran’s nuclear program. David Kay, former director of the Iraqi Survey Group, concurred, stating “it's a safe assumption that our intelligence on WMD programs in Iran and North Korea is no better than what we had on Iraq." Furthermore, the community’s ability to predict the outcomes of other nuclear projects has been marred by numerous mistakes and miscalculations, most famously concerning Saddam’s surprisingly advanced pre-Gulf War nuclear program. All in all, the NIE track record on nuclear development paints a discouraging picture.
Casting further doubt on our ability to correctly divine Tehran’s nuclear timeline are the methods utilized to gather information. The Post reports that the 10 year assessment was largely based on “analyzing communication intercepts, satellite imagery and the work of U.N. inspectors who have been investigating Iran for more than two years.”
I’m sorry, but hasn’t much of the 9-11 related criticism of the CIA and other agencies been based on their excessive reliance on spy satellites and high-tech gadgetry? Does anyone really think that satellites - which can be effectively blocked by sheetrock - will really aid us in solving the riddle of Iran’s nuclear intentions? Are Iranian officials really stupid enough to divulge secret nuclear information over phone lines that everyone in the world would know are being tapped? Furthermore, does anyone in the U.S. government really believe that the work of Mohamed El-Baradei’s blue-helmeted crew could properly discern Tehran’s overall nuclear blueprint? Apparently, some officials still do, as these sources were good enough to base an entire NIE around.
Well, maybe U.S. intelligence doesn’t have the best idea of what is going on in Iran, but surely the Israeli’s and the British do. As the Post suggests, the new NIE “puts the timeline closer to 2015 and in line with recently revised British and Israeli figures.”
Too bad that claim isn’t true. Just last week, according to The Jerusalem Post, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, while meeting Jacques Chirac in Paris, presented his French counterpart with intelligence suggesting Iran would reach the nuclear point of no return by the end of this year. Sharon delivered a similar message to President Bush in April, when he informed the President that Israeli intelligence had determined that Iran was months away from solving its final enrichment difficulties. Another recent Jerusalem Post report, quoting Israeli intelligence officials, put the date for Iranian weapon procurement at 3-7 years. If Israeli intelligence has revised its figures as the Post suggests, someone should quickly inform Ariel Sharon.
The Post also suggests that the NIE indicates a “fading of suspicions that Iran's military has been running its own separate and covert enrichment effort.” At the same time, however, “there is evidence of clandestine military work on missiles and centrifuge research and development that could be linked to a nuclear program.”
So let’s get this straight, Iran’s military is covertly working full bore on a nuclear-capable missile (the Shahab-3) along with centrifuges, but we are supposed to believe they do not have an ongoing parallel operation to enrich uranium? Why make the missiles and centrifuges in the first place?
With the U.S. intel’s community’s grasp of Iran’s nuclear initiative limited, let us rely on what we do know. Iran, the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism, has for 18 years worked covertly on an extensive nuclear project. For historical context, South Africa went from design formulation to weapons testing in 8 years, with far less resources than those available to Iran. Iran has employed dozens of Russian nuclear specialists, while at the same time working hard to frustrate the international community’s ability to observe its progress. In addition, we know Iran was a prime player in the A.Q. Khan proliferation network that connected nuclear-capable North Korea and nuclear-capable Pakistan with uranium possessing hopefuls such as Iran and Libya.
Still want to wait and see ten years down the road?
As a final indictment of the NIE’s conclusions, along with the President’s somewhat lackluster policy on Iran, the Post quotes a senior administration official who stated that the White House was “hoping the mullahs will leave before Iran gets a nuclear weapons capability.”
Everyone’s hoping, but what are we doing?