Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Confidence Game: Questioning Intelligence on Iran

The nation's editorial pages are abuzz this morning following the NIE bombshell yesterday. Here's the Wall Street Journal's opinion:

As recently as 2005, the consensus estimate of our [intelligence] spooks was that "Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons" and do so "despite its international obligations and international pressure." This was a "high confidence" judgment. The new NIE says Iran abandoned its nuclear program in 2003 "in response to increasing international scrutiny." This too is a "high confidence" conclusion. One of the two conclusions is wrong, and casts considerable doubt on the entire process by which these "estimates"--the consensus of 16 intelligence bureaucracies--are conducted and accorded gospel status.

Our own "confidence" is not heightened by the fact that the NIE's main authors include three former State Department officials with previous reputations as "hyper-partisan anti-Bush officials," according to an intelligence source. They are Tom Fingar, formerly of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research; Vann Van Diepen, the National Intelligence Officer for WMD; and Kenneth Brill, the former U.S. Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

For a flavor of their political outlook, former Bush Administration antiproliferation official John Bolton recalls in his recent memoir that then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage "described Brill's efforts in Vienna, or lack thereof, as 'bull--.'" Mr. Brill was "retired" from the State Department by Colin Powell before being rehired, over considerable internal and public protest, as head of the National Counter-Proliferation Center by then-National Intelligence Director John Negroponte.

No less odd is the NIE's conclusion that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003 in response to "international pressure." The only serious pressure we can recall from that year was the U.S. invasion of Iraq. At the time, an Iranian opposition group revealed the existence of a covert Iranian nuclear program to mill and enrich uranium and produce heavy water at sites previously unknown to U.S. intelligence. The Bush Administration's response was to punt the issue to the Europeans, who in 2003 were just beginning years of fruitless diplomacy before the matter was turned over to the U.N. Security Council.

Mr. Bush implied yesterday that the new estimate was based on "some new information," which remains classified. We can only hope so. But the indications that the Bush Administration was surprised by this NIE, and the way it scrambled yesterday to contain its diplomatic consequences, hardly inspire even "medium confidence" that our spooks have achieved some epic breakthrough. The truth could as easily be that the Administration in its waning days has simply lost any control of its bureaucracy--not that it ever had much.

In any case, the real issue is not Iran's nuclear weapons program, but its nuclear program, period. As the NIE acknowledges, Iran continues to enrich uranium on an industrial scale--that is, build the capability to make the fuel for a potential bomb. And it is doing so in open defiance of binding U.N. resolutions. No less a source than the IAEA recently confirmed that Iran already has blueprints to cast uranium in the shape of an atomic bomb core.

The U.S. also knows that Iran has extensive technical information on how to fit a warhead atop a ballistic missile. And there is considerable evidence that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps has been developing the detonation devices needed to set off a nuclear explosion at the weapons testing facility in Parchin. Even assuming that Iran is not seeking a bomb right now, it is hardly reassuring that they are developing technologies that could bring them within a screw's twist of one.
Here's the New York Sun:

Iran has been enriching uranium, or nuclear fuel, for nearly two years despite two Security Council resolutions urging them to suspend. To believe the Mullahs have halted their nuclear weapons program, one has to believe that all of those spinning centrifuges in Natanz are to fuel power plants in a country that is the world's third leading exporter of petroleum and natural gas.

That is precisely how Iran's diplomats defend their enrichment. They spin their centrifuges in blatant violation of their prior agreements, but they say they are within their rights because they are pursuing alternative energy and not atomic bombs. The reactor in Natanz, they insist, is for peaceful purposes only. The document released yesterday buys into this line, but contains so much hedging that it will take months to sort out what the analysts are implying in the way of policy.
Robert Kagan, at the Washington Post, discusses the implications of the NIE (via Memeorandum):

Regardless of what one thinks about the National Intelligence Estimate's conclusion that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003 -- and there is much to question in the report -- its practical effects are indisputable. The Bush administration cannot take military action against Iran during its remaining time in office, or credibly threaten to do so, unless it is in response to an extremely provocative Iranian action. A military strike against suspected Iranian nuclear facilities was always fraught with risk. For the Bush administration, that option is gone.

Neither, however, will the administration make further progress in winning international support for tighter sanctions on Iran. Fear of American military action was always the primary reason Europeans pressured Tehran. Fear of an imminent Iranian bomb was secondary. Bringing Europeans together in support of serious sanctions was difficult before the NIE. Now it is impossible.

With its policy tools broken, the Bush administration can sit around isolated for the next year. Or it can seize the initiative, and do the next administration a favor, by opening direct talks with Tehran.

Negotiating will appear at first to be a sign of weakness. The Iranians could use talks to exploit fissures between the United States and its allies, and within the U.S. political system.

But there is a good case for negotiations. Many around the world and in the United States have imagined that the obstacle to improved Iranian behavior has been America's unwillingness to talk. This is a myth, but it will hamper American efforts now and for years to come. Eventually, the United States will have to take the plunge, as it has with so many adversaries throughout its history.

This is as good a time as any. The United States is not in a position of weakness. The embarrassment of the NIE will be fleeting. Strategic realities are more durable. America remains powerful in the world and in the Middle East. The success of the surge policy in Iraq means that the United States may be establishing a sustainable position in the region -- a far cry from a year ago, when it seemed about to be driven out. If Iraq is on the road to recovery, this shifts the balance against Iran, which was already isolated.
The U.S. could make lemonade here if it frames a diplomatic push to include both nuclear and human rights issues, similar to the Helsinki process with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Recall Shelby Steele's recent argument as well, in which he argued that the U.S. could build its international image with a bold diplomatic stroke on Tehran.

There is an alternative to the diplomatic game: Continue work with members of the U.N. Security Council for a new round of sanctions on Iran, combined with increased international intelligence cooperation to get to the bottom of Iran's nuclear program. If new, incontrovertible evidence showing Iran's progress toward nuclear capabilities can be secured, the military option can be placed back on table. I'd have more confidence in that game.

See also my previous post, "
Iran and Nuclear Weapons."