Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Iran and Nuclear Weapons

Today's big news item is obviously the release of the National Intelligence Estimate finding that Iran halted its nuclear weapons development program in 2003. The Washington Post argues the NIE's a blow to the Bush administration:
President Bush got the world's attention this fall when he warned that a nuclear-armed Iran might lead to World War III. But his stark warning came at least a month or two after he had first been told about fresh indications that Iran had actually halted its nuclear weapons program.

The new intelligence report released yesterday not only undercut the administration's alarming rhetoric over Iran's nuclear ambitions but could also throttle Bush's effort to ratchet up international sanctions and take off the table the possibility of preemptive military action before the end of his presidency.

Iran had been shaping up as perhaps the dominant foreign policy issue of Bush's remaining year in office and of the presidential campaign to succeed him. Now leaders at home and abroad will have to rethink what they thought they knew about Tehran's intentions and capabilities.

"It's a little head-spinning," said Daniel Benjamin, an official on President Bill Clinton's National Security Council. "Everybody's going to be trying to scratch their heads and figure out what comes next."

Critics seized on the new National Intelligence Estimate to lambaste what Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards called "George Bush and Dick Cheney's rush to war with Iran." Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), echoing other Democrats, called for "a diplomatic surge" to resolve the dispute with Tehran. Jon Wolfsthal, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, termed the revelation "a blockbuster development" that "requires a wholesale reevaluation of U.S. policy."

But the White House said the report vindicated its concerns because it concluded that Iran did have a nuclear weapons program until halting it in 2003 and it showed that U.S.-led diplomatic pressure had succeeded in forcing Tehran's hand. "On balance, the estimate is good news," said national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley. "On the one hand, it confirms that we were right to be worried about Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons. On the other hand, it tells us that we have made some progress in trying to ensure that that does not happen."

Hadley disagreed that the report showed that past administration statements have been wrong, noting that collecting intelligence on a "hard target" such as Iran is notoriously difficult. "Welcome to the real world," he said.
The left-wing blogosphere is having a field day with the NIE report (see Memeorandum). (Glenn Greenwald's got a rabidly (radical) anti-Bush post on the affair, "Our Serious Foreign Policy Geniuses Strike Again.")

I'm going to take a closer look at
the full report, but I find the conclusions odd, based on my own reading of journalistic and scholarly sources on Tehran's march to weapons capability.

Just Sunday, Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins - authors of
The Nuclear Jihadist - published a penetrating essay warning of the threat from Iran's development program:
In recent weeks, international attention has been focused on the political crisis in Pakistan and whether the military there could lose control of the nukes that Khan helped develop -- estimated at between 50 and 120 devices -- if the political situation were to spiral out of control or if radical Islamists were to take over.

But we believe the bigger threat today comes from Iran, where the country's leaders are forging defiantly ahead toward the bomb -- even as the Bush administration seems equally relentless in its determination to stop them. This is a recipe for a global confrontation that could make the Iraq war seem tame by comparison, and it has gotten to this point thanks to A.Q. Khan.

The most immediate threat is that Iran's scientists will soon complete their mastery of the uranium enrichment cycle, enabling them to produce fissile material that could fuel a civilian reactor (as they claim is their intention) or, in higher concentration, power a bomb. A Nov. 15 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency verified that 3,000 centrifuges are online at Iran's Natanz underground enrichment plant, and that Iran is in the final stages before the production of enriched uranium. While IAEA officials suggest privately that technical hurdles remain, the fact is that Iran is on the verge of enriching uranium on an industrial scale....

Even more troubling, and less noticed by the media, was Iran's admission to the IAEA in November that it had made substantial progress in testing an advanced type of centrifuge, known as the P-2. Iran's enrichment plant now uses P-1 centrifuges, but investigators have learned that the P-2, like its predecessor, the P-1, came to Iran directly from Khan. This machine would cut in half the time it takes to enrich uranium, moving up a showdown with the United States and its allies. Estimates on when Iran might be capable of developing a nuclear weapon have ranged from two to 10 years.

Iran, of course, did not simply volunteer to the IAEA that it was working on the P-2; it's never quite that simple. The IAEA's dealings with Tehran are replete with examples, ever since Iran's secret nuclear program was exposed by an exile group in 2002, of officials denying the existence of one program after another, only to acknowledge them when confronted by evidence to the contrary. The IAEA has credited Iran with cooperating on some key issues, but viewed in context, the repeated evasions undermine Iran's credibility on virtually everything it has said about nuclear issues, including whether there is a military side to its program....

The existence of the P-2 designs troubled... the IAEA, and they pressed the Iranians for months over whether they had translated them into actual machines. Eventually Iran conceded that work had been done on the P-2 by a private contractor, but insisted that the project had been abandoned. U.S. intelligence and skeptics at the IAEA doubted the claim, speculating instead that the P-2 could be the nucleus of a parallel enrichment project still hidden from the IAEA.

Fast forward to April 2006. That's when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad acknowledged to the media that Iranian scientists were indeed working on the P-2, which he boasted would quadruple Iran's enrichment capability. The IAEA had to wait until Nov. 7, 2007, for formal acknowledgment from Iran of the work. By then, Iran was running mechanical tests on the P-2s, a step short of introducing uranium hexafluoride -- the final stage before the production of enriched uranium.

The story of the P-2s is a case study in how Iran has managed to make substantial gains in enrichment technology despite international scrutiny and pressure.
Some outstanding political science research also has offered credible warnings on the consequence of Iranian nuclear capability. Colin Dueck and Ray Takeyh, in their provocative article, "Iran’s Nuclear Challenge," argued that while the timing was at issue, Iran's procurement of nuclear weapons would be a dangerous development:
Once Iran completes the necessary infrastructure, from mining to enriching uranium at the suitable weapons-grade level, and masters the engineering skill required to assemble a bomb, it could cross the threshold in a short period of time. All this would depend on the scope and scale of the program and the level of national resources committed to this task. Iran today does have an accelerated program, but not a crash program similar to Pakistan’s in the early 1970s, when the entirety of national energies was mobilized behind the task of constructing a nuclear device. In this context, Iran’s persistent determination to complete the fuel cycle—which it has a right to do under the NPT—is ominous, because doing so would bring the country close to a weapons capability.
There's certain to be further debate on Iran's program, especially since the political origins of the NIE's most recent findings are suspect. Norman Podhoretz, over at Commentary, notes his deep suspicions:

These findings are startling, not least because in key respects they represent a 180-degree turn from the conclusions of the last NIE on Iran’s nuclear program. For that one, issued in May 2005, assessed “with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons” and to press on “despite its international obligations and international pressure.”

In other words, a full two years after Iran supposedly called a halt to its nuclear program, the intelligence community was still as sure as it ever is about anything that Iran was determined to build a nuclear arsenal. Why then should we believe it when it now tells us, and with the same “high confidence,” that Iran had already called a halt to its nuclear-weapons program in 2003? Similarly with the intelligence community’s reversal on the effectiveness of international pressure. In 2005, the NIE was highly confident that international pressure had not lessened Iran’s determination to develop nuclear weapons, and yet now, in 2007, the intelligence community is just as confident that international pressure had already done the trick by 2003.

It is worth remembering that in 2002, one of the conclusions offered by the NIE, also with “high confidence,” was that “Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions.” And another conclusion, offered with high confidence too, was that “Iraq could make a nuclear weapon in months to a year once it acquires sufficient weapons-grade fissile material.”

I must confess to suspecting that the intelligence community, having been excoriated for supporting the then universal belief that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, is now bending over backward to counter what has up to now been a similarly universal view (including as is evident from the 2005 NIE, within the intelligence community itself) that Iran is hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons. I also suspect that, having been excoriated as well for minimizing the time it would take Saddam to add nuclear weapons to his arsenal, the intelligence community is now bending over backward to maximize the time it will take Iran to reach the same goal.

But I entertain an even darker suspicion. It is that the intelligence community, which has for some years now been leaking material calculated to undermine George W. Bush, is doing it again. This time the purpose is to head off the possibility that the President may order air strikes on the Iranian nuclear installations. As the intelligence community must know, if he were to do so, it would be as a last resort, only after it had become undeniable that neither negotiations nor sanctions could prevent Iran from getting the bomb, and only after being convinced that it was very close to succeeding. How better, then, to stop Bush in his tracks than by telling him and the world that such pressures have already been effective and that keeping them up could well bring about “a halt to Iran’s entire nuclear weapons program”—especially if the negotiations and sanctions were combined with a goodly dose of appeasement or, in the NIE’s own euphemistic formulation, “with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways.”

If this is what lies behind the release of the new NIE, its authors can take satisfaction in the response it has elicited from the White House. Quoth Stephen Hadley, George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser: “The estimate offers grounds for hope that the problem can be solved diplomatically—without the use of force—as the administration has been trying to do.”

I should add that I offer these assessments and judgments with no more than “moderate confidence.”
One of America's top Middle East experts, Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, released an analysis of UN and IAEA reporting on Iran last week. Here's the conclusion from the synopsis:

The evidence presented provides strong indications that Iran is pursuing a
nuclear weapons program. Specifically, Iran is known to have made significant
efforts in all of the following areas, most of which have been tracked by the
IAEA for some time:

* Beryllium (neutron reflector)
* Polonium (neutron initiator)
* Plutonium separation
* Uranium enrichment
* Machining of Uranium hemispheres
* Re-entry vehicle design
* Acquisition of North Korean (Chinese) weapons design? AQ Khan network transfers
* High explosive lenses

The attached briefing shows that the IAEA has traced a pattern of
Iranian efforts that fit a coherent and consistent nuclear weapons program that
is difficult to explain in any other way, but no certainties are involved.
Moreover, major uncertainties exist in virtually every aspect of any effort to
characterize what kind of program Iran may be intending to create, when it will
have a significant stock of weapons, and how it intends to deploy and exploit
such a capability.

At the same time, there is wide range of possible
Iranian activities that the IAEA may never be able to fully address, even if
Iran does adopt the full range of NPT protocols...

The CSIS report is hefty (at 55 pages), but it notes that of 2006, Iran stopped reporting information to the IAEA under international monitoring and transparency protocols. Even Mohammed ElBaradei recognized that Iran's evasion and recalcitrance created a situation of crisis proportions.

See also Democracy Arsenal (not a neoconservative outfit in the least), which argues:

You don't want to believe the Bush Administration . . . I'm right there with you. But concern about Iran's nuclear program was not exclusively American; it was shared by every member of the Security Council and Germany.

In the end, I doubt the NIE report will provide any closure to the issue. There might be administration retreat from the march to war, but those at odds with the report will question the impartiality of the intelligence community. Peaceniks opposed to the robust exercise of American military power will rejoice that their dire warnings have beeen vindicated (and they'll continue to rail against the "neocons" and their black helicopters).

The ultimate winner is, of course, Iran, which can call for reprisals against the West as its leadership continues to work for its ultimate goal of establishing regional hegemony in the Middle East.