NOW THAT the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear intentions has had a few days to cool off, how does it look? A few reflections:
1. Iran's nuclear program is alive and well. Yes, I know - the very first of the NIE's "key judgments," the one that launched a thousand headlines, is that "Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program" in the fall of 2003. But what that first sentence giveth, a footnote to that sentence taketh away: "By 'nuclear weapons program,' " explains footnote 1, "we mean Iran's nuclear weapon design and weaponization work. . . . we do not mean Iran's declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment."
But that's a distinction without a difference, since the accumulation of enriched uranium is by far the most important component in developing nuclear weapons. Iran's "civil" uranium enrichment - those 3,000 spinning centrifuges at the Natanz facility in central Iran - continues unabated, in defiance of Security Council resolutions ordering that it stop. Whether the nuclear-fuel program is labeled "civilian" or "military" is irrelevant. The more uranium the mullahs enrich, the closer they are to getting the bomb.
The NIE concludes that Iran suspended its "nuclear weapons program" - the actual designing of a nuclear warhead - due to international pressure. What if Iran halted the work because it has already come up with a satisfactory design, and now awaits only the enriched uranium to make a weapon? Just last month, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran possesses the engineering specs to shape uranium into the hemispheres needed for the core of a nuclear bomb. What other blueprints does Tehran already have?
2. The NIE is not very reassuring. Once you get past the attention-grabbing opening line, the estimate is hardly a sunburst of good news. For starters, it is the first NIE to explicitly acknowledge the existence of a covert nuclear-weapons program in Iran. It has only "moderate" confidence that the regime hasn't resumed that covert effort, and admits: "We do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons."
Moreover, the 16 intelligence agencies whose consensus the NIE reflects "cannot rule out that Iran has acquired from abroad . . . a nuclear weapon or enough fissile material for a weapon." They have no doubt that "Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons." And they are sure "that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons." Feel better? Me neither.
3. Chalk up another win for the Iraq war. If the NIE is taken at face value, the mullahs stopped their efforts to weaponize uranium in 2003 "primarily in response to international pressure." Now what could that be referring to? There is only one plausible candidate: the invasion of Iraq and toppling of Saddam Hussein. Add the Iranians' purported nuclear retreat, then, to the list of dividends generated by the Iraq war: The overthrow of the Arab world's bloodiest tyranny. The surrender by Muammar Qadhafi of Libya's weapons of mass destruction. The arrest of A.Q. Khan, the sleazy Pakistani scientist who for 15 years had been trafficking nuclear technology to Libya, Iran, and North Korea. The withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. The failures of the Iraq war are frequently denounced. All the more reason to take note of its accomplishments.
4. The intelligence agencies' record for accuracy doesn't inspire confidence. Not everyone embraced the NIE's startling judgment. Even the UN's nuclear inspectors were dubious. "We are more skeptical," an official close to the inspection agency told The
Now they conclude that the Iranians have shelved their nuclear weapons program. Two years ago they concluded the opposite. "Across the board," the bipartisan Robb-Silberman commission found in 2005, "the intelligence community knows disturbingly little about the nuclear programs of many of the world's most dangerous actors." Considering their track record, that sounds about right.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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