New US report puts focus on Iran's nuclear arms progress, not on freeze

The new assessment does not differ in essence from the December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the Iranian issue.

Bushehr 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Bushehr 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
In February, the American intelligence community published the unclassified portion of the intelligence assessment regarding threats directed against the United States. The intelligence report, signed by Adm. Dennis Blair, the new director of national intelligence, includes a section on the Iranian nuclear issue. The new assessment does not differ in essence from the December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the Iranian issue, which sparked much criticism in Israel and the United States for downplaying the nuclear question. However, the emphases of the new report differ in part from those of the preceding one. The new report repeats the previous finding that in 2003 Iran froze its military nuclear program, which included attempts at converting fissile materials into weapons, clandestine uranium conversions, and other activities connected to the process of enriching uranium. The assessment determines that this freeze lasted at least until the middle of 2007, and that there is no information indicating that the program was resumed. American intelligence does not have enough information to determine with certainty whether Iran is prepared to continue the freeze on its military nuclear program. The latest assessment also allows a measure of doubt as to whether Iran has made a final decision on producing nuclear weapons. Thus, it determines that the American intelligence community does not know whether Iran intends to produce such weapons, and notes twice that "Iran could develop nuclear weapons" should it decide to do so. Similar to the 2007 report, the new assessment also notes that Iran retains the option of developing nuclear weapons, and that it possesses the technological infrastructure that would allow it to do so. The timetable involved in Iran obtaining nuclear weapons has not changed. According to the assessment, Iran will be able to produce high-quality enriched uranium in quantities sufficient for nuclear arms between 2010 and 2015 (though according to the assessment of the US State Department research units, not before 2013). Nevertheless, the new report treats the risk of Iran obtaining such weapons with greater gravity than the previous report in two ways. Whereas the 2007 report placed its emphasis on the freezing of the Iranian program, the new assessment particularly emphasizes that Iran is making significant progress in at least two of the areas relevant to producing nuclear arms - enriching uranium, which would allow the production of fissile material to produce the weapons, and manufacturing and improving ballistic missiles as launching vehicles capable of carrying a nuclear payload. The new report estimates that Iran seems to have succeeded in importing some fissile material, though not in quantities sufficient to produce nuclear weapons. The report does not rule out the possibility that Iran has either already obtained or will at some future point obtain nuclear arms or fissile material in sufficient quantities for weapons from abroad. However, according to the American intelligence assessment, Iran today does not have nuclear weapons, and to date has not obtained fissile material in quantities sufficient to produce them. In this sense, the assessment does not support the statement by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen, who at the end of February claimed that Iran had enough fissile material to produce a bomb. The new intelligence assessment also refers to the possibility of stopping Iran before it attains nuclear arms. According to the assessment, only a political decision on the part of Iran's leadership to renounce the goal of attaining such weapons will stop Iran's quest for them. However, convincing Iranian leaders to renounce this goal will be difficult because of the connection Iran sees between possessing nuclear weapons and its own national security, and because of the efforts Iran has already invested in realizing this goal. The report adds that there is a possibility that a composite of threats and pressures, together with the creation of alternative ways for Iran to advance its national security, may motivate Iran to stop striving for nuclear weapons, but that it is difficult to say what such a composite would be. The new American intelligence estimate has thus far not received the kind of special attention that the intelligence estimate of December 2007 did. Still, the new estimate is of great significance because this is the first intelligence assessment placed on President Barack Obama's desk, and specifically on the Iranian nuclear situation. It is expected to guide him in the near future as he determines his policy toward Iran, including his attempt to develop a meaningful dialogue with it. The message emerging from this estimate is not unequivocal. On the one hand, it points to Iran's significant progress toward nuclear weapons in at least two of the three areas contributing to their development - but not in all three. The conclusion regarding the third - converting fissile material into weapons - remains open. The estimate even raises the possibility that Iran might leap ahead in its pursuit of nuclear arms should it manage to obtain fissile material in sufficient quantities to make a bomb from abroad, or might even obtain the bomb itself. On the other side, the estimate does not convey a sense of urgency, and more importantly, it casts doubt on Iran's having made the final decision to go ahead with the production of nuclear weapons, even though it continues to keep the option on the table and has the technological capability of carrying it out. Furthermore, the conclusion of the American intelligence community about stopping Iran before it obtains nuclear weaponry is also equivocal. It feels that it may be possible to stop Iran by a combination of pressures and enticements. The fact that Iran froze its military nuclear program in 2003 supports that point, yet it would nonetheless be difficult to achieve because Iran views its nuclear program as a vital national project. It is also not clear what precise combination of pressures and enticements would be able to convince Iran to renounce the goal of obtaining weapons. Essentially, the American intelligence community still clings to the basis of its December 2007 estimate, with a change of emphases and formulation. The previous estimate of the American intelligence community of February 2008 - written just two months after the 2007 estimate and in light of the criticism leveled against that report - deleted the doubts about Iran's intention of developing nuclear weapons. In the new estimate of February 2009, these doubts are revived. In the absence of information, it is hard to assess how the Obama administration will relate to the new assessment. In mid-March, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that in light of the failure of intelligence with regard to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, any American president would be "very, very careful" when it came to relying on intelligence. In the meantime, after the publication of the estimate, Obama characterized Iran as an extraordinary threat against the security of the United States, and extended American sanctions against Teheran. However, if a dialogue of substance develops between the American administration and Iran, the intelligence estimate may serve to create a feeling within the administration that time is not of the essence, and that at this stage there is no need to limit the time period of the dialogue if it seems that this option can be productive. Reprinted with permission of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).