Editor's Notes: Bushwhacked

His intel agencies' report on Iran's 'halted' nuclear weapons drive has reduced the chances of decisive presidential action from slim to zero.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
Ehud Olmert was notably expansive on pretty much every issue during the briefings he gave to the Israeli journalists who traveled with him to and from Annapolis last week. The prime minister talked at great length about the possible road ahead in negotiations with the Palestinians. He talked about the significance of Syrian and Saudi participation at the conference. He talked about the stability of his coalition. He talked about the teachers' strike. Only on one issue did he clam up: his discussions with President Bush about the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program. He noted dryly that he and the president had been discussing this most critical of issues for a long time. He said vaguely that the latest conversations had been interesting. He emphatically did not repeat the assertion he frequently made until about a year ago - that he was confident Bush, one way or another, would ensure Iran did not attain nuclear weapons. Days after Olmert returned home, the reasons for his uncharacteristic restraint are now clear. On Monday, the US director of national intelligence released "key judgments" from an assessment backed by all 16 US spy agencies to the effect that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago and probably has not restarted it since. These startling findings, reversing an estimate two years ago that Iran was determined to develop nuclear weapons, were received and debated at the very top of the Bush administration two weeks ago, and plainly formed a centerpiece of the Bush-Olmert talks. The fallout has been immense: delight in Iran, where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been strengthened, his fiery defiance apparently vindicated; the immediate raising of new reservations against intensified sanctions on Iran from some of the already reluctant international players; an eruption of American criticism of Bush's perceived exaggerated talk of the need to stop Iran or face World War III; a flood of expert analyses concluding that the report kills off any prospect of the Bush administration resorting to military intervention against Teheran in its final months; and open skepticism from Israel, where Defense Minister Ehud Barak has all but dismissed the best efforts of America's intelligence agencies as plain wrong. No wonder Olmert preferred to stay out of Iranian territory when the Israeli press pack sought details last week. Splashing the new intelligence estimate over much of its front page on Tuesday, The New York Times, in keeping with the overall tone of American media coverage of the report, used the subheadline "Major Reversal" and opined that the "New Intelligence May Force a Reshaping of Bush's Policy." But beyond the headlines, a close reading of the material released from the National Intelligence Estimate offers little legitimate reason for any sense of relief. Quite the opposite. Along with the opening judgment that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 comes the immediate caveat that "Teheran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons." And then, just a few paragraphs later, comes an undermining of the original, headline-making assessment. The authors acknowledge that "because of intelligence gaps" they can "assess with only moderate confidence that the halt to these activities represents a halt to Iran's entire nuclear weapons program." After that, the reservations and flat-out terrifying assessments in this supposedly sanguine estimate flow thick and fast. The authors state in their opening paragraphs alone: "We do not know whether [Iran] currently intends to develop nuclear weapons." "We cannot rule out that Iran has acquired from abroad - or will acquire in the future - a nuclear weapon or enough fissile material for a weapon." "We assess centrifuge enrichment is how Iran probably could first produce enough fissile material for a weapon, if it decides to do so. Iran resumed its declared centrifuge enrichment activities in January 2006 … [and] made significant progress in 2007 installing centrifuges at Natanz." And the further the report continues, the more worrying its text becomes: "Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons…" "We assess with moderate confidence that convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult…" "We assess with moderate confidence that Iran would probably use covert facilities - rather than its declared nuclear sites - for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon." And finally, "We assess with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so." This, remember, is the ostensibly exculpatory report. This is the assessment that is being widely interpreted as conveying to America's political leadership that it can afford to relax, if only a little, and that the warnings of the past were overheated. This is the documentation being used by some of Bush's would-be successors to accuse him of having irresponsibly overstated the threat posed by Iran. Yet what it is actually saying, on careful reading, is that the Iranians are bent on achieving a nuclear weapons capability, have the skills to do so and have established covert programs for doing so, are determinedly expanding the uranium enrichment activities crucial to such a goal, and can be expected to again switch to covert strategies when they make their final push for a nuclear device. What's also striking about this purported intelligence volte face is that its bottom line is essentially unchanged from the original assessment of two years ago. The compilers of the 2005 estimate - the assessment that set American alarm bells ringing louder than ever about Iran's nuclear ambitions - wrote that Iran was unlikely to make a nuclear weapon "before early-to-mid next decade." The new report actually says much the same: "We judge with moderate confidence Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame." It also notes an earlier deadline, however, stating that "the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon is late 2009, but that this is very unlikely." Late 2009? That is in line with some of Israeli intelligence's most alarming estimates. American critics of the intelligence community have been quick to ridicule its lack of sources and credibility and to ascribe a political motivation to the thrust of the report and the decision to make its content public. Battered and bloodied by the ongoing American military presence in Iraq and the WMD misassessments that preceded it, the intelligence chiefs, these critics assert, are aiming to deny Bush the justification for ratcheting up a process leading to military intervention in Iran. But the US administration has made plain that any resort to military action against Teheran could only be an act of last resort, and that its overwhelming preference is to deter Iran from pursuing its weapons program by means of concerted international diplomatic and economic pressure. A SOBER assessment of the new findings is that everything boils down to how you gauge Iran's intentions, and how you go about influencing those intentions. Plainly, as even the new report makes clear, Iran, whether its weapons programs remain suspended or not, has made huge strides towards a nuclear capability. Indisputably it is constantly improving its uranium enrichment capabilities. At best, it is a very few years from a bomb, and very possibly a lot less than that. In such a context, the imperative to maintain and tighten sanctions would appear to be only strengthened by the report. If the new intelligence estimate is accurate, and Iran has, however improbably, indeed temporarily halted nuclear weapons activities because it has been vulnerable to international pressure (not that any such pressure was being exerted in 2003), then intensified sanctions are critical to ensure it does not resume such activity and ultimately to persuade Teheran to dismantle existing elements of the weapons program. If the new estimate is off-track, and the precedents for American intelligence where nuclear weapons programs are concerned are far from glorious, then the need for sanctions is more urgent than ever. The credibility of this unanimous intelligence assessment is bound to be severely tested in the days and weeks ahead. It has certainly been Israel's firm contention that Iran has no possible need for a peaceful nuclear program, and that the probability of Teheran - which holds the world's second largest oil and natural gas reserves - investing colossal sums of money in uranium enrichment and related activities for the sole purpose of developing alternate energy sources is precisely zero. As for gauging Iran's intentions from an Israeli perspective, Ahmadinejad's relentless campaign to delegitimize Israel and encourage its demise has long since created the mainstream sense here that a combination of this regime and that weapons capability would be existentially devastating and must be prevented. It is worth noting that President Bush has already publicly acknowledged in recent years that there have been periods in which Teheran froze nuclear weapons development, and that he nonetheless made the argument that a suspension of such activity was not enough. What was needed, he said, was a full "termination" of such programs. The president sounded a similar note in his first public response to the intelligence estimate on Tuesday, declaring: "Iran was dangerous. Iran is dangerous. Iran will be dangerous if they have the know-how necessary to make a nuclear weapon." But given the strong forces within his administration counseling caution over Iran, and given the ongoing overwhelming American focus on Iraq, it may well turn out that this week's National Intelligence Estimate comes to serve as the final factor behind a decision by Bush to hand over the Iran nuclear file to the next president rather than attempt to resolve it himself - the tipping point for a leader who, until now, was leaning toward bequeathing the issue to his successor but had not quite made up his mind. Several extremely well-placed Washington political analysts told me this week that the likelihood of Bush authorizing military action against Iran in his final year, already remote, is now non-existent. Their assessment was also that the vital international sanctions effort has been dealt a body blow, precisely as the Bush administration was frantically trying to persuade Russia and China to sign up, and that even in nations that have supported sanctions, private industry will now be appealing to governments to ease restrictions on trading with Teheran. It is also worth noting how inexpertly the White House has handled the intelligence apparatus's turnaround. It knew the report was coming yet failed to tailor its rhetoric to match, failed to stress that the crucial element of Iran's push to a nuclear weapons capacity - its determined enrichment of uranium, in defiance of the United Nations - is verifiably continuing apace. Now media pundits apparently blind to the nuances of the intelligence estimate are accusing Bush of irresponsibly, even dishonestly, hyping the Iranian threat in the last couple of weeks when he knew his intelligence advisers were playing down its imminence. Bush is paying the price for having failed to reemphasize, in the days before the assessment was released, what to look for when gauging the dangers posed by Iran. He failed, in short, to preempt. An ominous harbinger, one might be forgiven for thinking. THE REPERCUSSIONS for Israel are potentially stark. If Israel's intelligence estimate is that Iran is closing in inexorably on a nuclear weapons capability, and if that estimate differs from the US and international stance, it may fall to Israel to make a choice between reconciling to a nuclear Iran or going it alone to stop the ayatollahs. The strong sense in Washington is that even if the Bush administration is not going to act, the president would fully condone any action that Israel felt it needed to take. Yet as has been stated here and elsewhere before, Israel plainly lacks a military option as effective as it used to destroy Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor at Osirak 26 years ago. Then, Israel targeted a single, unprotected facility, exploited the element of surprise and knew Saddam could neither rebuild nor effectively retaliate. With Iran, by contrast, there are multiple targets, all well-protected, full Iranian awareness that Israel has them within range, the expertise and the raw materials for Iran to rebuild after any attack, and a terrifying Iranian capacity to retaliate. There are those in Israel who have insisted for some time that a nuclear Iran is a fait accompli, and that Israel needs to maximize the deterrent potential of a second strike capability. The overwhelming government mindset, however, remains that Iran could not be trusted not to use a bomb or deliver it to a third party, and that even if it did not fire, its very possession of a nuclear capability would so overshadow Israel as to destroy our economy and shatter our national psyche. Finally breaking his silence on the Iranian threat on Tuesday, Olmert asserted that "the US still plans to continue to try to prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons," and promised that Israel "will make every effort, first and foremost with our friends in the US, to prevent the production of this type of weapon." It was a robust statement, but one notably lacking in certainties - the deeply unsettling consequence of the latest twist in Iran's cat-and-mouse nuclear game, a battle of wits and of wills in which Iran seems to be gaining the upper hand. For when all the nuances of the latest American intelligence estimate are digested, the fundamental message is that Iran, as things stand, is serenely enriching the material it needs for a bomb and will be able to weaponize as soon as it wants to.