A political reversal

US estimate may obscure but doesn't change fact Iranian menace will grow.

Bush confused 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bush confused 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
We assess that Teheran is determined to develop nuclear weapons - despite its international obligations and international pressure. It is continuing to pursue uranium enrichment and has shown more interest in protracting negotiations than reaching an acceptable diplomatic solution. This is a grave concern to the other countries in the region whose security would be threatened by Iranian nuclear weapons. Any such development could prompt dangerous and destabilizing countermoves in a volatile region that is, because of its energy reserves, critical to the global economy.... - Annual Threat Assessment of the US Director of National Intelligence, January 11, 2007 We assess with moderate confidence Teheran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons. - National Intelligence Estimate, dated November 2007 (released December 3) If one were looking for a new definition of chutzpa, it would be hard to do better than the latest US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. This document declares that Iran successfully hid its military nuclear program from the US for years, while claiming "moderate confidence" that Iran is not hiding such a program now. On what basis can the US intelligence community declare that it knows, with any of degree of confidence, that Iran has no covert weapons program? The NIE itself argues that "convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult...." Why should it be difficult if they already have given up their nuclear effort? This is true, the NIE elaborates, "given the linkage many within the leadership probably see between nuclear weapons development and Iran's key national security and foreign policy objectives, and given Iran's considerable effort from at least the late 1980s to 2003 to develop such weapons." Iran, in other words, spent billions developing a bomb, still sees it as central to its national security, is defying the entire international community by enriching uranium, yet is probably not pursuing nuclear weapons. Is this what we are supposed believe? Either Iran is "determined" to develop nukes, as the same US intelligence community said 11 months ago, or it has "halted" its weapons program. Either the US knows something solid or, as Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer in the Middle East, wrote in Time, "The truth is that Iran is a black hole, and it's entirely conceivable Iran could build a bomb and we wouldn't know until they tested it." Actually, there is nothing in January's dire intelligence assessment that could not have been repeated in the current NIE. The choice not to do so seems a political one, designed to take the US military option off the table. The NIE reads like a bureaucratic surgical strike against the military option that would leave intact, or even encourage, the sanctions option. It even argues that sanctions, which were non-existent then, persuaded Iran to drop its weapons program in 2003. President George Bush highlighted this aspect and called for redoubling the sanctions effort. The problem, of course, is that the NIE's rather incredible efforts to declare Iran's nuclear threat non-existent could have the collateral effect of taking the wind out of the international sanctions campaign as well. In this context, some basic truths need new emphasis: • Iran's desperate race to enrich uranium is a weapons program, since mastering the fuel cycle is the regime's main impediment to building a bomb. • A nuclear Iran is a threat to the entire international order and economy, not "just" to Israel. • The US military option is, in practice, off the table, leaving only an Israeli military option, sanctions or living with an Iranian bomb. • "Living with" a nuclear Iran means, at a minimum, that Teheran could bolster Islamist terrorist proxies, undermine moderate regimes and cause crises to raise the price of oil with impunity. • The by far preferable option is to sharply raise the cost of the Iranian program through sanctions, which can be done by Europe and the US, without Russia and China. The NIE may obscure but does not change the fact that the Iranian menace will grow, and the world will become a more dangerous place, until the regime falls or is forced to back down. Through a politically tainted effort to sow unwarranted complacency, the agencies charged with advancing America's security and interests have delivered a terrible blow to their own mandates. So this, too, will be added to the challenges that democracies must now overcome.