December 3, 2007

Why We're Not Bombing Iran

Some have expressed frustration at the slow pace of diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear program. A recent setback in Europe created more calls for targeted military strikes against Iran's known nuclear facilities, and military-intervention advocates wondered why the Bush administration didn't strike at once. Wait long enough, and the Iranians would produce a mushroom cloud for a smoking gun.

The intelligence community has a different analysis of the situation:

A new assessment by American intelligence agencies concludes that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that the program remains frozen, contradicting judgment two years ago that Tehran was working relentlessly toward building a nuclear bomb.

The conclusions of the new assessment are likely to reshape the final year of the Bush administration, which has made halting Iran’s nuclear program a cornerstone of its foreign policy.

The assessment, a National Intelligence Estimate that represents the consensus view of all 16 American spy agencies, states that Tehran is likely keeping its options open with respect to building a weapon, but that intelligence agencies “do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.”

Iran is continuing to produce enriched uranium, a program that the Tehran government has said is designed for civilian purposes. The new estimate says that enrichment program could still provide Iran with enough raw material to produce a nuclear weapon sometime by the middle of next decade, a timetable essentially unchanged from previous estimates.

That's not exactly a ringing endorsement of peaceful intentions on the part of the Iranian mullahcracy. Furthermore, as AJ Strata points out and the New York Times does not, the actual declassified NIE doesn't even give its own analysis a ringing endorsement. Here's what the NIE actually says:

• We assess with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons.
• We judge with high confidence that the halt lasted at least several years. (Because of intelligence gaps discussed elsewhere in this Estimate, however, DOE and the NIC assess with only moderate confidence that the halt to those activities represents a halt to Iran's entire nuclear weapons program.)
• We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.
• We continue to assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapon.
• Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005. Our assessment that the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously.

Hmm. What might have happened in 2003 to convince Teheran to stop its nuclear-weapons pursuit? Could it have been the events on its western border, where the American military removed a dictator that they couldn't beat in eight years of brutal warfare? Libya's Moammar Ghaddafi certainly had the same idea in 2003, and for that very reason.

The intelligence community only has high confidence on the point that the weapons program stopped for several years. Its confidence that they have remained quiet on weapons is moderate. That's an admission that intel in Iran is hard to get, and reliable intel even less available. If they're re-evaluating their analyses from two years ago, it's a sign that their data is old and not terribly indicative of what's happening now.

What do we know about Iran? They have openly bragged about getting a 3,000-centrifuge cascade in operation, on the way to 54,000. We know that the former can produce weapons-grade enriched uranium in nine months, the latter two weeks. We know that Iran got plans for nuclear weapons from the AQ Khan network. That tells us that even if Iran doesn't want to build a bomb tomorrow, they can get to work on one rather quickly.

Right now, however, we think they're waiting to see whether they want to make that move. We think that's the case, based on limited intelligence. While Iran continues to run terrorist proxie groups, we have to focus on the shape of the threat we know, rather than what we think of their intentions. Therefore, the Bush administration has kept up pressure on Iran to end its nuclear program or at least the uranium enrichment, while rejecting for now the option of military intervention.

It explains why the White House has maintained its current policy, which seems sound and careful without being unnecessarily provocative. Read properly, it makes perfect sense.


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