Tuesday, August 2, 2005

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So what's the deal with Iran's nuclear program?

The past few days have seen a lot of hand-wringing over Iran's decision to defy the principal EU countries and IAEA and proceed with "uranium enrichment activities" as the FT's Gareth Smyth and Najmeh Bozorgmehr put it.

Ordinarily, this development would fill the Bush administration with glee. After all, the administration cut a deal with the Europeans agreeing to let them have the negotiation lead with Iran, and even remove the block from Iran's WTO candidacy -- provided that if the talks ever broke down, the EU countries would back at U.S. resolution to bring the matter to the UN Security Council.

Now, however, I see this front-pager by Dafna Linzer in today's Washington Post:

A major U.S. intelligence review has projected that Iran is about a decade away from manufacturing the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon, roughly doubling the previous estimate of five years, according to government sources with firsthand knowledge of the new analysis.

The carefully hedged assessments, which represent consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies, contrast with forceful public statements by the White House. Administration officials have asserted, but have not offered proof, that Tehran is moving determinedly toward a nuclear arsenal. The new estimate could provide more time for diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. President Bush has said that he wants the crisis resolved diplomatically but that "all options are on the table."

....At no time in the past three years has the White House attributed its assertions about Iran to U.S. intelligence, as it did about Iraq in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion. Instead, it has pointed to years of Iranian concealment and questioned why a country with as much oil as Iran would require a large-scale nuclear energy program....

The new estimate extends the timeline, judging that Iran will be unlikely to produce a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium, the key ingredient for an atomic weapon, before "early to mid-next decade," according to four sources familiar with that finding. The sources said the shift, based on a better understanding of Iran's technical limitations, puts the timeline closer to 2015 and in line with recently revised British and Israeli figures.

The estimate is for acquisition of fissile material, but there is no firm view expressed on whether Iran would be ready by then with an implosion device, sources said.

If you read the whole article (oh, and here's a Q&A with Linzer about the story) , you'll see that the big question Bush officials are asking is whether there will be regime change in Iran before that country acquires a nuclear capability.

I have a different question -- is it possible that the mullahs are copying Saddam Hussein? Recall that even though Iraq's WMD program turned out to be relatively moribund, Hussein repeatedly refused to cooperate fully with UN officials. Among the many possible motivations, one hypothesis was that Hussein was unwilling to expose his relative weakness.

Right now every country in the Middle East fears Iran's growing power -- could the mullahs have an incentive to exaggerate perceptions of that power?


UPDATE: Frank Foer, guest-blogging for Andrew Sullivan, frets that the new NIE will be counterproductive to the "broad consensus that the mullahs must be stopped."

posted by Dan on 08.02.05 at 12:27 PM


But considering the track record of the US intelligence establishment, having been flatfooted over everything from the breakup of the USSR to 9/11 to the Iraq nuclear/CBW programs, why should we give this estimate any special credence? In fact, a crontrarian view would probably be statistically more reliable.

posted by: John Bruce on 08.02.05 at 12:27 PM [permalink]

The short answer to Dan's question is no.

Saddam Hussein had a domestic interest in exaggerating Iraq's arsenal of deadly weapons and advertising his willingness to use them; they were a threat to his neighbors, but primarily a deterrent to internal rebellions. This is something Western observers never really appreciated until after the invasion.

Iran's government does not face anything like the same internal situation, and exaggerating its nuclear potential does not really help it with respect to any of its neighbors. Also, there really are good reasons for Iran to want a civilian nuclear power industry, something even Iranians who are not keen to develop a weapons arsenal seem to want.

One thing we should probably keep in mind is the improbability of Iran's having a weapons-capable nuclear program and a coordinated strategy for maximizing the political returns on it at the same time. Either of these things by itself would require a high level of technical knowledge, leadership, and organization. We know more about how Iran makes foreign policy than we do about its nuclear program (personally I don't think the CIA estimate is much more than an educated guess), but from what we have seen so far we are not dealing with any Iranian Bismarcks or Kissingers here. In some areas Iran has one policy, in others -- Iraq, for instance -- it has more than one. In this extraordinarily complicated area there may be anywhere from none to about six. There is a lot of just muddling through in Tehran, it seems to me, something that is also true in many other capitals including our own.

posted by: Zathras on 08.02.05 at 12:27 PM [permalink]

This is a newspaper summary of unnamed sources' summaries of an NIC summary of agencies' summaries of supervisors' summaries of analysts' summaries of intelligence data. Given the stakes, the intelligence community's track record in comparable situations (India, anyone?), and The Post's apparent desire to be a playa instead of an honest info-broker, it'd be nice to see some factual foundation for all this before changing one's mind about anything.

It also might be worthwhile to read the article closely, to try to determine just what's behind the headline. The tidbits provided by the unnamed sources don't appear to vary greatly in their details from earlier estimates from the Administration.

The story also lacks the obvious meta-inquiry: where's the analysis of the unnamed sources' potential motivations in leaking the NIE crumbs? That, or their identities.

(Yawns.) Wake me up when there's some actual news about Iran's nuclear program, or when reading The Post doesn't require a kind of latter-day Kreminology.

posted by: RCS on 08.02.05 at 12:27 PM [permalink]

I guess we all have to accept that nobody knows how far advanced the Iranian program is. Probably not even any Iranian, given the unknowns regarding future progress they too don't know.

At least ten years is an improvement on "within five years" repeated every year since 1995. (But he sagacious Cheney and Bolton I suppose remain as knowing as ever.)

But would it be the end of the world if Iran does finally get the second Islamic bomb? Granted, it would deter our invading them--but to my mind, that's a foolish idea anyway. But as for their taking aggresive actions behind the shield of their nukes--that would be the height of foolishness on their part, given our capabilities (and recklessness). Indeed, their having nuclear capabilities might well make them more cautious. since American fears would be heightened by them and American capabilities would remain overwhelming.

posted by: Laidback on 08.02.05 at 12:27 PM [permalink]

The danger isn't so much that Iran would exploit its nuclear deterrent as that its capability would induce Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to go nuclear (probably with the assistance of Pakistan). The region would become much less stable.

posted by: David Billington on 08.02.05 at 12:27 PM [permalink]

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