Monday, December 3, 2007

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That's one heckuva NIE on Iran
We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons. We judge with high confidence that the halt, and Tehranís announcement of its decision to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program and sign an Additional Protocol to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement, was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iranís previously undeclared nuclear work....

Tehranís 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....

Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Tehranís decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs. This, in turn, suggests that some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, mightóif perceived by Iranís leaders as credibleóprompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program. It is difficult to specify what such a combination might be. (emphases added)

These are the key paragraph of the latest National Intelligence Assessment on Iran. In a separate New York Times story, Mark Mazzetti tries gets at some of the implications.

Much as I would like to conclude that multilateral economic pressure had an effect, I'm not sure how the NIE concludes that "international pressure" had an effect. If that was truly the case, why did the suspension take place in 2003 rather than later? I mean, gee, what was happening then?

One obvious implication: whatever slim chance there existed of a U.S. military intervention in Iran over the next 13 months just got way, way slimmer.


UPDATE: Kevin Drum provides some useful backstory.

posted by Dan on 12.03.07 at 01:30 PM


It's not clear whether you are erecting a straw man, but I'll take a flail at it: Isn't this possibly analogous to Iraq's abandonment of WMD, with the supposed caveat that it might resurrect if possible?

Steve LeVine, author
The Oil and the Glory (Random House)

posted by: Steve LeVine on 12.03.07 at 01:30 PM [permalink]

We must also remember that the United States had just invaded Iraq in 2003, possibly having a significant impact on the decision by the Iranian gov't. With a quarter million US troops one country over, the Iranians probably were not too eager to push the nuclear envelope at that time.

posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 12.03.07 at 01:30 PM [permalink]

One comment: You would have thought after the UN inspectors returned with a vengance into Iraq and found a very-convincing F-all that it would have reduced the likelyhood that the US would invade Iraq....

posted by: Nicholas Weaver on 12.03.07 at 01:30 PM [permalink]

Intel community doesn;t have a good track record and has shown themselves to be wrong on all the big issues and moreover risk averse? This is totally ocnsisitent with Fallon's statement in the Gulf that military actions was off the table. Another end run...

The time line of this suspension is beyond belief. Makes no sense whatsoever other than a very public handoff to Israel...

posted by: s on 12.03.07 at 01:30 PM [permalink]

In terms of large-scale factors visible to the public, I would guess that the motivations for Iran's decision back in 2003 were four-fold: 1) their own fear of Iraqi WMDs had just gone *poof*; 2) Libya's example encouraged them to think a deal with the US might be possible; 3) they thought influencing events in Iraq could provide a non-nuclear way of gaining greater international status; and 4) in the wake of Iraq, they were a bit twitchy about giving the US a genuine causus belli to attack.

I suspect that #1 was actually a major factor for them, just as the reciprocal fear was apparently a major factor for Hussein not wanting to come clean. Reasons 2 and 3 obviously go hand in hand - cut a deal on nukes and thereby get US blessing for more influence in Iraq. Reason number 4 is likely to be the one everyone focuses on, though, with people trumpeting it on the Right and denying it on the Left.

As far as that goes, I think Iran did have a credible reason to worry about the US in 2003 - the insurgency hadn't fully kicked off yet, so it might well have looked like we had the wherewithal to hopscotch over to them. By 2004 and 2005, however, it was clear we weren't able to do that, so their decision not to resume their nuke program at that point probably little to do with fear of American reprisals and much more to do with the "cut a deal, get influence" logic having taken root.

posted by: Matt on 12.03.07 at 01:30 PM [permalink]

I do agree that the time line seems strange, but i believe the ultimate conclusions. I suspect that the USA had/has false or inflated information regarding Iran. My suspicion is that they have never had a nuclear weapons program at all. Though, i would not be surprised if they have information on how to build nuclear weapons or have actually considered building weapons. But I think that the USA has a record of blowing tiny things into Armageddon like conclusions, and thus doubt much of the American assessments.

posted by: Joe M. on 12.03.07 at 01:30 PM [permalink]

Well, one can enjoy a slap on Bush Administration while it lasts. But American intelligence is totally discredited and full of 'gas'. Even a cursory pass by Daniel could find some obvious, glaring contradictions in his comments.

What a sad predicament for Americans - we have lousy intelligence organization and incompetent 'decider'! Totally disastrous combination.

This report hardly changes anything. ĎIntelí is known prone to political pressures. Even a child can sense the 'political need' of going away from Bush Administration. So that is what these intelligence guys did.

posted by: Umesh Patil on 12.03.07 at 01:30 PM [permalink]

I don't think it will wash to put this radically revised NIE to incompetent or disloyal intelligence agencies (multiple agencies were required to sign off on its assessments). Press reports, for example in today's Post, suggest on the contrary that improved electronic access to Iranian military communications was a key factor leading to the revised assessments.

There can't be any question that so dramatic a reversal by the intelligence community of the danger of an Iranian nuclear program, just by itself, dramatically undermines the Bush administration's credibility with other governments. With the American public, it must raise the question as to whether the President and Vice President were aware of the forthcoming findings at the time they made their recent references to World War III and the Iranian problem.

Now, intelligence assessments can be wrong. However, apart from the damage to American credibility, it is hard to regard the NIE's assesssments as anything other than very good news. An Iranian nuclear weapons program, on a fast track or not, was never going to be anything less than a major nuisance. That damage to our credibility, though, is going to be substantial. Bad enough that in the wake of 9/11 the most senior officials in the American government were spooked enough to buy into theories about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and take extreme action to defeat a phantom menace; it now appears that at least some of them never stopped being spooked, and at any rate were prepared to consider making the same mistake twice.

One heckuva NIE, indeed.

posted by: Zathras on 12.03.07 at 01:30 PM [permalink]

What happened in 2003?

Well, among other things, the US began to crack down on A Q Khan's nuclear trafficking network.

posted by: Nitin on 12.03.07 at 01:30 PM [permalink]

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