Iran gave up nothing with its nuclear weapons halt
Admiral Mike McConnell, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, created some drama today. Today’s U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear capabilities and intentions was a “bombshell” but not for the reasons found in the mainstream media’s headlines. Although the universal MSM headline on this story is “U.S. Says Iran Ended Atomic Arms Work,” the two most interesting conclusions from the NIE are:
We assess with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons.
We assess with moderate confidence that convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult 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. In our judgment, only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons—and such a decision is inherently reversible. [emphasis added]
If arms control advocates want to use this report as an argument for international pressure as a solution, they must also accept that Iran had an active nuclear weapons program, and that it will be difficult to stop that program in the long-run.
Iran may have “halted” but it gave up nothing
Arms control advocates are today making the point that this NIE supports the proposition that diplomatic pressure and negotiations work. The NIE states:
Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Tehran’s 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, might—if perceived by Iran’s leaders as credible—prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.
But arms control advocates are making too much from this assessment. For Iran, halting work on nuclear weapons development in 2003 (shortly after the clandestine nuclear program became public knowledge) was a “no-brainer.” It is the industrial processes of the nuclear effort, the large-scale uranium conversion and enrichment complexes, the construction and running of a large heavy water reactor for plutonium, and the construction and operation of an industrial-scale plutonium separation plant, that would govern the pace and timescale of the entire nuclear effort. Compared to these engineering and industrial problems, the final machining, fabrication, non-critical implosion testing, and assembly of a nuclear weapon are relatively well-known, straight-forward, and could wait until the aforementioned industrial processes were nearing culmination. Iran lost nothing by “halting” its nuclear weapons engineering work.
By contrast, had Iran explicitly continued its nuclear weapons engineering work after 2003, it would have made it that much easier for the international community to rally against it.
Who are the spies in Tehran?
For obvious reasons, the NIE does not say what the sources of its information are. Uranium enrichment facilities and nuclear power plants are large industrial facilities and are difficult to hide. Not so the final bomb fabrication, testing, and assembly processes. These activities can occur in warehouses, laboratories, and military bases, and blend in with their surroundings. Thus, when the U.S. intelligence community states with “high confidence” that Iran halted the weaponization portion of its nuclear program, it is very likely that such “high confidence” intelligence came from multiple human sources within the Iranian government and military. No doubt a large-scale “mole hunt” is now occurring inside Iran.
So did the publication of this NIE endanger U.S. intelligence agents inside Iran? Probably. But that is the regrettable price of doing business with the leaky U.S. government. The Bush administration had to reveal this NIE. Had it tried to keep it secret, it would have leaked, especially since it concludes that the Iran “halted” its weapons program in 2003. Had that headline reached the New York Times via a leak (as it surely would have), the Bush administration would have suffered another blow to its reputation.
War against Iran is now more likely
Although the 2007 NIE seems less worrisome than the 2005 assessment, the trajectory of Iran’s nuclear program has not changed at all. Today’s NIE tried to make the case for “international pressure” and a diplomatic approach to Iran. Regrettably, this report will only deflate the urgency with which UN Security Council and others approach the problem. This will reduce the likelihood of an effective international effort against Iran, and increase the chances of Iranian over-confidence, miscalculation, and then armed conflict.
Admiral McConnell created some drama today, but not in the way portrayed by the mainstream media. Alas, there is much more drama to come.