Share the Evidence On Iran

By Micah Zenko
Tuesday, August 29, 2006

How long until Iran becomes a nuclear weapons state?

The current best guess of American intelligence agencies is found in a classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) completed last summer: "Left to its own devices, Iran is determined to build nuclear weapons," it says, yet it is unlikely that Iran could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb before "early to mid-next decade."

Senior Bush administration officials, lawmakers in both parties and analysts out of government are increasingly skeptical of the Iran NIE. They believe that the U.S. intelligence community is underestimating Iran's nuclear program after having overestimated Iraq's programs for weapons of mass destruction in 2002.

To counter the growing chorus of skeptics, President Bush should do in the case of Iran what he did with regard to the Iraq NIE after the invasion: declassify the key judgments in the document and the dissents from it. Of course, to ensure the ability to collect future intelligence on Iran, the declassified NIE should not reveal the sources and methods employed; it should simply declare what U.S. intelligence agencies believe and where they disagree.

Initially ordered by the National Intelligence Council in January 2005, the Iran NIE was the intelligence community's first comprehensive estimate of Iran since 2001. Unlike the flawed Iraq NIE, rushed to completion in 20 days and relying on questionable sources, the Iran NIE was crafted and debated over several months and reflects an updated reporting standard that required a "dramatic increase in the transparency of sourcing," according to Gen. Michael V. Hayden, deputy director of national intelligence.

Fully declassifying the NIE's key judgments and dissents about Iran's nuclear program would serve four functions:

First, it would educate the public about U.S. intelligence agencies' best collective estimate of Tehran's nuclear intentions and capabilities. President Bush has declared that, regarding Iran, he "will not tolerate construction of a nuclear weapon." If it comes down to using military force, the American people will be more supportive if they clearly understand the threats, the knowns and the unknowns of Iran's nuclear program. It will ensure more probing media reporting and a more vigorous national debate.

Second, it would slow down what Bush has labeled "wild speculation" about using force against Iran, since the intelligence estimate suggests we have years, not months, to exhaust all diplomatic avenues toward finding a solution.

Third, since the NIE's central conclusions about Iran's nuclear program have already been selectively leaked to the media, declassifying the key judgments and dissents would publicly establish the intelligence community opinion. This would inoculate the White House against further intelligence leaks from hard-liners who seek a confrontation with Iran, and from Tehran's exaggerated claims of nuclear progress.

Fourth, it would force America's allies in Europe and Israel to acknowledge the diverging estimates of their intelligence agencies about the likely birth date of an Iranian bomb. For example, British officials claim Iran will have "the technology to enable it to develop a nuclear weapon" by year's end, while the Israel Defense Forces has consistently put it at 2008. While such gaps in allied intelligence estimates remain, we should not expect a unified effort to find a diplomatic resolution.

As the president worried earlier this year: "People will say, if we're trying to make the case on Iran, 'Well, the intelligence failed in Iraq, therefore, how can we can trust the intelligence in Iran?' " The first step toward trust at home and abroad is transparency.

The U.S. government's expert opinion about the Iranian nuclear program is contained in the summer 2005 NIE. President Bush has both a precedent and the legal authority to declassify an NIE "when it is in the public interest." Declassifying the key judgments and dissents of the Iran NIE clearly meets this criterion.

The writer is a research associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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