Misreading the Iran Report
The extraordinary spectacle of the president's national security adviser obliged to defend the president's Iran policy against a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) raises two core issues: How are we now to judge the nuclear threat posed by Iran? How are we to judge the intelligence community's relationship with the White House and the rest of the government?
The "Key Judgments" released by the intelligence community last week begin with a dramatic assertion: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program." This sentence was widely interpreted as a challenge to the Bush administration policy of mobilizing international pressure against alleged Iranian nuclear programs. It was, in fact, qualified by a footnote whose complex phraseology obfuscated that the suspension really applied to only one aspect of the Iranian nuclear weapons program (and not even the most significant one): the construction of warheads. That qualification was not restated in the rest of the document, which continued to refer to the "halt of the weapons program" repeatedly and without qualification.
The reality is that the concern about Iranian nuclear weapons has had three components: the production of fissile material, the development of missiles and the building of warheads. Heretofore, production of fissile material has been treated as by far the greatest danger, and the pace of Iranian production of fissile material has accelerated since 2006. So has the development of missiles of increasing range. What appears to have been suspended is the engineering aimed at the production of warheads.
The NIE holds that Iran may be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon by the end of 2009 and, with increasing confidence, more warheads by the period 2010 to 2015. That is virtually the same timeline as was suggested in the 2005 National Intelligence Estimate. The new estimate does not assess how long it would take to build a warhead, though it treats the availability of fissile material as the principal limiting factor. If there is a significant gap between these two processes, it would be important to be told what it is. Nor are we told how close to developing a warhead Tehran was when it suspended its program or how confident the intelligence community is in its ability to learn when work on warheads has resumed. On the latter point, the new estimate expresses only "moderate" confidence that the suspension has not been lifted already.
It is therefore doubtful that the evidence supports the dramatic language of the summary and, even less so, the broad conclusions drawn in much of the public commentary. For the past three years, the international debate has concentrated on the Iranian effort to enrich uranium by centrifuges, some 3,000 of which are now in operation. The administration has asserted that this represents a decisive step toward Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons and has urged a policy of maximum pressure. Every permanent member of the U.N. Security Council has supported the request that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment program; the various countries differ on the urgency with which their recommendations should be pressed and in their willingness to impose penalties.
The NIE then highlights, without altering, the underlying issue: At what point would the nations that have described an Iranian military nuclear program as "unacceptable" agree to act on that conviction? Do they wait until Iran starts producing nuclear warheads? Does our intelligence assume that we will know this threshold? Is there then enough time for meaningful countermeasures? What happens to the growing stock of fissile material that, according to the estimate, will have been accumulated? Do we run the risk of finding ourselves with an adversary that, in the end, agrees to stop further production of fissile material but insists on retaining the existing stockpile as a potential threat?
By stating a conclusion in such categorical terms -- considered excessive even by the International Atomic Energy Agency -- the Key Judgments blur the line between estimates and conjecture. For example, the document says: "We judge with high confidence that the halt . . . was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran's previously undeclared nuclear work." It extrapolates from that judgment that Iran "is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005" and that it "may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously."
It is to be hoped that the full estimate provides more comprehensive evidence for these conclusions. A more plausible alternative explanation would assign greater significance to the regional context and American actions. When Iran halted its weapons program and suspended efforts at enriching uranium in February 2003, America had already occupied Afghanistan and was on the verge of invading Iraq, both of which border Iran. The United States justified its Iraq policy by the need to remove weapons of mass destruction from the region. By the fall of 2003, when Iran voluntarily joined the Additional Protocol for Nuclear Non-Proliferation, Saddam Hussein had just been overthrown. Is it unreasonable to assume that the ayatollahs concluded that restraint had become imperative? By the fall of 2005, the American effort in Iraq showed signs of bogging down; the prospects for extending the enterprise into Iran were diminishing. Iranian leaders could have felt free to return to their policy of building up a military nuclear capability -- perhaps reinforced by the desire to create a deterrent to American regional aspirations. They might also have concluded, because the secret effort had leaked, that it would be too dangerous to undertake another covert program. Hence the emphasis on renewing the enrichment program in the guise of a civilian energy program. In short, if my analysis is correct, we could be witnessing not a halt of the Iranian weapons program -- as the NIE asserts -- but a subtle, ultimately more dangerous, version of it that will phase in the warhead when fissile material production has matured.
The NIE does not so much reject this theory; it does not even examine it. It concludes that "Tehran's decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon." But a cost-benefit analysis does not exclude a rush to weapons on a systematic basis. It depends on the criteria by which costs and benefits are determined. Similarly, in pursuing the cost-benefit rationale, the estimate concludes that a combination of international scrutiny along with security guarantees might "prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program." That is a policy, not an intelligence, judgment.
A coherent strategy toward Iran is not a partisan issue, for it will have to be implemented well after the present administration has left office. I have long argued that America owes it to itself to explore fully the possibility of normalizing relations with Iran. We do not need to tranquilize ourselves to the danger in order to pursue a more peaceful world. What is required is a specific vision linking assurances for Iran's security and respect for its identity with an Iranian foreign policy compatible with the existing order in the Middle East. But it must also generate an analysis of the strategy to be pursued should Iran, in the end, choose ideology over reconciliation.
The intelligence community has a major role in helping to design such a vision. But it must recognize that the more it ventures into policy conjecture, the less authoritative its judgments become. There was some merit in the way President Richard Nixon conducted National Security Council discussions at the beginning of his first term. He invited the CIA director to brief on the capabilities and intentions of the countries under discussion but required him to leave the room during policy deliberations. Because so many decisions require an intelligence input, this procedure proved unworkable.
I have often defended the dedicated members of the intelligence community. This is why I am extremely concerned about the tendency of the intelligence community to turn itself into a kind of check on, instead of a part of, the executive branch. When intelligence personnel expect their work to become the subject of public debate, they are tempted into the roles of surrogate policymakers and advocates. Thus the deputy director for intelligence estimates explained the release of the NIE as follows: Publication was chosen because the estimate conflicted with public statements by top U.S. officials about Iran, and "we felt it was important to release this information to ensure that an accurate presentation is available." That may explain releasing the facts but not the sources and methods that have been flooding the media. The paradoxical result of the trend toward public advocacy is to draw intelligence personnel more deeply than ever into the public maelstrom.
The executive branch and the intelligence community have gone through a rough period. The White House has been accused of politicizing intelligence; the intelligence community has been charged with promoting institutional policy biases. The Key Judgments document accelerates that controversy, dismaying friends and confusing adversaries.
Intelligence personnel need to return to their traditional anonymity. Policymakers and Congress should once again assume responsibility for their judgments without involving intelligence in their public justifications. To define the proper balance between the user and producer of intelligence is a task that cannot be accomplished at the end of an administration. It is, however, one of the most urgent challenges a newly elected president will face.
© 2007 Tribune Media Services Inc.