Slate: Iran and the New NIE

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Fred Kaplan
Slate "War Stories" Columnist
Thursday, December 6, 2007; 11:00 AM

Slate "War Stories" columnist Fred Kaplan, author of the upcoming book "Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power," was online Thursday, Dec. 6 at 11 a.m. ET to take readers' questions about the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran and its implications for U.S. foreign policy.

After the Iran NIE, Diplomacy might be a good idea (Slate, Dec. 6)

The transcript follows.

Kaplan is the author of "The Wizards of Armageddon" and a former staff reporter for the Boston Globe, having been its military correspondent, Moscow bureau chief and New York bureau chief. A regular writer on jazz and hi-fi for Stereophile, he has also written on a variety of subjects for the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Scientific American and others.

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Fred Kaplan: Hello. Fred Kaplan here. Thanks for having me back. I'm looking forward to your questions.

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"How can we be sure they're right now when they were so wrong on Iraq?": We hear this a lot, but doesn't that misstate the work of the intelligence community in the days before the Iraq invasion? Weren't there differences of opinion on Iraq's WMD, ties to terrorism and plans for a nuclear weapon within the community? It's just that they were pushed aside by those who supported the administration?

Fred Kaplan: Good question. You're right on several counts. There were disagreements among the intelligence agencies on Iraq -- yet the disputes were not noted in the summaries that were made public (and, who knows, maybe not in the two-page summary that was given to the president -- historically, this often has been the case). For instance, intelligence specialists at the Department of Energy and the State Department did not agree with the majority view that Iraq's aluminum tubes were designed for -- or even particularly well-suited to -- a nuclear-weapons project. And as we now know, there was considerable political pressure on the CIA to come up with the "right" answers. The latest NIE on Iran appears to be an attempt by the intelligence community to reassert its independence. However, it's worth reading the document -- even the unclassified version that we're all talking about -- carefully. There are still some disagreements on the extent to which Iran has halted its entire nuclear-weapons program.

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Arlington, Va.: One would think that if McConnell had this new information and had known the president's statement, he would have just blurted out that Iran had stopped their nuclear weapons program in 2003. Why do you think McConnell only told the president that there was new info, but didn't tell him the content? This would seem to be ill-serving the president.

Fred Kaplan: According to the latest reports on this, McConnell did tell the president the gist of the new findings, while noting that the full analysis was not yet finished. The president continued to issue alarmist public statements about Iran's relentless effort to build a bomb ("World War III"), despite what his intelligence chief had told him.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: What are your impressions of Iranian society? I believe there is a genuine interest within Iran in our culture that many Iranians hope we may improve relations. I hope, over time, that these desires will filter upwards and that future Iranian leaders will be open to better relations. What do you see are the possibilities that this could happen?

Fred Kaplan: I have never been to Iran. However, a few journalists and scholars who have been there several times tell me that, on a street level, it -- or at least Tehran -- is one of the most pro-American places in the world. That said, the current regime has shown tremendous resilience for 30 years now. The mullahs have suppressed any dissident group that has started to gain a foothold. They have pushed aside any politician who starts to put out feelers to the West. The West -- and not just George W. Bush -- must bear its own share of blame, perhaps, for not picking up on some of these feelers quickly enough. Still, chances for an effective reformer rising to the top and actually accomplishing reform seem slim. Furthermore, even the pro-American masses do not want the American government to intervene in their domestic politics. Memories are still very strong of the CIA's overthrow of Mosaddeq in 1953.

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Urbana, Ill.: Whether or not the Iranians are currently trying to build a bomb, they are attempting to enrich uranium -- probably the hardest part of this problem -- and are refusing to negotiate about it. What kind of inducements do you think will persuade them to stop?

Fred Kaplan: This is the question that remains problematic. It seems pretty clear, at this point, that the Iranians are not going to give up enrichment. And you're right (and the NIE says this explicitly, by the way), once highly enriched uranium reaches a certain level of enrichment, the program can move from "civilian" to "military" fairly quickly. There was some discussion, a year or so ago, of perhaps negotiating a cap to the enrichment level -- perhaps keeping it at 5 percent, enough to generate electrical power but far below what's needed to produce a nuclear bomb. This would be very difficult to do. It would require very intrusive inspection procedures. Still, this may be worth exploring.

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Fayetteville, N.C.: Mr. Kaplan, I resent this headline: "Hey Bush, it's time to get cozy with Iran." We are in the spasms of euphoria because the NIE has never been wrong before -- right! It's also interesting to note that the NIE has revealed that Iran did have a clandestine nuclear program -- not an iota of which previously was revealed, not even by you. Remember those immortal words: "trust but verify"? Everyone in the whole world has been talking to Iran, including the U.S. (behind the scenes). We spell that D-I-P-L-O-M-A-C-Y. Where is the "verify"? The NIE (a team of three in the State Department, one of whom is a known hostile to the present administration)? Please, grow up!

Fred Kaplan: A few things. First, I agree that "cozy" is a bit strong. (Like most journalists, I don't write the headlines.) Second, I think the initial "spasm of euphoria" is calming down a bit; a lot of people are beginning to realize the problem isn't solved. Third, the NIE is not "a team of three in the State Department." It's the product of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies. From all accounts, this was a very elaborate process involving thousands of new pieces of information, including intercepts, human intelligence, and so forth. It also seems to have been scrubbed meticulously, subjected to "red team" exercises -- the works.

As for the notion that the whole world has been talking to Iran -- well, there's talking and there's talking. Real diplomacy would have to involve putting some incentives on the table. To say "we won't talk with you until you throw away all your bargaining chips" -- that's not diplomacy. That, by the way, was Bush's approach to North Korea until six months ago. He refused to talk seriously with Pyongyang until they disarmed. Finally, Condoleezza Rice put forth a deal with real incentives that didn't make North Korean disarmament a prerequisite to getting a deal going -- and it was accepted within days. I'm not saying a deal with Iran will be so easy -- it will be very tough -- but the level of diplomacy the U.S. has been putting forth so far -- that's not enough to jumpstart anything.

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State College, Pa.: My question is less about the NIE itself than about the president's press conference that coincided with its being declassified. Given that this NIE was a pretty dramatic change in position, did it seem the president was less than prepared for the sorts of questions that would come from it? I would think that if the president had a couple of weeks with the knowledge of Iran having ceased its nuclear weapons program, that he could have better prepared for his news conference.

Fred Kaplan: I'd say you're right. It was very puzzling.

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Koersel, Belgium: Why is everyone focusing so much on Iran, if the real discussion should be to ban all nuclear arms? During the Cold War, the bomb did have a function: deterrence. The two powers kept each other in balance. But the world has changed -- anybody can acquire nuclear weapons. A terrorist group could get its hands on the technology, or even on a ready-made bomb, a threat that the atomic scientists of the Manhattan Project (who made the first bomb) already realized way back in 1945 -- hence their proposal to ban nuclear weapons altogether, the so-called Lilienthal-Acheson Plan. What they feared then now becomes reality: North Korea is a nuclear power, and India, and a very unstable Pakistan. Will the U.S. take the lead to ban all nuclear weapons from the world -- including its own?

Fred Kaplan: The idea of "general and complete disarmament" (as it used to be called) is a pipedream and has been, I'm afraid, all along. Possession of the bomb gives a country a huge amount of leverage -- it's a very effective deterrent, for one thing -- and those who have the bomb are not likely to give it up. A little experiment: Let's imagine that everyone with a bomb does disarm. The first country that builds a bomb becomes the new superpower. Others will build their own bombs in response. Pretty soon, the world will be littered with bombs again (though not as many as there are now). The prerequisite to total disarmament is some kind of superpowerful world government, and I don't see that happening. At the same time, it's obvious that the Non-Proliferation Treaty has many holes (e.g. non-nuclear powers are rewarded with "peaceful" nuclear technology, which we now see can be converted to "nonpeaceful" devices more easily than once was assumed).

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Boston: Froomkin did a good piece yesterday on Bush's changing rhetoric before and after August (presumably around the time that McConnell first briefed him on the change in Iran nuclear program conclusions) from the threat of Iran "developing nuclear weapons" to the threat that Iran would "gain the knowledge" to develop nuclear weapons. Considering Bush and Cheney's view that the Iranian leadership is evil, does their changed rhetoric fit into your notion of the "fog of moral clarity"? How confident are you, after analyzing their change in redline rhetoric and noting other insiders' cautions that Cheney isn't one "relentless SOB," that they won't just button up their chinstrap and bomb Iran anyway given the threat "their knowledge" and continued uranium processing possess (in their minds)?

washingtonpost.com: Neck-Snapping Spin From the President (washingtonpost.com, Dec. 4)

Fred Kaplan: If Bush wanted to bomb Iran, he has the physical ability -- and he would argue the political authority -- to do so. Cheney, though isolated in some respects, is just down the hall. However it is worth noting that the secretaries of State and Defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the commander of U.S. Central Command have -- remarkably -- all made very clear, privately and publicly, their extreme skepticism about the wisdom of taking such a step. The rationales for this skepticism have, I'm told, been put forth to the president clearly and explicitly in the Oval Office, with all top officials present. There even have been high-level discussions within the military of group-resignations in the event of such an order (though how serious this prospect is, I don't know, and I have mixed feelings about it -- we don't want military officers throwing a coup, do we?)

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Arlington, Va.: Kaplan says "According to the latest reports on this, McConnell did tell the president the gist of the new findings." But I heard the president himself say that he was not told. Are you saying the president retracted that ?

Fred Kaplan: The White House has issued a "clarification."

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Princeton, N.J.: Why is checking on the enrichment level hard? It seems to me that all you have to do is put somebody periodically (but randomly) at the last centrifuge with an accurate scale.

Fred Kaplan: I think it's a bit more complicated than that. But the big problem is: If you have several hundred centrifuges whirring, you could break out of the agreement and have several thousand whirring in short order. It's much more reliable to keep the level at zero than to keep it some finite number. But we're beyond zero now, so it may be time to reassess the risk levels of agreeing to something beyond that.

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Lyme, Conn.: What are the concerns that, even if Iran is not developing nuclear weapons, that they may not be positioning themselves to rapidly change towards developing nuclear weapons -- especially if they could do so in cooperation with another country, such as Pakistan or China?

Fred Kaplan: This is a good point. The NIE does address it. The document says, "We continue to assess with low confidence that Iran probably has imported at least some weapons-usable fissile material, but still judge with moderate-to-high confidence it has not obtained enough for a nuclear weapon." Not exactly airtight, but there it is.

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Anonymous: If Iran would ever attack any nation with a nuclear bomb, Iran as a nation would cease to exist. The true leaders of Iran aren't living in caves eating gruel -- they are wealthy, live in palatial estates and have families and children. They don't want to lose what they have. This warmongering and jingoism from the Bush administration is an embarrassment to this country and does only harm.

Fred Kaplan: Good point, but there are other issues as well. If Iran assembled a nuclear arsenal, it is fairly certain that other nations in the region -- Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in particular -- would do so as well, if just for deterrence. The United States and (in the day) the Soviet Union spent decades developing secure "permissive action links" (coded locks) on their nuclear weapons to ensure that only the proper authorities could order their use. (Even so, there were many years when loopholes existed.) Who knows how tightly these new nuclear powers could control their weapons, especially given the volatile nature of their societies? Even if control could be ensured, accidents do happen, whether due to misperceptions or miscalculations. The chances of a "nuclear exchange" in the Middle East would be considerable. There's another element in all this as well. If Iran had nuclear weapons, it automatically would have a new instrument of leverage. Think of it this way: If Saddam Hussein had had nukes when he invaded Kuwait in 1990, it would have been much harder for George H.W. Bush and Jim Baker to put together the international coalition to kick the invasion forces out. Many countries may have been reluctant to join the coalition, fearing the nuclear shadow.

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Oslo, Norway: How much of the Bush administration's strategic planning, exemplified by documents such as the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review and the 2002/2006 National Security Strategies, will carry over into future administrations? I'm thinking mainly about aspects such as the overriding focus on counterterrorism and asymmetric warfare, an altered global posture directed towards an "arc of instability" with a lily-pad base structure, and heavy investments in defensive systems such as ballistic missile defense. Are these fundamental changes in U.S. strategic planning, or a reflection of Bush/neocon thinking that soon will be out of date?

Fred Kaplan: There are continuities between administrations, but the Bush initiatives that you're talking about were explicit departures from past practices (in the case of the QDR and the National Security Strategy) or vast buildups from previous programs (in the case of missile defense, which went from a very well-funded research and development program to a procurement program). I see no evidence that a Democratic president would cut back missile defense to previous levels, even though the evidence suggests the program is not nearly as effective as its proponents had hoped. But the doctrines are almost certain to be rewritten.

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The new superpower?: If everyone disarms, it will be with intrusive inspection regimes that probably will not catch every bomb. But how does one or two nuclear bombs make a country into a superpower?

Fred Kaplan: Okay, "superpower" might be going too far. But if Country X has a pocketful of nukes, and the rest of the world has none, X can exert tremendous leverage through blackmail and intimidation.

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Freising, Germany: The interesting aspect of Iran's nuclear bomb program is that Iran has never admitted to having one. Iran reminds me somewhat of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, whose stubbornness and indignant hesitancy in freely divulging all information pertaining to their nuclear bomb program actually added to the suspicion that they actually had one.

Muammar Gaddafi in Libya doesn't seem to regret having given up his nuclear bomb aspirations, but he had to open up all his books and laboratories to Western inspectors. This seems to be what Hussein tried to delay or prevent (perhaps to present a stronger image to his regional foes) and what the mullahs in Iran aren't too keen on either. The question is, if Iran doesn't own up to having wanted the bomb in the past, are they still harboring thoughts of starting it up in the future?

Fred Kaplan: Good point. Gaddafi doesn't seem to regret giving up his nuclear aspirations, in part because his program was pretty much a bust. (He not only opened up his books and labs, he surrendered all the hardware.) The NIE states clearly that Tehran might resume its program in the future; the analysts (admirably) admit they don't know what Tehran's long-term intentions are.

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Kingston, Ontario: Mr Kaplan: Mr Bush was using familiar language today (Wednesday) when he said that despite the cessation of the nuclear weapons program "Iran is a threat." This is the formula he still uses about Iraq. Despite all the false information about WMDs, etc., he still judges that "Iraq was a threat," and therefore the invasion was justified.

It's a smart way of changing the subject from the objective evidence to Mr Bush's subjective feelings, which are obviously less open to scrutiny. Should we fear that history is about to repeat itself? After all, they may calculate that a Middle East war will help them retain the White House in 2008, as it did in 2004. Thanks.

Fred Kaplan: I might be wrong, but I really don't think another war in the Middle East will help the Republicans retain the White House. We're in two wars right now. We don't have enough troops to win those -- they're essentially being subsidized by Chinese central bankers. All this adds up to the main reason the U.S. military chain of command is very leery of the idea of starting up another conflict.

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Colchester, Vt.: What are your views of the op-ed piece in today's New York Times that says the information on which this report was based is basically the same information that we've always had, it's just that the definition of what constitutes developing nuclear weapons has changed -- that ultimately this is a convenient way for Bush to declare victory and get this insoluble issue out of his hair for the rest of his term on the theory that "if I can't fix it, it must not be broke"?

washingtonpost.com: In Iran We Trust? (New York Times, Dec. 6)

Fred Kaplan: I did read that piece and found it very interesting. I have two problems with it, though. First, I think the authors -- who, by the way, are very respected analysts -- didn't describe fully the range of differences between this NIE and the one in 2005 (which concluded that Iran was determined to build nuclear weapons). The new NIE, judging from news accounts (which may have been published after the authors wrote their op-ed), is based not on some subtle linguistic ploy but on communications intercepts, documents (somehow acquired), human intelligence -- every kind of intelligence source imaginable, it seems. The conclusions were scrubbed several times over. ... As for your last question, I definitely do not think that Bush is putting this out as "a convenient way to declare victory." He has been trying these past few days to downplay the main finding of this NIE; he's emphasizing only the passages that still point to uncertainty and to possible future threats; he is finding no political solace in this whatsoever.

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Anonymous: Wasn't the NIE re: Iraqi WMDs put together in weeks, whereas this latest one took much longer?

Fred Kaplan: No, the Iraq NIE took a long time to put together, too. However, the methods were different. The Iraq WMD NIE aimed for consensus. Dissenting views were not systematically taken into account (they were simply tacked on as footnotes); certainly they were not taken apart and analyzed. And, as some of you have observed, there was much political pressure to come to a particular conclusion.

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Austin, Texas: Mr. Kaplan, who, in your opinion, was the "decider" in the release of the new NIE on Iran, and what do you speculate were the reasons for doing so? This is a rather stark reversal of prior assertions and policy, and I want to know one thing: Were they right then, or are they right now?

Fred Kaplan: Two questions. First, whose idea was the new NIE? It was actually mandated by Congress. As for whether they were right then or now -- I'd say that, based on the evidence that each respective panel had, both conclusions were at least reasonable. We don't have access to the entire NIE. It's much longer, and it's highly classified. Based on what the unclassified version says, and based on news stories that have been published since (especially those by The Washington Post's superb team of reporters), the new NIE seems very solid. But look up the report online. Read it -- it's very solid as far as it goes. I think, at least in the first day or two, some commentators exaggerated how far it goes.

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Montreal: India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea all went ahead and built themselves nuclear weapons, and all basically seem to have been rewarded by the United States for doing so. Saddam Hussein, bad as he was, let the IAEA and the U.N. weapons inspectors in, had no program, and got invaded anyway. Seems to me U.S. foreign policy provides an enormous incentive to get a nuclear weapon if you fear U.S. hostility. Just sayin'.

Fred Kaplan: You make an interesting point. In 2003, the North Koreans issued a public statement that one lesson of both U.S.-Iraq wars was that, if you're an enemy of the U.S., it's a good idea to get nuclear weapons. (That's their view, not mine.) At the same time, it's worth noting that the NIE says Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003 as a result of international pressure. The NIE doesn't say so, but one of those pressure points might -- I say might -- have been the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Saddam tried to play "ambiguous" on whether he had nukes or not; the Iranians might have learned that it's stupid to play that game.

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Bethesda, Md.: John Bolton posted an opinion basically telling everyone to not believe in the intelligence report. This doesn't surprise me; he has argued for several months to attack Iran.

Fred Kaplan: John Bolton will be fighting his demons for the rest of his life. I hope he has fun.

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Derry, N.H.: Scott Horton blogs for Harpers that a "highly reliable intelligence community source" told him: "The NIE has been in substantially the form in which it finally was submitted for more than six months. The White House, and particularly Vice President Cheney, used every trick in the book to stop it from being finalized and issued. There was no last minute breakthrough that caused the issuance of the assessment." Does this aspect of the NIE story have legs? Do you see this gaining traction or getting lost in the news bustle? If true, the fact that the administration might have expended effort to block such a critical report is astounding.

washingtonpost.com: The Roll-Out Goes Flat (Harpers, Dec. 3)

Fred Kaplan: (Now I'm getting confused. Have I answered this question already? I don't think so. Sorry if I have.) I've read reports like this, too. I don't know if they're true or not (I wasn't able to confirm them), but the notion has the ring of plausibility. I do know that, for the past few months, the intelligence community spent a lot of time and effort firming up their conclusions. For instance, it's been reported that Cheney was suspicious of the intercepts of Iranian communications that suggested that the program was halted; he wondered if the Iranians might be playing a game of disinformation. The intelligence agencies went back, looked into it, formed a "red team" to simulate disinformation officers -- in other words, checked into whether Cheney's suspicions might have merit. They came back convinced that the suspicions weren't sound. By the way, I think all this back-and-forth is very good. The president -- and the nation -- should want intelligence, especially on such an important issue, to be as airtight as possible.

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Arlington, Va.: Is regime change the official policy of the U.S. toward Iran?

Fred Kaplan: Not officially.

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Woodside, Calif.: Considering the new Iran Nuclear NIE, it's possible that, like Saddam Hussein, Iran is more interested in the ambiguity about whether they have nuclear weapons than in actually having nuclear weapons. If some foreign policy think tanks applied themselves, could we come up with a new "Godelian" approach (a reference to a famous mathematician, Kurt Godel) to disarmament?

For example: It could be true that a country did not have nuclear weapons (meeting our security needs) but that it could not be proven (meeting their desire for ambiguity). Or is our national security as threatened by ambiguity about whether a country has nuclear weapons as it is by their actual possession of nuclear weapons?

Fred Kaplan: Hmm, is this Godel or Borges? You're right, ambiguity can be an instrument in national policy. Back in the late 1950s, Khrushchev gave bellicose speeches, thundering that the Soviet Union was turning out ICBMs "like sausages" -- when in fact their ICBM program was dead in the water. We now know that he feared a U.S. first strike and, because he didn't have the deterrent, pretended that he did. (The strategem backfired when the first U.S. reconnaissance satellites uncovered the bluff.) The problem with these tactics is that they're very risky. The U.S. really did think Saddam Hussein had WMDs -- and we invaded Iraq. The U.S. really did think there was a "missile gap" in the Soviets' favor -- and we ordered a huge ICBM build-up.

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Fred Kaplan: Thanks very much again. Until next time.

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