The Cable

Iran NIE debate redux

Noting recent statements by President Barack Obama about Iran’s “pursuit” of nuclear weapons capability in his news conference, and recently confirmed CIA director Leon Panetta’s comment in his confirmation hearing that “From all the information I’ve seen, I think there is no question that they are seeking that capability,” the Los Angeles Times reports that ...

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An Iranian flag flutters next to a ground-to-ground Sajil missile before being launched at an undisclosed location in Iran on November 12, 2008. Iran test fired today a new generation of ground-to-ground missile, the semi-official Fars news agency quoted the defence minister as saying. In the past Iran has often boasted of developing new weapons systems only to be met with scepticism from Western defence analysts. AFP PHOTO/FARS NEWS/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

Noting recent statements by President Barack Obama about Iran’s “pursuit” of nuclear weapons capability in his news conference, and recently confirmed CIA director Leon Panetta’s comment in his confirmation hearing that “From all the information I’ve seen, I think there is no question that they are seeking that capability,” the Los Angeles Times reports that the language “reflects the extent to which senior U.S. officials now discount a National Intelligence Estimate issued in November 2007 that was instrumental in derailing U.S. and European efforts to pressure Iran to shut down its nuclear program.”

Intelligence and nonproliferation hands said don’t go off the deep end.

“The 2007 NIE … very narrowly defined weaponization in terms of warhead design and evidence that Iran had pursued R&D in that direction; concluded it stopped in 2003 (likely correctly) and left it at that,” says Jacqueline Shire, a former State Department non proliferation official now with the ISIS. “It ignored the broader development of the fuel cycle, in particular enrichment, as supporting a weapons capability. It also may have ignored the possibility that the weaponization R&D was halted in 2003 simply because Iran learned what it needed to know at the time and had no reason to risk discovery etc by continuing with the work.

“We also can’t forget …that the 2007 NIE was written when the wounds of the Iraq NIE debacle were still fresh and analysts were working double time to prove that they and their intel could not/would not be politicized,” Shire said. “So now we have reverted to norm-[new Director of National Intelligence Dennis] Blair’s statements I think are perfectly sound. Iran has in fact rapidly increased and improved upon its centrifuges and their performance. It’s not complicated really. Iran has mastered the part of the fuel cycle that provides nuclear material either for a reactor or a weapon.  Problem is they don’t have near enough in terms of infrastructure to support a commercial power reactor but a tidily-sized effort for a breakout capability.”

“This is another reflection of the grossly mistaken reaction to the intelligence estimate on this subject in late 2007, a reaction that stemmed in large part from some infelicitous and misleading formulations in the estimate itself,” says former senior CIA official Paul Pillar. “The only thing reportedly halted in 2003 was weapons design work. More important is what [the LAT] mentions in the latter half of his piece, the continuation of uranium enrichment — which, as the Bush administration correctly pointed out, is the long pole in the tent that will determine when Iran would have the capability to build a nuclear weapon.

“With regard to Iranian intentions, the intelligence community, both in 2007 and earlier, essentially said that while Iran is putting itself closer to being able to build a bomb if it decides to, whether it actually will build one will depend on decisions not yet taken and cost-benefit calculations not yet made,” Pillar continued. “To the extent that the current administration is careful to use language like ‘pursuing’ or ‘seeking’ a ‘capability,’ this is not inconsistent with the intelligence community’s judgments.”

He wrote more on this here.

AFP/Getty Images

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