Even if you don’t trust the Iranians farther than you can throw them, the National Intelligence Estimate on their nuclear program should enable you to breathe a sigh of relief. They will not have a bomb anytime soon – 2013 at the earliest according to the NIE - and their program is still plagued with technical problems.
But it is important to look at that program and realize what the NIE is actually saying.
- Iran no longer has an active bomb program. This does not mean they have abandoned the idea of building a nuclear weapon – far from it, I’d say. What it means is that the parts of their nuclear program dealing with bomb making – weapons design, warhead development, delivery vehicle modifications, and probably the bulk of their experimental work – has been shut down or severely curtailed. It is also important to remember that much of what remains still has dual use capabilities, that while they are enriching uranium to reactor grade levels, they are certainly learning how to enrich it further in order to have weapons grade uranium.
- The sanctions are working. It is clear that at least part of the reason the Iranians shut down those parts of their nuclear program dealing exclusively with bomb making is because they feared further sanctions.
- The date of 2013 is probably too pessimistic but is a consensus date that everyone would sign off on. In 2 years, Iran will have several thousand more centrifuges up and running at Nantanz. At that point, assuming they wanted to restart their bomb program, it would probably be a matter of months – a year at most – before they built a bomb. A date closer to 2011 is probably more realistic but was left off in deference to those (and there is apparently a faction in our intel community who believe this) who think Iran is too technologically backward to have a bomb much before 2015.
- The threat of an Iranian bomb will remain as long as Iran is enriching its own uranium.
Jeffrey Lewis chalks up the change to a bureaucratic shuffle initiated by former President Khatami that sought to forestall the matter of Iranian nukes from being taken before the UNSC:
I made this argument in a July 2005 blog post, pointing to a speech about Iranian decision-making by Hassan Rowhani that I called â€œwonkpornâ€ and suggesting that the bureaucratic reorganization undertaken by Khatami might later been seen as the â€œbeginning [of] a process of negotiations that constrained his more hardline successor.â€
Another nuke expert, Paul Kerr, lays out the changes made:
Iran was publicly defiant and resisted cooperating with the IAEA investigation. Yet internally, there were signs that the government was anxious to avoid a potential confrontation with the United Nations. In an apparent attempt to facilitate cooperation with the IAEA, Iran consolidated decision-making authority over its nuclear program around October 2003. Hassan Rowhani, who was the head of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC)â€”Iranâ€™s top decision-making body on security-related issuesâ€”was put in charge of nuclear diplomacy. Previously, oversight of the issue had been divided between Iranâ€™s Foreign Ministry and its Atomic Energy Organization.
For those disposed to disbelieve or reject this NIE, it would be well to remember that if a consensus about something this vital to our security was found among such a fractious, quarrelling, multi-agenda driven group of spooks, you can bet the information it’s based on is pretty solid.
Now we come to the distasteful question of what in God’s name the Bush Administration has been doing sitting on this damn thing for year? And beyond that, is there any Bush supporter out there who believes anything this president says about national security anymore?
We have been treated to the most bombastic rhetoric emanating from this White House for the last year especially – all the while they were sitting on this NIE and its conclusions about the Iranian bomb program. How do you square Bush’s “World War III” comment with what’s in the NIE? Or any other dire warning we’ve heard coming from the White House?
I understand the need for regime change in Iran. I am not naive enough to believe that the Iranian government doesn’t represent a threat to our friends, allies, and interests in the region – nukes or no nukes. But this Administration has made a nasty habit for 7 years now of employing rhetoric on national security matters that doesn’t match what the situation actually is.
Kevin Drum asks why release the NIE now?
Democratic members of the various intelligence committees saw the NIE (or a summary or a verbal report or something) and went ballistic. Footnotes and dissents are one thing, but withholding a report whose primary conclusion is 180 degrees contrary to years of administration innuendo produced a rebellion. Somebody who got briefed must has threatened something pretty serious if the NIE didn’t see the light of day.
Like I said, just a guess. But who else has the clout to force Bush, Cheney, and McConnell to change course?
I don’t necessarily see a change in course since it’s pretty obvious the Administration had been on the diplomatic track for months now. What the NIE does is knock the chocks from underneath the neo-cons and set them adrift. They’ve got nowhere to go now – unless they want to argue that the NIE is wrong.
For different reasons, that’s exactly the argument being made by AJ Strata:
The NIE is quite clear. We know they stopped, we have no intel on whether they are still stopped or not. The reporting that Iran has stopped as of now is not accurate. Here is the scary part – Iran is still processing fuel! They donâ€™t NEED to process fuel for Nuclear Energy. Russia has offered to SELL THEM fuel if they return the spent fuel so it cannot be used to make weapons.
While AJ is right, that Russian offer was conditional on the Iranians halting their enrichment program – something that Ahmadinejad has now made (for largely domestic reasons) a national sovereignty issue and therefore, non negotiable.
Is bombing still a viable option? Unless you believe that the mullahs will not be dissuaded from eventually restarting the bomb making parts of their nuclear program then taking out the infrastructure is still on the table.
I still think bombing would be a bad idea – at least until we can say for sure that they have restarted that part of their program. The fact is, there is no reason for military action against Iran at the moment and every reason to continue applying pressure via sanctions to try and get them to stop enriching uranium. It also gives us time to develop and encourage those elements in Iran who could work to moderate or replace the regime – the latter being much more likely than the former.
The point is that time is once again our friend. Let’s use it wisely.