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Mixed Signals on an Atomic Iran

Author: Greg Bruno
February 11, 2008


Drafters of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iranian nuclear capabilities might have intended for their document to clarify debate on Tehran’s long-term nuclear ambitions. It’s safe to say they missed their mark. Three months after the unclassified conclusions became public—including the contention Iran likely halted its nuclear-weapons program in late 2003—the report’s fallout continues to cloud U.S. efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions. U.S. weapons experts have expressed shock at the report’s findings; Iran’s leaders say it vindicates their claims that their nuclear program is peaceful; and Washington’s allies in Europe and the Middle East have reportedly questioned its intelligence. The Bush administration, meanwhile, has been left scrambling to convince the world Iran remains a nuclear menace.

David Kay, a veteran weapons inspector who led the Iraq Survey Group in 2003, sees the NIE as an irresponsible document with contradictory conclusions. “I came away from this really, deeply concerned about the process of writing national intelligence assessments,” Kay tells in a new interview. He says the “high confidence” determination that Iran “halted its nuclear-weapons program” was “frightening” and poorly conceived. Equally confounding for experts has been the intelligence community’s unwillingness to back away from its assertions. Testifying to the Senate Intelligence Committee on February 5, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell defended the intelligence estimate but acknowledged that, if given the chance, he “would change the way that we described nuclear program.” The Wall Street Journal termed the admission “a reversal of the previous judgment”; Israeli and British press have been equally dumbfounded.

The administration’s careful diplomatic language stands in stark contrast to the depiction by some reporters, like the New Yorker’s Seymour M. Hersh, that it has been gearing up for a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. In mid-January John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, suggested more aggressive U.S. action had been sunk by the timing of the NIE. “It's clear that now, President George Bush can't do anything on this matter before the end of his term in another year,” Bolton told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

The Bush administration, for its part, continues to try to clarify the debate. McConnell’s congressional testimony included painstaking details about Tehran’s nuclear weapons capabilities, specifics that were downplayed in the NIE. He said while design work for a nuclear warhead was “halted” in 2003, the more technical work—enrichment of uranium and development of long-range ballistic missiles—continues. McConnell also said the United States is only moderately confident that warhead work hasn’t restarted. President Bush, speaking on Fox News February 10, reiterated Washington’s position. “I feel pretty good about making sure that we keep the pressure on Iran,” he said.

Washington’s renewed warnings have won limited international support. A fresh round of sanctions from the UN Security Council gained ground (BBC) in January 2008, when the council’s five permanent members and Germany agreed in principal to enforce travel bans and asset freezes against Iranian interests. Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte recently told that Security Council member China is largely “in sync” with U.S. policy on Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed the sanctions threat as “psychological warfare” (PressTV).

Yet some speculate the Security Council resolution, even if signed, would be significantly watered down as a result of the NIE. As the Jerusalem Post notes, Germany and other European partners—while waving the sanctions stick at Iran—continue to strengthen their economic bonds with the regime. Russia and China, too, have continued economic ties with Tehran (Russia recently completed shipping 82 tons of fuel (IRNA) to Iran’s Bushehr nuclear plant). Even the United States’ own Energy Department has financial links (NYT) to civilian reactors being built in Iran.

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