ABOUT THAT ‘REVISED’ IRAN INTELLIGENCE ASSESSMENT:
THE TIGER STILL IS PROWLING IN THE BACK YARD
December 15, 2007
The political world is still roiling with the impact of a fresh National Intelligence Assessment, seemingly downgrading the threat level from an Iranian nuclear weapons program. The reactions range from a snarky “I told you so” from complacent doves to a dark “this is an intelligence community dove takeover” from alarmist hawks.
For example, in a 12-03-07 posting on Commentary, “Dark Suspicions about the NIE”, Norman Podhoretz made two salient points on behalf of the Iran hawks:
“I must confess to suspecting that the intelligence community, having been excoriated for supporting the then universal belief that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, is now bending over backward to counter what has up to now been a similarly universal view (including as is evident from the 2005 NIE, within the intelligence community itself) that Iran is hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons. I also suspect that, having been excoriated as well for minimizing the time it would take Saddam to add nuclear weapons to his arsenal, the intelligence community is now bending over backward to maximize the time it will take Iran to reach the same goal.
“But I entertain an even darker suspicion. It is that the intelligence community, which has for some years now been leaking material calculated to undermine George W. Bush, is doing it again. This time the purpose is to head off the possibility that the President may order air strikes on the Iranian nuclear installations.”
Later, New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman complained about the NIE from the perspective of a responsible liberal.
As I quoted him in my recent post, “TOOTH OF THE TIGER, Tom Friedman chastises. POTUS exhorts. And Iran sneaks”, Mr. Friedman opined that:
“Right now, the Arab Gulf states are all sizing up America, their protector, and are wondering just how much Uncle Sam weighs in the standoff with Iran — and whether it will be enough to keep Iran at bay.” Then he added that “I’d rather see Iran go nuclear and contain it, than have the Bush team start another Middle East war over this issue.”
Aspects of my own previously posted response to Mr. Friedman’s piece are integrated in this article, making a substantial revision of my 12-4-07 comments on the NIE that I posted on the Human Conspiracy Blog.
What did the NIE REALLY say?
IRAN IS STILL PREDISPOSED TO ACQUIRE NUCLEAR WEAPONS BUT WE HAVE MORE TIME TO DEAL WITH THE PROBLEM THAN PREVIOUSLY THOUGHT.
But it’s all on the packaging.
By artful sequence and emphasis, the NIE’s public summary (as opposed to the classified version) was constructed by its three authors (reputedly embedded Bush administration critics) to convey an impression that the actual threat had materially diminished, even though Iran’s huge “civilian” nuclear program could easily be mined to produce bomb-ready fissile material.
In APPENDIX II below, I have compiled key excerpts from the publicly released version of the NIE, but altered the sequence to highlight the underlying threat that was downplayed.
In APPENDIX II, I INCLUDE MY CAUTIONARY PIECE –
“HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN A-BOMB”.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN POLITICAL RESULTS OF THE NIE?
THE ADMINISTRATION GETS TO KICK THE CAN DOWN THE ROAD WITHOUT POLITICAL CONSEQUENCES. [THERE WAS LITTLE APPETITE FOR THAT MOVE DURING THIS ELECTION CYCLE, IN ANY EVENT, AS LONG AS THERE IS NO BLATANT EMERGENCY.]
THE NOTION IS GIVEN CREDENCE THAT WE DON’T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT A THING. GIVEN THE INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY’S TRACK RECORD, COMPLACENCY WOULD BE FOOLHARDY.
IN MY RESPONSE TO MR. FRIEDMAN’S PIECE:
Of course the Middle East players see the NIE as a sign that American can’t be the trusted neighborhood cop anymore even though the local thugs are still in business. Lot’s of players (think Russia and China) want to do business with Iran, and damn the consequences.
No one claims that this president was behind the NIE – that Mr. Bush was sandbagged is a more apt description.
Moreover, this is the second sandbag: Recall who told POTUS about Iraq’s WMD’s?
Here are the KEY questions:
Why was Secretary Rice busy six to ten months ago, attempting negotiations with Iran?
Why were rumors floated even a year ago that the administration would not, in the time remaining to it, attempt a military solution to the Iranian nuke problem?
Can we trust the new assessment?
Why was the assessment released now?
Why did Iran change course in 2003, 4 & 5?
Are we out of the woods as far as the Iran nuke problem is concerned?
The answer to the first two questions is now evident:
The core thrust of the assessment (recall that it is a compilation of opinion among sixteen intelligence agencies) was undoubtedly made known to key administration officials on a “heads up” basis some time ago.
HOW CAN WE TRUST THE NEW ASSESSMENT?
The assessment was not unanimous, has been openly disputed by Israeli intelligence and more quietly criticized by the British and the French.
What’s to trust? Every conclusion was hedged and qualified. After Mr. Tenet’s famous pre-Iraq invasion conversation with Mr. Bush, no one dares use the phrase “slam dunk” anymore.
All Intelligence about an authoritarian terror-supporting regime in the Middle East is stochastic, i.e., it consists in an assemblage of careful guesses compiled from clues and signs.
Iraq and Iran posed the same problem, differing in degree, not kind. Each regime wanted – and in Iran’s case still wants – to acquire and deploy fearsome WMD’s, and each wanted (and Iran still wants) to do terrible damage to us and our allies.
Assessments of this kind are essentially about capabilities and intentions. The new assessment does not even make the claim that the mullahs who rule Iran have given up the goal of acquiring WMD’s and missiles.
NO SERIOUS PLAYER IN THE MIDDLE EAST DOUBTS THAT IRAN STILL PLANS TO DEPLOY ATOMIC WEAPONS THE FIRST CHANCE OT GETS.
What new factor was probably operative in the changed assessment?
Assume arguendo, that somehow US intelligence sources discovered evidence in 2003 that Iran actually suspended some of the obvious activities needed to make a nuke.
Based on our Korean experience, we could reasonably conclude only one of two things, to wit:
That the regime had stopped everything – a conclusion not warranted without proof.
Or that the regime had a secret back-program going on out of view.
Prudence would have dictated the latter, pending more information.
[Note added in September, 2009: We now KNOW that the secret back-program scenario was the real one.]
Recall that Iran, unlike Iraq, was not experiencing meaningful sanctions – it had full access to the oil revenue stream, and Iran was not open to any UN inspection teams. No prudent intelligence agency or working group could possibly say “not to worry”. Given the magnitude of the potential threat, the intelligence community had to draw the most conservative conclusion reasonably possible (it would have been described as a “substantial ongoing risk”.
So on the day that the NIE was released, we might have reasonably concluded, without more, that new information – still classified – was acquired that strongly tends to rule out the existence of an Iranian clandestine back program.
But, because such information would necessarily be less than conclusive in the absence of comprehensive inspections, and because the regime’s ongoing malevolent aims remain crystal clear, we should also have concluded that the new “reassurance’ is strong enough only to stay the hand of those who would launch an immediate attack.
A few days later, the New York Times leaked classified reports to the effect that intercepted communications from disgruntled Iranian officials complaining about the suspension of the military nuclear weapons program were the basis of the NIE’s reassessment.
But no one in the mainstream medial has asked the question:
Was this newly acquired intelligence was deliberately allowed to fall into American hands just as the regime decided to reboot the nuclear weapons program in earnest?
[Note added 9-27-09: We can now state with high confidence that the so called ‘newly acquired intelligence” that all too conveniently fell into the hands of the New York Times was a trick, intended to lull us into complacency.]
The NIE did support the adoption of a timeline during which sanctions can be allowed to work and the prospect of getting a couple of year’s warning before being forced by circumstances to act.
I Noted in this 2007 piece that “no current viable candidate for president has dared to rule out military action against Iran in order to destroy a nuclear bomb program; and note that every serious player in both parties has declared that letting the current Iranian regime get the A-bomb is unacceptable.”
WHY WAS THE ASSESSMENT RELEASED NOW?
I’m sure someone in the White house staff at least toyed with the idea of burying the report until after the election. But any savvy political advisor would have raised a red flag. Without a doubt there would have been a leak. This was a “controlled release” for the benefit of the presidential candidates, to allow them to adjust and to avoid digging themselves in a hole, only to be caught out late in the campaign by a leak.
WHY DID IRAN CHANGE COURSE IN 2003-5?
This is a very important question.
The U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, accomplishing more in a few months than the Iranian armed forces could do in several years of bloody, inconclusive fighting. But that was just the beginning. Let’s take a look at the 2005 chronology. [All direct quotes are courtesy of the AP]
“Millions of Iraqis went to the polls. AP reported: “Insurgents carried out their threats to attack polling stations, but were not able to deter millions of Iraqis across the country from casting their votes.”
“Iraq’s electoral commission announced that the Shi’ite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance had won 140 seats in National Assembly, giving them a parliamentary majority. The Kurdistan Alliance took 26 percent of the vote, winning 75 seats, and the mainly-secular Iraqi List headed by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi won 11 percent of the vote and 40 seats. A Sunni-dominated party called “The Iraqis”, headed by interim Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawer, was allocated five seats, and eight smaller parties shared the remaining 15 seats. Officials said almost 8.5 million votes had been cast in the election and that overall voter turnout was 58 percent.”
NOTE: By the end of the year, partly masked by the Madrid bombings and a great deal of Al Qaeda mayhem in the region, the Iraqi assembly had been chosen, a constitution adopted, and Saddam had been tried and executed. As you read this chronology, recall that this was the news that Iran’s ruling mullahs were absorbing:
“The Iraqi tribunal investigating the crimes of the Saddam Hussein’s regime released videotape of their investigations, including one of Saddam himself being questioned. The Iraqi tribunal was released on Monday. Iraqi authorities said Saddam would be tried on 14 well-documented cases relating to alleged crimes committed during his 23-year rule, including: the killing of rival politicians, the gassing of Kurdish civilians in the northern town of Halabja in 1988, invading Kuwait in 1990, and ordering the killing of tens of thousands of Shiites and Kurds who rose up against him in 1991.”
“Iran elected the ultra-conservative former Mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to be the country’s next president. But the election was marred by allegations of unfair practices.”
“Iraq’s Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari met with Iranian leaders in Tehran, the first visit there by an Iraqi premier since the two countries severed relations in 1980 at the beginning of war between the two countries. … Since Saddam’s fall in 2003, Iraq had tried to get closer to Iran and heal the scars left by the 1980-88 war that killed more than 1 (m) million people on both sides.
“[N]egotiators at the Iraqi National Assembly announced they had agreed a draft constitution to be voted-on in a referendum in October.”
“Iraqi’s parliament approved a set of last-minute amendments to the draft constitution a few days before a national referendum on it, hoping to win Sunni support for the proposal. The central change would give Sunnis the opportunity — once the constitution is passed and a full-term parliament is elected in December — to try to make major changes to the charter…. Iraqis voted on the draft constitution in about 6000 polling stations across the country. …On October 25 election officials announced the results of the referendum — Iraq’s new constitution would go ahead as proposed. Sunni “No” campaigners had hoped to block it by taking two-thirds of the vote in at least three of Iraq’s provinces, but they won in only two.”
“Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, Head of the Islamic Supreme Council announced —
‘Today it was a day where consensus was reached between the main and the important parties of the Iraqi people. Consensus has been reached today which led to the launch of the Constitution draft which is now in the hands of the great Iraqi nation.’”
“Saddam Hussein struggled briefly after American military guards handed him over to Iraqi executioners before dawn Saturday. But as his final moments approached and masked executioners slipped a black cloth and noose around his neck, he grew calm. In a final moment of defiance, he refused a hood to cover his eyes. Hours after Saddam faced the same fate he was accused of inflicting on countless thousands during a quarter-century of ruthless power, Iraqi state television showed grainy video of what it said was his body, the head uncovered and the neck twisted at a sharp angle.”
WHY DID IRAN PUT ITS A-BOMB PROGRAM ON HOLD IN 2003-5?
[ASSUMING THE NIE IS CORRECT]
[Note: we shouldn’t think for a minute that putting an overt military program on hold is the same thing as suspending the program altogether.]
Had Saddam not been deposed and replaced with a more responsible regime, we would now be witnessing a nuclear arms race between Iraq and Iran, two rivals whose previous conflict cost more than one million lives. Clearly, one motive for Iran’s nuclear arms development program was to forestall another Iraqi attack, a risk no longer worth worrying about. Also, the new Iraq was no longer to be run by Saddam’s Sunni clique, but by the Shia, many of whom have family ties with Iranians.
The forceful regime changes in Iraq and Afghanistan had a sobering effect throughout the Middle East. Recall that Libya’s well developed nuclear program (farther along than the intelligence community ever realized) was voluntarily abandoned at the end of 2003.
The Iranians were playing with fire by stoking the insurgency next door because any spillover would have threatened the stability of their own regime. In this roiling context, it would make no rational sense to further antagonize the Europeans or continue to provide a pretext for another American invasion. A prudent (but temporary) stand down was in order.
ARE WE OUT OF THE WOODS AS FAR AS THE IRAN NUKE PROBLEM IS CONCERNED?
Of course not.
Iran is run by a terror sponsoring regime with the avowed aim of dominating the Middle East, employing a governance model and fanatical ideology that are shot through with chilling resonances: This could be Nazi Germany reborn sitting on the economic jugular vein of the western world. A nuclear armed Teheran is the jihadist wet dream.
Once a deliverable nuclear capability becomes a fait accompli, the reasonable prospect of invasion – or any other significant military action, even in self defense – is virtually off the table. This would be like confronting an armed band at the gates of your elementary school with a battery of pansies. [If you don’t dare shoot them, they might as well be flowers.]
In the hands of evil minds, the WMD card permits a pattern of unchecked bullying and intimidation. Then a bizarre militant like the puppet Mahmoud Ahmadinejad becomes a psychological weapon; the rhetoric of suicidal jihad itself becomes an additional deterrent; and the prospects of a truly deadly regional war on a vastly expanded scope become imminent.
As I recently wrote in response to Mr. Friedman’s column where he expressed the naïve assessment that a nuclear Iran can be contained as long as it is ruled by the current regime:
Give me a break. Containment of a suicidal jihad? Maybe and maybe not. Just whose lives are we willing to gamble?
Tom Friedman is a responsible liberal, the kind that is capable of supporting a conservative when the cause is right. But he seems to be suffering of late from the classic liberal naiveté — the kind that Mr. Truman, say, never succumbed to. Mr. Truman’s sense of political realism was forged in the hardball politics played in the boss Pendergast style in old Kansas City.
The Middle East is all about mendacity and hardball politics. It is mob-land. Rule one in mob-land: You don’t make nice except as a diplomatic gloss over the implicit threats. Rule two: You make good on your threats. No exceptions.
Some liberals are truly deluded; they actually think that you can rattle your can of beads and speak strongly, while never intending to use your stick. They are tone deaf to the snickers coming from mob-land.
Mr. Bush is disabled in office not because he invaded Iraq relying on outdated intelligence that assured him our troops would find WMD stockpiles. He is disabled because the left chose relentlessly to punish him for doing the right thing.
Our Iraq invasion operated as a powerful deterrent to our enemies in the region precisely because it demonstrated our will to act decisively against an enemy even when information about Saddam’s true capabilities was ambiguous. Nothing less than that kind of ruthlessness will deter the mendacious sneaks in mob-land.
We may not need to invade Iran. But we cannot afford anyone to doubt our capability and will to do so if and when the time comes.
Yes, regime change will eventually come to Iran. The younger generations there will not forever abide the atavistic rule of the mullahs. Pending that day, it remains important that they respect us in exactly the same sense that a mafia boss uses that term. The Iranian nuclear weapons program will reappear the very moment that the ruling mullahs think we will do nothing serious to stop them.
EXCERPTS FROM THE NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE ESTIMATE
NOTE – The Intelligence Cutoff date was 10-31-07
These are all verbatim quotes, but rearranged in sequence. In most cases, I’ve simply eliminated the “degree of confidence” qualifiers, especially when they began a sentence. Suffice it to say, the authors have left themselves the necessary wiggle room. My emphasis is in bold/underline.
“Until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons.
“Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapon.
“Convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult given the linkage many within the leadership probably see between nuclear weapons development and Iran’s key national security and foreign policy objectives, and given Iran’s considerable effort from at least the late 1980s to 2003 to develop such weapons.
“Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so. We cannot rule out that Iran has acquired from abroad—or will acquire in the future—a nuclear weapon or enough fissile material for a weapon. Barring such acquisitions, if Iran wants to have nuclear weapons it would need to produce sufficient amounts of fissile material indigenously—which we judge with high confidence it has not yet done.
“Iran probably would use covert facilities— rather than its declared nuclear sites—for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon. A growing amount of intelligence indicates Iran was engaged in covert uranium conversion and uranium enrichment activity, but we judge that these efforts probably were halted in response to the fall 2003 halt, and that these efforts probably had not been restarted through at least mid-2007.
“We assess centrifuge enrichment is how Iran probably could first produce enough fissile material for a weapon, if it decides to do so. Iran resumed its declared centrifuge enrichment activities in January 2006, despite the continued halt in the nuclear weapons program.
“Footnote: For the purposes of this Estimate, by “nuclear weapons program” we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.
“Iran made significant progress in 2007 installing centrifuges at Natanz, but we judge with moderate confidence it still faces significant technical problems operating them. Iran will not be technically capable of producing and reprocessing enough plutonium for a weapon before about 2015.”
HOW TO MAKE AN A-BOMB
HOW WE ARE BEING PLAYED
THE N I E REVISITED
THE NIE HAS PROVIDED NO GROUNDS FOR ANY RATIONAL OBSERVER TO THINK THAT IRAN SIMPLY ABANDONED ITS ATOMIC BOMB AMBITIONS.
Building Your Own A-bomb
Natural uranium is not fissile, i.e., it can’t be simply aggregated into the critical mass needed for an atomic fission reaction to become self sustaining – which is what happens in the melt down and explosion scenarios. What is needed to make that happen is a high concentration of the rare isotope, Uranium 235.
When large scale industrial processes increase the 235 concentration from the natural 1% to about 3 to 5%, a suitable fission reaction can be induced by bringing the 235 enriched fuel rods close together. This is how reactors generate power.
Managing an A-bomb explosion is much trickier.
First, the 235 concentration needs to be increased to weapons grade – about 90%. Then a new problem appears – one that had stumped the WWII Nazis and Russians. Just how does one manage to keep the sub-critical mass components safely separated and how then can they be brought together suddenly and precisely enough to bet a real explosion instead of a large meltdown? Thanks to Pakistan’s notorious A Q Kahn, that part of the bomb making recipe has been distributed, like some malevolent Johnny Appleseed, to Korea and – intelligence now believes – to Iran.
In WWII “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” were the nicknames of the a-bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Little Boy had a highly enriched uranium core and Fat Man had a plutonium core. Fat Man was much more powerful, but plutonium is much more difficult to refine than weapons grade plutonium.
It’s the Regime, Stupid
Not enough plutonium occurs in nature for bomb making, but it can be created out of depleted uranium. Pipes of depleted uranium (U 238, not fissile) can be “cooked” in peaceful nuclear reactors into a new metal that -via the alchemy of neutron bombardment – is a mix of U-238 and Plutonium-239. The latter is prime bomb material, in part because of its greater explosive potential per pound. It turns out that the used fuel rods of so-called “peaceful” reactors can be reprocessed for use in atomic bombs. Any country with a nuclear industry can – given the resources and time – make weapons grade plutonium from spent fuel rods. Canada ran a plutonium extraction plant near Ottawa, selling the product to the US military.
This brings up the central issue. No one fears Canada. Every rational player in the western security community fears Iran. Any country that has a nuclear program will be able, over time, to divert the products of its own peaceful nuclear activities into bombs. The key is whether we are talking about rational, responsible regimes or the other kind.
The current regime in Iran is the other kind.
Natanz – The Nuclear Trojan Horse
Iran maintains a huge well fortified uranium enrichment site at Natanz, a short drive south east of the city of Kashan. Most of the facility is underground. They are reportedly running (or soon will be running) about 50,000 centrifuges (used to separate/concentrate the U235). That’s a lot of centrifuges, even by first world standards. The underground part of the facility alone is about 60,000 square meters.
Teheran had declared that it wants Iran to become “self sufficient” in nuclear power over the next two decades (a worthy goal, say, for the US or a post terror Iran).
A facility this large is much bigger than one just intended for weapons making, but its very size makes it easy to do both at once without detection.
In late 2006, the IAEA found that, among other “suspicious activities” the Iranian regime had possession of “diagrams showing how to mold uranium metal into the shape of nuclear warheads and other traces of highly enriched uranium at sites linked to military research”.
MSNBC reported in November the same year that “Tehran has shrugged off both Security Council demands that it stop developing its enrichment programs and urgings that it cease construction of a heavy water research reactor that produces plutonium waste. It insists it wants enrichment only to generate nuclear power and says it needs the Arak research reactor to produce isotopes for medical research and cancer treatment.”
About That Syrian Faculty
Every Middle East security expert will tell you that Syria is Iran’s client. In this context, then, what are we to make of that mysterious facility 50 miles from the Iraq border that jets from the IDF blew up in September? Intelligence reports converge here: Syrian military personnel and Korean technicians on site, satellite images capturing a rapid Syrian site cleanup after the bombing, apparently right down to the dirt. This was no aspirin factory, and Israel’s Special Forces and air assets don’t pick targets casually.
What Really Happened in 2003-5?
I now think that a combination of budget pressures and worries about the very kind of attack that Israel visited on Syria led Iran to decide to continue its nuclear weapons program by hiding it in the open, cloaked within its civilian reactor program
Iran already has access to the bomb assembly technology. All that remains is to acquire or make the fissile bomb core material.
In 2008, Iran will be proceeding on two fronts:
(1) to buy weapons grade fissile material on the black market
(2) to bleed off the necessary material over time from their “civilian” program at Natanz and elsewhere.
Nothing has changed. We were deterring the Iranian regime before by making plain that:
A. If necessary, the US will destroy suspected nuclear bomb facilities before they can generate weapons to be used against us or our friends.
B. In the meantime we insist on transparency and meaningful oversight.
Never forget: They seek a fait accompli.