Iran Estimate: Debate Persists

On December 3, 2007, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell declassified a set of key judgments from a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear weapon. The judgments may have contained some good news — namely, “that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program” — but few in the upper ranks of the Bush administration warmly embraced this declaration.

Indeed, in the month after the release, McConnell and President Bush publicly distanced themselves from the NIE’s dramatic headline. Key American allies went further: The French defense minister and the head of Israeli intelligence declared the NIE wrong, contending that Iran’s weapons work continues.

All of those officials, who play key roles in pressing for further international sanctions against Iran, say that Tehran continues to publicly enrich uranium under the implausible auspices of a civilian energy program, and that it continues to test-fire ballistic missiles. Bush used his State of the Union address to remind the world of these two facts and to assert that Iran remains as much of a threat as it was before December 3.

With the key judgments public, intelligence officials and weapons experts are in a definitional sparring match over what constitutes a nuclear weapons program, whether the NIE should have been released at all, and how the estimate was written. The key judgments acknowledged the points that Bush made in his speech. But the final document emphasized the riveting new information about the halted “nuclear weapons program” rather than Iran’s ongoing enrichment and missile activities.

Furthermore, the NIE narrowly defines the program as consisting of weapons “design work,” presumably for a warhead that can be put atop a missile, plus some covert enrichment activities. The estimate explicitly states that the weapons program does not include Iran’s publicly acknowledged uranium enrichment work, which Tehran says is aimed at low-level enrichment that can be used for civilian nuclear power. Skeptics say that if Iran masters low-level uranium enrichment it can eventually develop the high-level enrichment necessary for a nuclear bomb.

The definition of what exactly constitutes a weapons program is important, but the key judgments relegated it to a footnote. Some former intelligence officials say that the footnoted information could have been stated more boldly, and they speculate whether the key judgments were deliberately written in such a way as to convince readers that Iran’s nuclear threat has lessened. Intelligence estimates, by definition, are supposed to state the views of the intelligence community, not to argue policy, these former officials say.

There is little evidence to indicate that intelligence analysts are trying to pre-empt a U.S. invasion of Iran by undercutting the Bush administration’s ostensible rationale for such action. But the NIE leaves many of the intelligence community’s supporters wondering if its authors grasped how the document would be read — quickly, incautiously, and through political lenses. If the NIE was meant to clarify matters on Iran, it has arguably failed.

A number of longtime intelligence analysts and weapons experts, including those who have helped draft NIEs in the past and hold no particular allegiance to Bush, criticize the key judgments as poorly written, politically tone-deaf, and betraying a fundamental misunderstanding of what actually constitutes a nuclear weapons program.

Production of fissile material — highly enriched uranium, or plutonium — is generally viewed as the long pole in the nuclear tent. Once a country overcomes that hurdle, the path to a finished nuclear weapon is downhill. Iran may have halted some design activities, but how significant is that in light of its continuing low-level uranium enrichment and missile testing? As one former intelligence official with experience in NIEs put it, the intelligence community seemed to go to great lengths to answer the least important question — the work on a warhead design.

Defenders of the NIE, including the senior officials and analysts who wrote it, counter that the document is the product of new, compelling information and a rigorous, top-to-bottom scrubbing of all the known intelligence about Iranian nuclear issues. One former senior intelligence official close to the NIE’s drafters said that journalists had blown the top finding out of proportion. Indeed, the clause immediately following the opening sentence, which declared that the program was halted in 2003, reads, “We also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”

The key judgments clearly didn’t give the Iranians a “clean bill of health,” says Jeffrey Lewis, who directs the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation and runs the blog “The press reporting took a badly written NIE and pulled out probably the least important fact, or misidentified what the NIE said,” Lewis argues.

Reporters weren’t the only ones to run with the headline, however. Meir Dagan, the head of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, blasted the key judgments before a Knesset committee earlier this month. The document “pulls the rug out from under” the push for stricter Iran sanctions, he said. The U.S. estimate leaves “Israel to face the threat alone,” Dagan added.

A few days earlier, the French defense minister, Herve Morin, said during a visit to Washington, “Coordinated information from a number of intelligence services” had led the French to believe that Iran is “continuing to develop” a nuclear weapon.

Both Dagan and Morin presumably have access to information that was not contained in the declassified judgments. But even the U.S. intelligence community’s top man has publicly tried to shift attention away from the NIE’s conclusion about Iran’s narrowly defined weapons program. McConnell, like Bush, has been far more emphatic about the threat that Iran poses. Eschewing the hedged language of his analysts — “high confidence,” “moderate confidence” — his assessments are more rigid and more focused on Iran’s growing strength. In a lengthy January profile in The New Yorker, McConnell said, “There’s no doubt in this observer’s mind that Iran is on the path to get a nuclear weapon. It will force an arms race in the region.”

Where Iran lies on its road to nuclear status may be up for debate. But on one fact, all sides agree: Without all of the key components — fissile material, a compact and resilient warhead, and a long-range missile to deliver it — Iran has no nuclear weapon. Could Iran make a nuclear device that might work? Maybe. Does it have the technological infrastructure to go further? Certainly. But does Iran have a viable, long-range weapon with which to threaten its neighbors? No.

And perhaps that was the intelligence community’s point in the NIE. If the Iranian nuclear program were likened to a three-legged stool, then one leg — the weapons design — was taken out nearly five years ago. It could be repaired, but in the meantime, the stool is useless.

“I turn the tables on the critics of the NIE,” says George Friedman, the head of Stratfor, a private intelligence firm. “Lay out the number of components you need to produce a weapon. If there is one that the Iranians weren’t working on, they have no program.”

But this assessment may ignore the political realities of Iranian nuclear ambitions. Tehran’s possession of even a rudimentary nuclear device could fundamentally upset the regional power balance. “Would you like to have to convince Israel or the Saudis not to worry that these devices are too large and crude to be delivered by missiles?” asks David Kay. He is the former United Nations chief weapons inspector who led the 2003 Iraq Survey Group that found that Saddam Hussein no longer possessed weapons of mass destruction. “Nukes are less about war fighting than about politics by other means,” he says.

Kay adds that the intelligence community is apparently conflicted about Iran’s capabilities and its intentions. A bullet point within the key judgments states, parenthetically, that because of “intelligence gaps,” the Energy Department and the National Intelligence Council “assess with only moderate confidence” that Iran’s 2003 halt to the weapons design program represented a stop to the “entire nuclear weapons program.”

“That’s a direct contradiction of the first sentence,” which declared that the program had halted, Kay says, “and yet it doesn’t come after the first sentence, which implies that all 16 agencies are in agreement.” The Energy Department’s less confident view is especially worrisome, Kay says, because DOE oversees the nation’s nuclear laboratories and has the most nuclear weapons expertise within the intelligence community.

For his part, McConnell appears to understand that his release of the key judgments has affected not only the political climate but also the future work of his analysts and spies. He told The New Yorker, “I think putting it out was the right thing.” But he admitted that the intelligence community continues to need better information to verify if Iran has restarted its weapons design work.

“Our job is to steal the secrets of foreign governments or foreign terrorist organizations, and so the more they know about the effectiveness of our tradecraft the more difficult it’s going to be for us,” McConnell said. “For the community I represent, I just made our life a lot harder.”

Published in National Journal