Israel adds a (much anticipated) dissent on Iran NIE

The list is growing. Israel has now come out against the United States’ National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, declaring that the country is three years away from obtaining offensive nuclear capabilities. Mossad chief Meir Dagan presented that assessment to a Knesset committee Monday, and added that the NIE “pulls the rug out from under” attempts to halt the Iranian program diplomatically, “leaving Israel to face the threat alone.”

Who is out there actually defending the NIE? Israel now joins the French, the President of the United States, and the U.S. Director of National Intelligence in concluding that Iran is still on the path to a nuke, despite the NIE’s judgment that Iran halted its nuclear weaponization program years ago. Like the other NIE skeptics, Israel homes in on two key pillars of a nuclear program, including uranium enrichment and ballistic missile construction, and concludes that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are alive and thriving. (President Bush made this case publicly, as well.)

Israel’s departure with the NIE differed in that it rebuked the document itself as diplomatically counterproductive, something that, so far, only staunch critics of the intelligence community in the United States have done. Israel’s reaction is hardly surprising, of course, given its particularly precarious position in the region, and its long-standing insistence that Iran is either close or very close to developing a nuclear weapon.

But the fact that Israel is now on record against the U.S. conclusion is an important development, and could signal the start of a new international alliance, backed by President Bush himself, against the NIE’s conclusion, which will continue to be painted as rosy, overly optimistic, and fundamentally off-the-mark because it doesn’t rank the enrichment and missile programs highly enough in the final calculation. Will the authors of the NIE defend their work again, as they did so forcefully when their key judgments were declassified late last year? Stay tuned.

In the meantime, here’s something from the vault on Israel’s historic insistence that Iran was practically within reach of a nuke. In October 2006, I sat in on a meeting between then-Congressman Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican, and Daniel Ayalon, then Israel’s ambassador to the United States. (I was writing a profile of Weldon, and the two men had previously scheduled this meeting in Weldon’s office.) The conversation turned to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a topic that had possessed Weldon’s interest. Like the Israelis, he insisted that Iran was closer to a weapon than most people thought, and that the United States perilously underestimated the regime.

Weldon told Ayalon that Iran would have a nuclear weapon in two years. A military attaché who had accompanied Ayalon to the meeting replied, with a smile, “We say less.” It was a chilling moment, in and of itself. But it also stood out because, at the time, such a dire assessment was at odds with most experts’ opinion, as well as the judgment of the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies. They estimated then that Iran’s weapons program was at least five years from maturity and probably more, given Iran’s difficulty producing the necessary materials for a bomb. It’s worth noting that, around the time of this meeting, the intelligence community would have been in the early stages of its reassessment of the Iranian program, which resulted in last year’s NIE and the about-face on the previous assessment.