A Dangerous Lack of Intelligence
by Jonathan Rosenblum
December 13, 2007
Those looking for something to intensify their davening received a big boost last week from the release of the United States 2007 National Intelligence Estimate. As a consequence of that report, the odds in favor of Israel's long-term survival grew suddenly longer.
The unclassified report began with a bombshell: Iran, the NIE asserted with "high confidence," halted work on its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003. That opening sentence was carefully crafted, as the former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton pointed out, to ensure that the totality of the NIE’s conclusions would be ignored. It effectively tied President George W. Bush's hands and assured that he will not launch a military attack on Iran's nuclear sites.
While Bush gamely asserted that the United States would continue to push for international sanctions designed to curtail Iran's nuclear enrichment program, the wind was taken out of the sails of any move towards intensified sanctions.
The long and short of it, then, is that the chances of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons – or at the very least the ability to assemble them on short notice – have increased greatly. And in that context, it is worth remembering former Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh prediction that the minute Iran acquires the technical know-how to build a bomb, the Zionist dream will be history because every Israeli with the ability to leave will do so.
THE IMPORT OF THE NIE'S OPENING CONCLUSION is completely undermined by both logic and the NIE’s other findings. Most importantly, the NIE’s definition of a nuclear weapons program is nonsensical. The first footnote defines a nuclear weapons program exclusively in terms of weapons design (weaponization) and "secret" enrichment efforts. Thus the 3,000 centrifuges currently enriching uranium at Iran’s Natanz nuclear site do not constitute a nuclear weapons program under the NIE's definition because their existence is not secret. Those enrichment efforts, however, have already been the subject of condemnation in no less than three U.N. Security Council resolutions, and the subject of two sets of sanctions.
All experts agree that the most important component of any nuclear weapons program, and the crucial determinant of a nation's proximity in time to the acquisition of such weapons, is uranium enrichment. In this regard, the distinction between civilian and military enrichment is meaningless. As Valerie Lincy, the editor of Iranwatch, and Gary Milholin, the director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control , wrote in the December 6 New York Times, the higher grade enriched uranium necessary for nuclear weapons is only a matter of a few additional trips through the centrifuges. Low-enriched uranium can be stored and converted to high-enriched uranium needed for weapons in a matter of months. Lincy and Milholin conclude that the 3,000 centrifuges currently operating in Natanz would be sufficient to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb, if operated continuously for a year.
Besides enrichment, the other two components of a nuclear weapons program are the development or procurement of missiles to deliver the weapons and the fashioning of nuclear warheads. The NIE report refers only to the latter. Even on the assumption that Iran ceased work on weaponization in late 2003 and has not resumed such work (a conclusion about which the NIE expresses only "moderate" confidence), we have no way of knowing how far they had gone towards successful weaponization by that time. Mohamed El Baradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and a outspoken opponent of military action against Iran's nuclear facilities, nevertheless revealed last month that Iran has possessed since the 1990s a blueprint for a nuclear warhead provided by the rogue nuclear proliferation operation of Pakistani’s A.Q. Khan. Nor would Iran have had to develop its weapons indigenously. It could simply have purchased the necessary plans from North Korea or underemployed nuclear scientists from any of several nations, including Russia, Libya, or Pakistan.
With respect to missile development, Iran has openly boasted of successful testing of long-range Shahab missiles. The costly development of such missiles makes no sense other than as a means to deliver a nuclear cargo. Agence France-Presse reported that in 2005 Iran purchased from North Korea 18 Russian SS-N-6 ballistic missiles, reconstructed for launch from land-based mobile launchers and specifically designed to carry one-megaton nuclear warheads.
Shabtai Shavit, the former head of the Mossad, explained to The New Republic's Yossi Klein-Halevi why it would have made tactical sense for the Iranians to cease open work on the weapons track in 2003. At that time, Iran's enrichment efforts were experiencing numerous technical setbacks. Given that enrichment is the crucial component in obtaining a nuclear weapons capability, it made sense for the Iranians to stop work on weaponization -- the aspect of their nuclear weapons program that most clearly constituted a "smoking gun" -- until it its enrichment efforts were further along. With respect to the other two elements of nuclear weapons capability, Shavit's assessment is that by 2003 the Iranians had missiles ready for operation and had already made great progress on weaponization.
It defies logic to believe that Iran does not seek nuclear weapons capacity. For one thing, Iran has no need for civilian nuclear energy: It sits on the second largest oil and natural gas reserves of any country in the world, at a time when oil prices are skyrocketing. Moreover, it has no plausible reason for its own civilian enrichment program since Russia is under contract to supply all the low-enriched uranium Iran needs for civilian uses. If Iran has nevertheless incurred diplomatic isolation and painful sanctions in order to pursue its nuclear enrichment program, it must have a powerful desire for the fruits of that enrichment program.
The 2005 NIE concluded: "We assess that Teheran is determined to develop nuclear weapons – despite international obligations and international pressure. It is continuing to pursue uranium enrichment and has shown more interest in protracting negotiations than reaching an acceptable diplomatic solution." Nothing in the 2007 NIE contradicts that conclusion. The more recent assessment states that Iran is "at minimum keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons" and that it possesses "the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity" to do so. It adds that if Iran were to resume its weapons program (or already had) it would most likely do so in a clandestine fashion.
We know that Iran has pursued a nuclear weapons program almost from the beginning of the Islamic Revolution. Last week's NIE admits that many in the Iranian leadership see a clear linkage between "Iran's key national security and foreign policy objectives, and [that] given Iran's considerable effort from at least the late 1980s to 2003 to develop such weapons, . . . convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult. . . . " Indeed National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley admitted on the basis of the most recent NIE that Iran's covert nuclear weapons program, prior to 2003, was even "worse than we had thought."
It beggars the imagination to believe that Iran's determination to acquire nuclear weapons has waned under Ahmadinejad, who is obsessed with the Armageddon leading to the return of the "hidden Imam" and who has boasted "we must get ready to rule the world . . . the Islamic government in Iran is the pre-requisite for a world-wide Islamic state." Even under his "moderate" predecessor Mohammad Khatamei, Michael Rubin points out in the Middle East Quarterly, IAEA inspectors already found traces of uranium metal, an element important in nuclear weapons development but not in a civilian energy program, in Iranian centrifuges. In 2004, the IAEA found Iran had experimented with polonium-210, an element used to start the chain reaction leading to the detonation of a nuclear bomb. Iran also built heavy water reactor at its Arak research center. Such reactors, Lincy and Milholin note, are "ideal for producing plutonium for nuclear bombs, but . . . of little use in an energy program like Iran’s, which does not use plutonium for nuclear fuel."
AS WE HAVE SEEN, the claim that Iran halted at any point its nuclear weapons development program is based, in Lincy and Milholin's words, on a "ridiculously narrow" definition of a weapons program. And the force of that opening conclusion is vitiated by the NIE’s many qualifications.
But even on its own terms there is good cause to be skeptical about the NIE's conclusions. U.S intelligence has a notoriously poor record in predicting when other nations will acquire nuclear capabilities going all the way back to the Soviet Union's acquisition of nuclear weapons far in advance of American expectations. U.S. intelligence was surprised by Pakistan's going nuclear in 1998, was unaware of Libya's far advanced efforts to acquire nuclear weapons until the Libyans came clean, and apparently knew nothing of North Korea's assistance to Syria in building a nuclear facility over a period of seven years. Even if the most recent NIE is correct about Iran's stoppage of its weaponization program in 2003, the fact that it took 4 years to uncover the stoppage hardly inspires confidence.
The most recent NIE freely acknowledges the large gaps in intelligence both about what Iran is currently doing and what its intentions may be. U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, have for years referred to Iran as a "black" hole. And the bi-partisan Robb-Silverman commission on U.S. intelligence concluded in 2005 that the U.S. intelligence community "knows disturbingly little about the nuclear programs of the world's most dangerous actors."
Intelligence professionals around the world expressed their grave doubts about the American findings. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak stated Israel’s conclusion that even if Iran had temporarily halted weaponization efforts in 2003, it subsequently restarted those efforts. The Sunday Telegraph quoted senior British intelligence officials as "withering" in their assessment of American intelligence. Those officials expressed their opinion that the U.S. had quite possibly been "hoodwinked" by the Iranians, who knew that their conversations were being tapped and deliberately fed false information to those listening.
Even the New York Times expressed editorial doubts about the American findings and concern that they would lead to a misplaced complacency about Iran's nuclear intentions. Clinton administration arms control official, Gary Samore told the Los Angeles Times that the formulation of the NIE had not sufficiently emphasized the import of Iran's uranium enrichment activities, a sentiment echoed by Clinton's national security advisor Anthony Lake. Even the IAEA, which has been seen by the Bush administration as consistently downplaying the Iraqi threat, treated the NIE’s bombshell opening conclusion with a degree of skepticism. The New York Times quoted an anonymous IAEA official as saying, "We don’t buy the American analysis 100%. We are not that generous with Iran."
HOWEVER QUESTIONABLE both the wording and the content of the NIE’s conclusions, they appear likely to exercise considerable influence on all subsequent policy towards Iran. Indeed it is impossible to escape the conclusion that the highly misleading opening sentence of the NIE was carefully crafted to determine the outcome of a policy debate within the administration. Whether that is because President Bush wanted his hands tied, as Robert Baer, a former CIA operative, claimed in Time, or because the three former State Department bureaucrats who drafted the NIE decided to make it impossible for the president to embark on another military misadventure (in their eyes) remains to be seen.
Former chief arms negotiator and U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, took the latter view. He told Reuters that the authors of the NIE had executed a quasi-putsch. What is clear, despite some feeble presidential denials, is that all options are no longer on the table. There will be no United States military strike to curtail Iranian nuclear ambitions on this president’s watch.
And if an outgoing, lame duck president, long considered the only leader who might order a strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities, will not do so, it’s a sure bet none of his likely successors will either. The immediate reaction of all leading Democrats to the release of the NIE did not exactly inspire confidence in their ability to deal with the Iran. All seized upon the opening sentence of the assessment to urge diplomatic overtures to Iran to encourage it to cease its uranium enrichment.
Nothing in the report, however, gave any credence to the viability of diplomatic initiatives alone. Four years of failed European diplomatic efforts demonstrate the futility of diplomacy not supported by credible threats. If Iran did stop work on any part of its nuclear weapons program in 2003, the decision to do so had nothing to do with diplomacy, unless one is referring to von Clausewitz’s definition of war "as diplomacy by other means." The only plausible impetus for such an Iranian response in 2003, as well as Libya’s coming clear about its nuclear program, was the American invasion of Iraq that year. And, as Bolton noted with typical sarcasm, that invasion can hardly be described as a "diplomatic pas de deux."
All top American officials, from the President on down, continue to insist that the NIE report does not undercut the need for increased sanctions against Iran – indeed that it strengthens the case by showing the Iran may be more susceptible to pressure than previously thought. Yet the case for sanctions has been undermined. For if Iran is "halted" its nuclear weapons program, and the 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz are characterized as "civilian," what is the justification for further sanctions against Iran for its enrichment efforts at Natanz.
At the time the NIE was released, China and Russia had tentatively signed on to another Security Council sanctions resolution. But as soon as the NIE appeared, both countries – among Iran’s largest trading partners -- latched on to the opening sentence to argue that there is no need for new sanctions. NATO ministers appear to still be on board for additional sanctions, and the British, French, and German governments all issued statements reiterating the danger inherent in Iran’s enrichments activities. But the growing momentum for sanctions has certainly been lost. A top defense policymaker told me last week that the best bet for extracting serious sanctions from the Europeans was President Bush scaring them that if they did not go along, he would have no choice but to exercise the military option. That option no longer exists.
The United States was not the only party whose military option may have been taken off the table. An Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities has always been a poor second choice to American action. Israeli bombers would have to fly over 1,000 miles, much of it over hostile airspace, and hit widely dispersed targets, many of them heavily bunkered. The United States could strike from aircraft carriers adjacent to Iran in the Persian Gulf. In addition, the United States could mount simultaneous amphibious assaults to capture Iran’s coastal oil refineries and close the Straits of Hormuz, with the intent of bringing Iran to a standstill once its refined oil supplies disappeared. Israel has no such capability, and would have to rely exclusively on air strikes, the success of which are by no means guaranteed.
Prior to issuance of the NIE, Israel might, at least, have hoped that a successful bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities would earn it at most pro forma condemnations from the Europeans, and a large sigh of relief from even long-time enemies, such as the Saudis, who fear Iran far more than they do Israel. But in the wake of the NIE, it is clear that Israel’s enemies, including the Europeans, would feel constrained to condemn Israel’s actions in the strongest terms, and perhaps even impose sanctions. Israel would bear the blame for the inevitable spike in world oil prices and for the devastation unleashed around the world by Iranian sleeper terrorist cells.
The NIE was a blow to Israel in another way as well. Secretary of State Rice sold the Annapolis conference to Israel as the price to be paid for assembling a united front against Iran. It is possible that Israel would never have agreed to attend, given the minute chances of success and the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to even acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, had it not been for implied side agreements vis-à-vis Iran. Yet those implicit understandings have now declined in value to about the same point as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s popularity. Israel’s leaders, or what passes for such, would be perfectly entitled to feel betrayed by the release of the NIE, immediately after Annapolis.
But as we said at the beginning, its always good to have a spur to intensified davening, even as we remember that our fate does not depend on the bookmakers’ odds (ein mazal b’Yisroel), but rather on the favor of our Merciful Father in Heaven.
This article appeared in the Yated Ne'eman on December 13 2007.
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list