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Fact Sheets: Good News, Bad News on Iran

(Updated December 2007)

The highly publicized release of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of the United States is largely being portrayed as an indication that the Bush Administration has been falsely and hysterically whipping up opposition against a non-existent Iranian nuclear weapons program to impose draconian sanctions on Iran and possibly justify military intervention. The NIE actually is a mixed bag and is not the only basis for judging Iran’s capabilities or ambitions.

First, the good news. The major finding of the NIE is that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and America’s spy agencies believe the program remains frozen. The report also said Iran is not expected to have the capability to build a weapon until the middle of the next decade.

If this information is correct, the international community, which has expressed its determination to prevent Iran from acquiring a bomb, has more time to pursue various non-military measures to ensure Iran never develops a nuclear weapon. It may also be the case that the sanctions that have been employed have had some impact on Iranian policy and raise the possibility they may succeed in permanently derailing the nuclear program.

The bad news is that the NIE may be wrong. Iran continues to act like a country that is concealing its activities and publicly declaring at every opportunity its commitment to develop a nuclear capability that could have non-peaceful applications. The NIE reports that Iran is continuing to produce enriched uranium, in defiance of UN resolutions, which would allow Iran to produce a weapon, albeit later than previously believed.

The analysts who wrote the NIE also have no way of judging Iranian intentions. They cannot predict whether Iran plans to restart its program at any time in the future or if it is content to enrich uranium for the time being and then divert it to military purposes later.

Before jumping to conclusions based on a single report, it is also important to remember that the international community has a poor record in monitoring covert nuclear programs and preventing determined rogue nations from developing weapons. The United States intelligence agencies’ record, particularly in light of policies toward Iraq, is especially suspect.

Furthermore, the report seems to contradict other evidence that Iran remains committed to aquiring a nuclear weapon. In particular, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has documented that Iran has installed gas centrifuges that have the potential to eventually produce enough enriched uranium to provide fuel for a bomb. If Iran had no nuclear ambitions, it would have no need for this capability given that Russia has agreed to supply the enriched uranium Iran would need for a peaceful energy program. Furthermore, Iran is building a heavy water reactor at its research center at Arak, which is not needed to produce energy, but would be useful for producing plutonium for nuclear weapons.

The NIE should be taken seriously, but the United States is not the only country with an intelligence service monitoring developments in Iran. Given the experience with Iraq, it should not be surprising if other nations were skeptical of American intelligence reports and make independent judgements. The fact that the leaders of Great Britain, France and Germany, as well as the Gulf Arab States, have also expressed consistent alarm at the Iranian program suggests that the U.S. estimate may be overly sanguine. French Foreign Minister Herve Morin, for example, stated on January 31, 2008, “Coordinated information from a number of intelligence services leads us to believe that Iran has not given up its wish to pursue its (nuclear) program,” and is “continuing to develop [it].”

Israel, which is the one country that has been directly threatened by Iran, also makes its own intelligence estimates. The latest public statements by Israeli officials indicated they believe Iran could have a weapon by the end of the decade.

If you want to consider Israel pessimistic and the United States optimistic, the analysts still foresee Iran having the capability to build a bomb in anywhere from 2 to 7 years. That is a big difference, but allows for some time to acquire more information and pursue political-diplomatic-economic strategies to try to ensure Iran never acquires the means to construct a weapon.

The question for policymakers is whether they can afford to err on the side of caution. Before embarking on more dramatic measures, such as a military strike, it behooves them to consider the alternatives and the reality of the danger. Leaders must also take into account the ramifications of miscalculating and underestimating the threat. Once Iran has the bomb, it is too late and the strategic map of the Middle East will change overnight. A leader of a country threatened with annihilation may not want to take the chance of waiting too long to act because of overly optimistic projections or hopeful guesses of Iranian intentions.