The NIE and Iran

Even in diplomatic defeat, the president can't get his story straight: “I think it is very important for the international community to recognize the fact that if Iran were to develop the knowledge that they could transfer to a clandestine … Read More

By / December 4, 2007

Even in diplomatic defeat, the president can't get his story straight:

“I think it is very important for the international community to recognize the fact that if Iran were to develop the knowledge that they could transfer to a clandestine program, it would create a danger for the world,” he said.

Of course, one of the key findings of the much-bruited National Intelligence Estimate — apart from the one that says Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, nothing to see here, folks — is that Iran already has the knowledge that it could transfer to a clandestine program.

I quote Paragraph H from the Key Judgments of the NIE Summary:

"We assess with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so."

A major concern of which is that the know-how to build a bomb doesn't just mean Iran can build one; it also means it can sell that know-how to other rogue states. There is also the matter of how Iran came to possess this know-how. According to Article III of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory, all parties are prohibited from providing "(a) source or special fissionable material, or (b) equipment or material especially designed or prepared for the processing, use or production of special fissionable material, to any non-nuclear-weapon State for peaceful purposes, unless the source or special fissionable material shall be subject to the safeguards required by this Article."

So how did Iran acquire its uranium enrichment technology. According to the IAEA's Board Report of November 2007, the source of Iran's acquisition of fuel cycle facilities and technology between 1972 and 1995 remains shrouded in mystery:

Bearing in mind the long history and complexity of the programme and the dual nature of enrichment technology, the Agency is not in a position, based on the information currently available to it, to draw conclusions about the original underlying nature of parts of the programme. Further light must be shed on this question when other aspects of the work plan have been addressed and when the Agency has been able to verify the completeness of Iran's declarations.

Who gave them this stuff, and why is the IAEA have trouble identifying the party? Does the transfer of this technology constitute a breach of the NPT?

Further, despite the somewhat sanguine summary conclusions of the IAEA report that the "Agency has been able to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran," it nevertheless concedes that "since early 2006, the Agency has not received the type of information that Iran had previously been providing, pursuant to the Additional Protocol and as a transparency measure. As a result, the Agency's knowledge about Iran's current nuclear programme is diminishing." [Italics added.]

The IAEA also cannot state with certainty that there do not exist "undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran."

So where does this, coupled with the latest NIE finding, leave us? I find I agree with Max Boot at Commentary:

Basically you are left with the knowledge that the Iranians are pursuing nuclear work that probably won’t result in a bomb in the next couple of years but that could produce a weapon sometime thereafter. And most of those key judgments are delivered with only “moderate confidence.” Given the intelligence community’s consistent track record of being wrong in the past, especially about other nations’ nuclear programs (the CIA has been surprised in the past by, among others, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, India, and Pakistan) that doesn’t inspire much, well, confidence.

UPDATE: I was holding my breath until the first commenter took this all to mean: Bomb Iran. Took about an hour or so, which means I lose the office bet (I had five minutes, and only because the post went up at around 3:30, naptime for the blogosphere).

Let me be clear about my own position: I've thought for months that the hawkish rhetoric was overblown and that there were no imminent plans to take out Iran's nuclear facilities — views expressed by both Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Weekly Standard, and Steve Clemons of the New American Foundation. See here, and here. Nor did I ever think "not taking a military response off the table" — the policy of both George Bush and Nicolas Sarkozy — was so terribly scandalous a posture since when is it ever off table with respect to an international crisis? 

However, I draw your attention to the above because even moving forward diplomatically means knowing what the U.S. and Europe still face in ensuring that Iran never gets its hands on a nuke. Can we agree that this information is important whatever your politics or worldview? 

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