US intelligence recently concluded that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago. Has the prospect of US – or Israeli – pre-emptive strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities therefore been averted? Intelligence specialist Peter Coates reports.
On December 3, 2007, the US Government decided to release a highly significant intelligence estimate judging that Iran actually “halted” its nuclear weapons program in “the fall [around October] 2003”. The estimate was eight pages of “Key Judgements”, drawn from a 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities, which still contains 140 pages of classified evidence and argument. The “Key Judgements” effectively contradict existing US policy which assumed that Iran was aggressively moving toward a nuclear weapons capability.
Some commentators have jumped to the conclusion that the 2007 NIE is a major embarrassment for the Bush Administration, as it has again demonstrated that Bush may have been relying on faulty intelligence (in the form of the earlier 2005 NIE) in determining his foreign policy positions. This assumes, though, that the 2007 NIE is accurate. After the wildly inaccurate 2002-2003 (“Iraq has Weapons of Mass Destruction”) assessments, few have maintained faith in high-level US intelligence media releases.
Intelligence assessments that are published should always raise the suspicion that they reflect a quiet change in US policy.
The 2007 NIE may have reduced President Bush’s military options for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, but Bush might not consider that a bad thing. Bush may publicly disagree with the NIE, yet he may well be finding benefit in the political flexibility that the NIE gives him.
The altered US intelligence estimate essentially provides President Bush with sound reasons to free up America’s Iran policy in line with American interests rather than being attached to Israel’s oft-threatened preference for military action against Iran.
The NIE allows President Bush, in discussions with Israel, to allude to the authority of the US intelligence community along the lines of: “It is the US intelligence community which has come up with something new that forces me to downgrade the option of bombing Iran.” Bush does not have to say he is voluntarily breaking a promise to Israel.
The timing given in one of the Key Judgements may well release the Bush Administration itself from its apparent promise to Israel to lead a joint US-Israeli attack if diplomatic pressure failed. The judgement states in part that “the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough [highly enriched uranium] HEU for a weapon is late 2009…”.
This can be interpreted to mean that any need for a US attack on Iran would be after the November 2008 US Presidential election and after Bush left office in January 2009.
Hence in the cynical world of politics Bush would be aware that a pre-election attack on Iran would be seen as yet another unpopular Republican military venture (on top of Iraq and Afghanistan) that would reduce the possibility of a Republican President being elected. An attack on Iran, if or when it is necessary, would lead to steeply rising oil prices – a prospect Bush would prefer to leave for the next President who is most likely to be a Democrat, Hillary Clinton.
The NIE also signals to Israel that it should not attempt a unilateral attack on Iran in an attempt to draw America into the fight. Israel can no longer count on US support under Bush. Hence Israel might be militarily and politically isolated.
Timing for Israel vis à vis its alliance with the US is crucial. Israel may have presumed that, if it needed to attack Iran, it should do so under an interventionist and sympathetic Bush Administration and not postpone an attack until 2009 when the support of a (likely) Democrat administration would be less certain.
Iran’s covert program can be traced back to the mid-1980s when Iran was at war with Iraq and fearful that Iraq might secure a nuclear weapon. The Iranian program involved three main components:
• designing nuclear devices (reportedly with assistance from Pakistan and North Korea);
• ballistic-missile delivery (the range of Iran’s missiles – reportedly around 2,100 km – makes them a threat to Israel), and
• uranium enrichment, the most difficult and drawn out component.
Iran’s reasons for pursuing a nuclear program, chiefly nuclear threats and nuclear competition, have not simply evaporated because a NIE has been written in Washington. Iran usually points only to Israel and the US as nuclear threats. Saudi Arabia is believed to be pursuing nuclear programs of its own with Pakistani assistance. This may be in return for vast financial help the Saudis gave towards Pakistan’s successful nuclear effort. Pakistan itself is also a potential nuclear threat to Iran, as is Russia.
A common (and perhaps accurate) Israeli view is that the NIE’s references to an Iranian nuclear “halt” are misleading, as it is only Iran’s current low rate of enriched uranium production that is blocking Iran’s nuclear program from completion.
Shabtai Shavit, a former head of Mossad, has commented: “My assessment is that, after they decided to aim for nuclear weapons, they advanced on three parallel tracks: enriching uranium, creating components for a bomb, and developing missiles.
“The missiles are ready for operation. As for enrichment, they have encountered all kinds of problems, like exploding centrifuges. I estimate that they made great progress, and very quickly, on the military track. Since they have problems with the uranium enrichment track, they can allow themselves to delay the military track, and wait for progress with uranium.”
Shavit’s explanation seems to make sense. Why would Iran continue to develop a nuclear bomb and thus risk this bomb being destroyed by US and Israeli aircraft if the essential component of enriched uranium was nowhere near ready? Put another way, a nuclear weapons program is designed to make a powerful bomb, not to give other countries an excuse to attack a powerless target. Therefore Iran may only have delayed its overall program.
Further issues with the NIE are that its Key Judgements are imprecise and based on a vast amount of conflicting human intelligence, intercepts and satellite imagery. It provides a consensus view that judges which evidence has the most credibility. As an example, a report that Iran was attempting to extract nuclear weapon technology from the Ukrainians as late as 2004 has been reported to US officials, and was presumably mentioned in the NIE, but was clearly rejected.
A further criticism of the NIE is that it judges that “Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure”. Economic sanctions and political pressure rarely work, but the Libyan example shows the effectiveness of military action.
In 2003, US focus was on the invasion of Iraq rather than increasing economic and political pressure on Libya over its nuclear weapons program. Yet, in December 2003, Libya dismantled its nuclear program following Libyan concerns that the US would escalate military action following a seizure in October 2003 by US-led naval forces of a shipment of uranium enrichment components bound for Libya. Libya would also have seen the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 as an example of what could happen to those countries, such as Libya, that the US had labelled “rogue states”.
If the NIE’s judgement that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in late 2003 is to be believed, then it is more likely that this extraordinary development occurred due to the US invasion of Iran’s neighbour, Iraq, several months before, rather than being due to long-term international political and economic pressure.
The US invasion of Iraq therefore could be seen as having the fortuitous effect of leading Libya to dismantle its program and, perhaps, slowing Iran’s program to build a nuclear device.
US military action may still occur. The Bush Administration may use the NIE as a means of attempting to pressure Iran into halting nuclear weapons development permanently. At its most ambitious the NEI could be redeveloped into a set of ideal principles that Iran would be expected to live by.
These principles may be along the lines of – in return for a lower chance of US attack, Iran should agree to no further development of nuclear devices and to not enriching uranium above civilian levels (around four per cent). Any breach of these principles could justify US bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities. In this way, the NIE could actually legitimise the concept of military attack.
Now that Israel finds that the combined intelligence agencies of its most important ally have rejected Israel’s fears about its most dangerous perceived threat, Israel may still act unilaterally. It might bomb several Iranian nuclear installations (the main one being the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz), with the expectation that the reaction from Iran (terrorism and military responses) and Hezbollah (launching rockets against Israel again) would be so severe that the US would be drawn in.
Rising oil prices
If the US refuses to be drawn in militarily, then the rapid rise in international oil prices would in any case encourage the US to broker a peace deal. Having destroyed some key Iranian nuclear facilities and set back the Iranian program by years, Israel would gain from the newly revised status quo.
International politics is a Machiavellian game, and nuclear politics more cynical than most. Israel, a friend, has nuclear weapons and strives to maintain its nuclear advantage in the region. It is better that the US avoids reinterpretations of reality called intelligence, that might only encourage more Islamic bombs.
– the author Peter Coates is an independent researcher who formerly worked for the Australian Government on intelligence and policy issues.