A Curious Coincidence

Ed Morrisey has a good synopsis of the declassified National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. (The document itself is available here.) It’s conclusions are quite interesting:

We assess with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons.

Glenn Reynolds puts it best: “Well, that’s convenient.” Indeed, it’s quite interesting to note when Tehran apparently stopped working on their nuclear program. We know that Mohammar Qadafi stopped Libya’s nuclear program in response to the removal of the Hussein regime. Now it appears that the national intelligence community finds the same pattern of behavior in Iran.

It would appear that the war in Iraq had a greater deterrent effect than we had thought previously and made the calculus in developing weapons of mass destruction less desirable than before. For years now we’ve heard the opposite argument be made: that rogue regimes would rush to develop nuclear weapons to avoid being attacked by the US. North Korea’s attempt at nuclear blackmail didn’t even get them to force the US into bilateral talks instead of multilateral ones, and the destruction of a suspected Syrian nuclear facility has only highlighted just how seriously the US and its allies take nuclear proliferation.

There is another explanation, but one which changes the Iraq War from a direct cause to an indirect one: it was in the fall of 2003 that the A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network was destroyed. Without that assistance, it’s possible that the Iranians couldn’t develop a workable weapon on their own or judged it too difficult to be useful. Still, the A.Q. Khan network was removed because of Libya’s choice to dismantle their nuclear program, which in turn was inspired by the war in Iraq. In either way, Iran’s decision-making was influenced by the destruction of the Hussein regime.

We judge with high confidence that the halt lasted at least several years. (Because of intelligence gaps discussed elsewhere in this Estimate, however, DOE and the NIC assess with only moderate confidence that the halt to those activities represents a halt to Iran’s entire nuclear weapons program.)

In other words, we don’t know if Tehran has really stopped weapons production now. Given that the Iranians are admitting to building thousands of centrifuges, it is quite likely that Iran has not halted their entire nuclear weapons program, but are creating a “just-in-time” system that would give them both weaponized nuclear material and a working device that could be combined as needed. There’s some risk that the resulting device wouldn’t work, but even if it just sprays the uranium around the Iranians have a perfectly workable “dirty bomb.”

We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.

Intelligence is always fuzzy, but policymakers should not blindly hope for the best. If there’s any reasonable chance that Tehran will develop a bomb it makes sense to ensure that the costs of doing so are untenably high.

We continue to assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapon.

The fact that they’re not absolutely sure that they don’t should scare the hell out of everyone. Fortunately, it’s unlikely that they do, but the risks of a nuclear-armed Iran are too great to be countenanced.

Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005. Our assessment that the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously.

That is a bit of good news, but the question is how long the West will be willing to keep the pressure up. The costs of building a nuclear weapon need to be far higher than any possible benefit: and even that assumes that the people who have the bomb are subject to such a rational calculus. If a nuclear weapon fell into the hands of terrorists, it’s not clear whether they’d care whether the US launched a nuclear response. For that matter, who would we attack if al-Qaeda launched a nuclear attack on a major American city? The country where they got the nuke? What if they weren’t directly responsible for the lapse in security? The country that hosted the terrorists? Again, what if al-Qaeda was not there at the behest of that government?

The conventional doctrines of mutually assured destruction and retaliation don’t work in the context of nuclear terrorism: which is why the risk of a terrorist group getting their hands on a nuke is a nightmare scenario for the United States. If we miscalculate the intentions of the Iranian regime and they do think that they can give a nuke to terrorists and claim plausible deniability, what would our move be? There is a huge amount of risk in a policy of containment, and if there’s any reasonable chance of it failing then policymakers have to follow a different path.

We cannot allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon, and we have a lot of ambiguity as to what Iran’s intentions and capabilities are. We need more intelligence on the ground in Iran so that we have some warning before Iran goes nuclear. The fact that we know so little now should be deeply disturbing: the last thing we need is for our lack of intelligence to lead to another atrocity.

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