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The oracle of Washington DC: Iran is not benign

12/07/2007

In the last installment of the Iran intelligence soap opera, we tried to analyze the impact of the US National Intelligence Estimate on the Iranian Nuclear program, which insisted, "with high confidence" that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons development. This conclusion appeared to be at odds with the behavior of Iran, as well as with the public statements of the United States government. It should have caused, and almost has caused, Iran policymakers who were going in the opposite direction, based on opposite information, to slam on the breaks and come to a shuddering halt and try to reverse engines or turn, like a ship captain who is about to run aground on a rocky shoal.

Anyone making such a statement would be expected, in the nature of things, to make doubly sure of the facts, and to deliver unambiguous conclusions, especially after having made the opposite evaluation two years earlier.

It was even more important to get it right, because the Director of Intelligence had decided to make the statement public, though this was not mandated by law. To refresh your memory, Deputy Director of National Intelligence Donald Kerr stated stated:

"The decision to release an unclassified version of the Key Judgments of this NIE was made when it was determined that doing so was in the interest of our nation's security. The Intelligence Community is on the record publicly with numerous statements based on our 2005 assessment on Iran. Since our understanding of Iran's capabilities has changed, we felt it was important to release this information to ensure that an accurate presentation is available."

Keep in mind the wording: "our understanding of Iran's capabilities has changed." The message, we were assured, is that Iran is pragmatic and benign and is apparently not "capable" of making nuclear weapons. There was no real explanation of why Iran would be refining all that uranium to use in a nonexistent reactor, other than "national pride."

We might be justly be suspicious of intelligence agencies that reported "with high confidence" the precise opposite of what they had reported with equally high confidence two years ago. However, nobody would expect that the same intelligence experts would reverse themselves a few days later. Essentially, that is what the same Donald Kerr has done. According to a Reuters report:

Iran retains key nuclear capabilities despite having frozen weapons development in 2003, and its ambitions cannot be considered benign, a senior U.S. spy official told Congress on Thursday.

The deputy director of National Intelligence, Donald Kerr, told a House of Representatives Intelligence subcommittee that there was reason to believe Iran still wanted an ability to make nuclear weapons.
....
But Iran still had the "most important" component of a future program, a uranium-enrichment plant, Kerr told the panel. That and Iran's civil nuclear power program can provide important expertise. Iran also was working on ballistic missiles, he said.

"We did not in any way suggest that Iran was benign for the future," Kerr told the panel. "What we had to do was address the evidence we had, that at least a part of their program (was) suspended in 2003."

Kerr noted the estimate also concluded with "moderate confidence" that Iran still wants a future weapons capability.

So after all, it seems that the understanding of Iran's capabilities did not change at all. Indeed, if you look carefully at the report itself, rather than media and analyst hype of the report, you can also reach those conclusions, or the opposite conclusions, or any conclusions you like. Like the oracular messages of Delphi, it is carefully crafted to fit every possible contingency, and to leave the reader with whatever conclusion they expect. Consider the following excerpts:

We do not have sufficient intelligence to judge confidently whether Tehran is willing to maintain the halt of its nuclear weapons program indefinitely while it weighs its options, or whether it will or already has set specific deadlines or criteria that will prompt it to restart the program.
...
Judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program. Judge with high confidence that the halt lasted at least several years. (DOE and the NIC have moderate confidence that the halt to those activities represents a halt to Iran's entire nuclear weapons
program.)

What it really means:

Did Iran stop building a bomb for some unknown period? Answer: "We believe so."

Is Iran building a bomb now? "We really don't know, but we don't think so."

Is Iran going to build a bomb in the future? Answer: "We do not have sufficient intelligence."

That seems pretty clear: "We don't know."

But if you thought that is the answer, then consider this:

We assess with moderate confidence that convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult given the linkage many within the leadership probably see between nuclear weapons development and Iran's key national security and foreign policy objectives, and given Iran's considerable effort from at least the late 1980s to 2003 to develop such weapons. In our judgment, only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons -- and such a decision is inherently reversible.

In other words, "If we do not stop them, Iran is almost certainly going to build a bomb. Maybe, that is."

What purpose was served by releasing an ambiguous and apparently contradictory public statement of this sort, that was immediately seized upon by Iran and others as a reason to halt efforts to impose sanctions on Iran and a slap in the face to the Bush administration? I assess, for much less money than Americans are paying their intelligence services, that nobody knows what Iran is doing or intends to do, and one guess is about as good as another. The US government can hire me to make that assessment and save a good deal of money. If, as the report assesses, it would be several years before Iran has enough fissile material to make a bomb, then it doesn't matter whether or not they have a program to make a bomb now, as they still have plenty of time to develop the implosion mechanism, casing, fuses and other necessary equipment. Their biggest lag is in the field of delivery systems. It is somewhat implausible that Iran would direct the bomb anywhere in the Middle East, even Israel, since it would certainly kill large numbers of Muslims. It is much more useful to have a bomb that could be used on a European or American target. Iran is still developing and improving its missiles and announces longer range models periodically. They have just announced a 2000 KM range missile, as well as a submarine. These are probably not sufficient to threaten a European target, and perhaps the missile could not carry a warhead. The missiles could not be used for any civilian purpose of course. So Iran is possibly still working on those parts of its nuclear weapons project that might hold up development. We can conclude that "with a moderate degree of confidence." On the other hand the missile might be intended only for conventional explosives. We can also reach that conclusion "with a moderate degree of confidence." Of course, there is no reason whatever to accept the estimate of the NIE that Iran would not have a bomb before 2010-2015. Iran has been working on the project for many years. Ahmadinejad announced that Iran really needs 50,000 centrifuges, rather than the 3,000 they have now. He claimed that 50,000 centrifuges are needed to supply uranium for one power plant for one year. Perhaps, but Iran doesn't have any power plant except Bushehr, which is to be fueled by the Russians, and it is not building any power plants. The United States produced a bomb in about four years, starting from scratch. Iran is not starting from scratch and can buy sophisticated technology ready made. So I don't know any more than the National Intelligence Council - double my salary for creative ambiguity.

Don't be surprised if Kerr, or another NIC official, states tomorrow or the next day that "We never said Iran is going to make a bomb." The NIE can mean whatever you like. If Iran tests a nuclear weapon in 2009, the NIC can say "We did not rule out that possibility." If it turns out that Iran never builds any nuclear weapons, the NIC can also say "We did not rule out that possibility." The NIE, it seems, reflects the work of an organization that is so haunted by the failure of their predictions about Iraqi WMD, that they have carried the art of meaningless oracular prose, always a forte of intelligence personnel, to new heights of perfection..

If the National Intelligence Estimate did not mean what many of us thought it did, then why didn't Kerr or another official say so when the report was made public, instead of waiting for the hearings to "clarify" its conclusions? Your guess is as good as mine. Or was the original spin of the report the result of political opposition to the Bush administration policy, while the revised spin is the result of opposing political pressure? Remember, the facts don't change no matter how the results are squeezed.

It is, by coincidence, already December 7 in this part of the world, the anniversary of one of the most spectacular intelligence failures in modern times. Sixty six years later, the problem of obtaining reliable intelligence is not solved, despite Herculean efforts. If President Roosevelt had had a National Intelligence Estimate about the intentions of the Japanese in 1941, similar to the one published regarding Iranian intentions, would anyone have been able to predict the attack on Pearl Harbor??

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 3 comments

Once again Isseroff is hard at work spinning the report to make a case for war. He writes:

"What purpose was served by releasing an ambiguous and apparently contradictory public statement of this sort, that was immediately seized upon by Iran and others as a reason to halt efforts to impose sanctions on Iran and a slap in the face to the Bush administration?"

Simple Isseroff, the American deserves the right to know about the threats against them. If Iran doesn't have an active nuclear program then Americans deserve the right to know.

Isseroff also fails to mention that the NIE said Iran halted its nuclear program and as of July has not restarted the program. Isseroff uses Donald Kerr's speech to Congress as proof the NIE is not credible. Donald Kerr's speech refers to the probability of Iran building a nuclear weapon in the future. Kerr's speech does not discredit the NIE's argument that American's intelligence agencies believe that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program. Iran's nuclear is indeed peaceful. Iran is not dangerous because they could make a weapon in the future. That's like saying a man with a kitchen knife to cut his steak should be arrested because he could use the knife to kill. In the court of justice we need evidence that concludes Iran intends to build a nuclear weapon. We have no evidence.

Isseroff tries to use the lousy why is Iran enriching uranium argument to discredit the NIE report:

"There was no real explanation of why Iran would be refining all that uranium to use in a nonexistent reactor, other than "national pride.""

"Ahmadinejad announced that Iran really needs 50,000 centrifuges, rather than the 3,000 they have now. He claimed that 50,000 centrifuges are needed to supply uranium for one power plant for one year. Perhaps, but Iran doesn't have any power plant except Bushehr, which is to be fueled by the Russians, and it is not building any power plants."

These argument are nothing more than circumstantial evidence. Issaroff fails to provide a direct correlation between Iran's uranium enrichment and a weapons program. He hopes that his readers would come to a conclusion that Iran is making a bomb based on no direct evidence.

Lastly Isseroff uses Pearl Harbor as evidence that intelligence can be wrong but as Isseroff fails to discredit the NIE report there is very little reason to believe him.

Isseroff suggests that the US should pay him to do intelligence but he could not even provide a convincing analysis of the NIE report. I would not to put my trust in American security on Isserrof.

Posted by Butros Dahu @ 12/10/2007 02:32 AM CST

Dahu's concern for the civil rights of Americans is touching. Americans deserve to live in security. Intelligence networks that don't know what they are doing and try to wage underground wars against the government will not provide either intelligence or security. America cannot afford the sort of anarchy that rules (or doesn't rule) Lebanon and Iraq. After the report, Americans are no wiser than before.

Posted by Ami Isseroff @ 12/18/2007 07:11 PM CST

Issarof's concern for American intelligence agencies would be more valid had it not been his acceptance previous intelligence assesments. It is pretty clear that the intelligence have doubts about Iran's nuclear weapons program. There is no anarchy intelligence agencies knew Bush was spouting baseless accusations and American needed to know the full facts before dedicating resources and lives to a cause. This what responsible and transparent governments do. Before you spout off your so called underground war theories realize that not intelligent agencies are going to be cheerleaders for government policy.

Posted by Butros Dahu @ 12/23/2007 11:32 PM CST


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