New Iran NIE Shocker: Nuke Weapons Program Shut Down in 2003

| Mon Dec. 3, 2007 12:19 PM EST

Hot off the presses from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI): a long-awaited National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, entitled "Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities" (.pdf)

But any journalist would have told the folks at the office of the Intel Czar, the report should have had a different headline. Something like:

IRAN HALTED NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROGRAM IN 2003.

From the NIE, Key Judgment A:

We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons. We judge with high confidence that the halt, and Tehran's announcement of its decision to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program and sign an Additional Protocol to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement, was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran's previously undeclared nuclear work.

The NIE also states:

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Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear 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 last point -- that Iran is believed susceptible to international diplomatic pressure -- would seem to bolster those in (and outside of) the administration arguing for continued tough diplomacy to get Iran to change it behavior. And it seemed certain to deeply annoy those hawks and constituencies centered in the Office of the Vice President arguing for a more hardline approach.

"The NIE is a breathtaking repudiation of the policy arguments advanced by Administration hardliners in recent years that Iran's march toward a nuclear weapons program is relentless and inexorable," a Democratic Senate staffer who has closely followed Iran's nuclear program tells Mother Jones in an emailed comment. "It appears as if the [intelligence community] has fully absorbed the lessons of the 2002 Iraq NIE fiasco and is no longer afraid to stand up against its political masters."

"This is a blockbuster development and requires a wholesale re-evaluation of US policy," said nonproliferation expert John Wolfstahl, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a statement released by the National Security Network. "This NIE suggests that outside pressure and scrutiny has turned off Iran's nuclear weapons program. This is the piece of evidence that was missed in the case of Iraq, where the Bush administration was convinced that Iraq's efforts were continuing despite sanctions."

The NIE also states that "we judge with moderate confidence that the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon is late 2009, but that this is very unlikely. We judge with moderate confidence Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame frame." In other words, the NIE seems to argue, even under a "worst case" scenario of Iran acquiring enough HEU for a bomb by 2009, the Bush administration can leave the decision on whether to act on Iran's nuclear program to the next administration, if it chooses.

"It confirms that we were right to be worried about Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons," the New York Times cited national security advisor Stephen Hadley, a close ally of Secretary of State Rice, on the NIE. "It tells us that we have made progress in trying to ensure that this does not happen. But the intelligence also tells us that the risk of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon remains a very serious problem. The estimate offers grounds for hope that the problem can be solved diplomatically — without the use of force — as the administration has been trying to do."

The NIE released today had been held up for over a year. At a House Armed Services Committee hearing on global threats this summer, the CIA's top intel analyst indicated to Mother Jones during a break that the hold up was due in part to new intelligence on Iran's nuclear program the United States had obtained.

Also notable that the office of the intel czar decided to publish unclassified key judgments from the NIE at all. Last month, journalist Walter Pincus reported in the Washington Post that Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell had decided not to release unclassified summaries of the NIE. "McConnell also said that he does not want 'a situation where the young analysts are writing something because they know it's going to be a public debate or political debate,'" Pincus reported. "A senior intelligence official said that declassification of past key judgments on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and terrorism had led to misunderstandings of the underlying evidence."

So why did McConnel's office change its mind? Principal deputy director for national intelligence Dr. Donald Kerr explains in a press release today:

The decision to release unclassified conclusions from any NIE is based upon weighing the importance of the information to open discussions about our national security against the necessity to protect classified information and the sources and methods used to collect intelligence. It is also important to ensure that the unclassified judgments accurately reflect the broad strategic framework the NIE is assessing.

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.

Important indeed. One wonders whether Congress pressured McConnell to reconsider keeping the NIE classified after the Pincus story appeared as well. Especially if it got word of its conclusions.

The Democratic Hill staffer who closely follows Iran policy offered a note of caution to those convinced the NIE would stymie hardliners. It could also set back efforts to get a third round of economic sanctions through the UN Security Council, he warned. "Failure of the sanction drive at the UN may give Cheney et al the opportunity to convince the President that the diplomatic route is now closed and the United States must move to more direct military pressure."

More to come ...