Disavowing the Iran NIE: Smoke Screens or Smoking Guns?

In Israel, the recent US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which concluded that Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003, was received with the force of a virtual nuclear detonation, a sense of near betrayal by its foremost ally and a fear of being left on its own. Having long viewed an Iranian nuclear capability as an existential threat, cognizant of the difficulties it might face in confronting Iran alone, Israel had long sought to develop a joint strategy with the US.

Until the NIE, Israel believed that the US viewed the Iranian threat essentially as it did and was gratified by the change in European positions, as well, especially France’s (a pro-American and pro-Israeli French President, will miracles never cease?). Though congenitally reluctant to rely on others for its security, it increasingly appeared to Israel that the problem had become internationalized and that it might not have to go solo.

After years of increasingly strident US policy statements, just weeks after President Bush warned that Iran’s nuclear program could lead to World War III, the NIE pulled the "Persian carpet" from under both US and Israeli policy. The NIE itself was careful to note that it was only "moderately confident" that Iran had not resumed its weapons program since 2003, that this could happen at any time and, in any event, that Iran has not abandoned its nuclear ambitions. Nevertheless, the impression given — and gleefully celebrated in Teheran — was that Iran had been largely exonerated by its foremost accuser, the Great Satan itself.

Ever since the NIE’s publication, leading experts and even some officials, in the US and abroad, have called its basic findings into question, sharply criticizing the intel community. Some accused it of politicization, alleging that opponents of the Administration’s hard line policy towards Iran sought to undermine it and especially to thwart the possibility of military action. Others even speculated that the NIE actually served the Administration’s needs, as a face saving means of backing away from its own hard line. Still others challenged the NIE’s professional competence.

None of these explanations was ever fully satisfactory. After all, an NIE is THE most authoritative statement of the US intelligence community. Like all intelligence assessments, NIE’s can and have been wrong before. It appeared far more likely, however, that the intelligence community, fully cognizant of the fire-storm the NIE would cause and of its strategic ramifications, was simply determined to "get it right" this time, that the NIE accurately portrayed its best understanding of the issue as it now stands, rather than any sinister machinations.

And now, in Congressional testimony, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) himself, the official responsible for the agencies who conducted the NIE, has begun walking away from its conclusions. Only his sense of propriety as the head of the intelligence community, seems to have prevented an explicit disavowal.

Three primary criticisms have been leveled at the NIE:

Firstly, the Iranians may, indeed, as the NIE states, have "suspended" their nuclear weaponization program, but this may have been for the simple reason that they had already completed it, or nearly so. If so, the suspension is virtually meaningless in terms of the timetable for an operational capability.
Furthermore, the primary obstacle to achieving a nuclear weapon lies not in weaponization, which is the easier part and which Iran may have suspended, but in the ability to enrich uranium to a weapons grade. No one, including Iran, disputes that its declared, ostensibly "civil", enrichment program is ongoing and that it has made major progress since the "suspension."

Finally, the intelligence community, having been badly tarnished by the Iraqi fiasco, may simply have become overly cautious and demanding of an unattainable burden of proof. Where a duplicitous adversary systematically spreads smoke screens, finding a "smoking gun" is difficult.

In providing Iran with an unintended and in any event false verdict of “not guilty,” the NIE represents a major set back. In the absence of entirely new intelligence, the prospects for a truly punitive sanctions resolution in the Security Council have disappeared, as have those for multilateral sanctions outside of the UN and the prospects for American military action are now virtually nil. Indeed, the US will be unable to do much of consequence, whatsoever, before the next president can fully articulate a policy on Iran, which probably means at least 18 months from now, by which time it may be too late. Iran, emboldened by its ability to "get away with it," may now further accelerate its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Israel, which rejected the NIE from the beginning, but then conducted a thorough review of its own assessments, just to be safe, remains convinced that Iran’s weapons program continues unabated. It now faces two stark choices, made even more risky and urgent by a sense of being on its own: independent military action, or, conversely, a deterrent posture designed to "live with" a nuclear Iran.

US policymakers, too, will have to give increasing thought to the options for living with a nuclear Iran, as well as to Israel’s considerations. How the US engages with Israel and others regarding the NIE, will have a major effect on crucial decisions they will have to make in the coming months, as well as the long term prospects for containing Iran’s nukes.