Will New NIE Propel New Iran Policy?

President Obama is expected to announce the results of a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in his bid to win support for tougher sanctions for Iran at the United Nations Security Council next month.  The new estimate will likely reverse the 2007 report, which concluded that the U.S. intelligence community had “high confidence” in information that Iran was not developing atomic weapons. The new estimate is expected to focus on whether Iran’s supreme leader has given the green light to produce the bomb.

Last week, Iran officially rejected the international proposal which would have committed it to export most of its enriched uranium and receive it back in the form of fuel rods for its Tehran research reactor, but not for atomic weapons.  Iran’s rejection sets the stage for Obama to persuade the international community using evidence from the new NIE to impose tougher sanctions.  

But the new NIE must first overcome the much-disputed 2007 estimate.  That estimate mistakenly declared that Iran had ceased its secret nuclear weapons program in 2003 after the quick defeat of Iraq by U.S. forces.  That explanation was camouflage and used by anti-Bush NIE bureaucrats who wanted to make certain then-President Bush had no excuse to attack Iran.  

The waywardness of the politicized report became evident as significant and contradictory evidence surfaced and Democratic politicians like then-presidential candidate Sen. Obama cited the estimate to dangerously downplay the Iranian threat and to attack President Bush, who publicly disagreed with the findings.

The Wall Street Journal attacked the 2007 NIE authors’ credibility: “Our own ‘confidence’ is not heightened by the fact that the NIE’s main authors include three former State Department officials with previous reputations as ‘hyper-partisan anti-Bush officials.”  The Journal named the politicized NIE authors: Tom Fingar, Vann Van Diepin and Kenneth Brill.   

Two authors remain Obama administration officials. Van Diepen is the principal deputy assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation and Brill heads the National Counterproliferation Center. Fingar is now a professor at Stanford University.

On June 4, 2008, Fingar, then-chairman of the National Intelligence Council, told the liberal New America Foundation that he wasn’t pleased with the early version of the 2007 NIE because it repeated earlier estimates that Iran was continuing to pursue nuclear weapons.  “Then we got new information — significant new information,” said Fingar, that caused us to look at the issue differently.  

Apparently Fingar’s “new information” didn’t convince key allies, Great Britain, Israel, Germany and France and/or their press, who subsequently contradicted the 2007 NIE conclusion that Iran stopped its weapons program in 2003.

The British press cited a British intelligence report that Iran has been secretly designing a nuclear warhead “since late 2004 or early 2005.”  Last month, the London Times disclosed intelligence documents detailing Iran’s testing of a neutron initiator, the “trigger” mechanism of a workable nuclear weapon. David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, said, “This is a very strong indicator of weapons work.”

Last year, Israeli Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin, head of the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate, told the Knesset that Iran had “crossed the technological threshold,” and that its attainment of nuclear military capability was only a matter of “incorporating the goal of producing an atomic bomb into its strategy.”

A German intelligence agency (Bundesnachrichtendienst) report “showed comprehensively” that “development work on nuclear weapons can be observed in Iran even after 2003.”  This information, reported by the Wall Street Journal Europe, came from Germany’s highest state-security court in a case about illegal trading with Iran.

The judges in the German Federal Supreme Court in Karlsruhe declared that “Iran in 2007 worked on the development of nuclear weapons.”  A year later, the same court said there are striking “…similarities between Iran’s acquisition efforts and those of countries with already known nuclear weapons programs, such as Pakistan and North Korea.”

The court’s decision states “The results of the investigation do in fact provide sufficient indications that the accused aided the development of nuclear weapons in Iran through business dealings.”   The judges continued, the businessman sold Iran “… industrial machines, equipment and raw materials” for Iran’s nuclear weapons program which included “Geiger counters for radiation-resistant detectors constructed especially for protection against the effects of nuclear detonations” and “high-speed cameras needed to develop nuclear warheads.”  

French President Nicolas Sarkozy may be ready for action against Iran. Last week, Sarkozy told Lebanon’s prime minister that France had proof that Tehran was working to develop a nuclear bomb.

One of the most credible sources of Iranian atomic activities is a defector. Brig. Gen. Ali Reza Asghari, formerly with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), reportedly provided key information about Tehran’s secret atomic weapons program.  Asghari, according to Newsmax, was debriefed by the U.S. and French intelligence in 2007.  He allegedly contradicted what Western intelligence had said about Iran’s nuclear programs.  

Newsmax asked Asghari whether the CIA used his information in the 2007 NIE.  “That’s not what I told the CIA,” he said.  “I didn’t tell them that the nuclear weapons program had been shut down, but that it was ongoing.”

Asghari reportedly told U.S. intelligence about the Qom enrichment facility.  Last September, the White House shocked the world with the revelation that Iran is building a secret military site near the city of Qom to enrich uranium and the U.S. has known about that facility since 2006.  

The Qom facility is likely not the only such undisclosed atomic site.  Remember, Iran kept secret the enrichment site at Natanz and the heavy-water plant at Arak for many years until exposed by expatriates.

Finally, the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Iran has all necessary components for a nuclear device.  The usually hypercautious IAEA stated that Iran “…has sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device.” 

The U.S. intelligence community needs to redeem its tarnished reputation with the new NIE by providing credible information that Iran has an active atomic weapons program or not.  

Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, still believes the key findings of the 2007 NIE.  Two weeks ago, Burgess said, “We have not seen indication that the [Iranian] government has made the decision to move ahead with the program.  But the fact still remains that we don’t know what we don’t know.”

But some of Obama’s top advisers apparently disagree with Burgess.  The New York Times reports that unnamed Obama advisers say they believe Iran’s work on weapons design is continuing on a smaller scale.  That explains the debate within the administration and perhaps why an unnamed Obama official told Reuters that the new NIE’s conclusions would be nuanced.  

“Basically, we’re talking about research (resuming) — not about Iranians barreling full steam ahead on a bomb program,” the official told Reuters.  “When you’re looking at the Iranian nuclear program, nuance matters.”

Expect Obama to tell the U.N. that Iran accelerated its atomic weapons research and is waiting for the country’s supreme leader to give orders for full-scale production of nuclear weapons.  But expect China and Russia, both members of the Security Council, to oppose tough sanctions for Iran no matter how compelling Obama speaks and how strong his evidence.

We are now in a waiting game.  We are waiting for Iran’s supreme leader to give the green light and for Obama to decide whether to accept a nuclear Iran or destroy Tehran’s atomic weapons facilities.