Estimating Iran

A few thoughts on last week’s announcement of the National Intelligence Estimate, which estimates that Iran ceased its nuclear weapons program in 2003:
1. As Reagan used to say, trust, but verify. U.S. intelligence has historically been lousy regarding other nations’ WMD programs, especially police states, going back as far as the USSR and Red China getting The Bomb. The errors haven’t even all been in one direction: threats have been underestimated at least as often as overestimated. And if the post-9/11 bureaucratic imperative was to avoid charges of failing to ‘connect the dots,’ the post-Iraq War imperative is to avoid charges of overestimating WMD threats. So this may well be yet another case of fighting the last war. Taranto’s column last Wednesday collected some good analyses, of which there are many more. At a minimum, the NIE should not be taken at face value as holy writ. There’s a reason they call these things “estimates.”
2. Iran is certainly not disarmed, as Alan Deshowitz explains:

[The NIE] falls hook, line and sinker for a transparent bait and switch tactic employed not only by Iran, but by several other nuclear powers in the past.
The tactic is obvious and well-known to all intelligence officials with an IQ above room temperature. It goes like this: There are two tracks to making nuclear weapons: One is to conduct research and develop technology directly related to military use. That is what the United States did when it developed the atomic bomb during the Manhattan Project. The second track is to develop nuclear technology for civilian use and then to use the civilian technology for military purposes.
What every intelligence agency knows is that the most difficult part of developing weapons corresponds precisely to the second track, namely civilian use. In other words, it is relatively simple to move from track 2 to track 1 in a short period of time.

Read the whole thing. H/T (Dershowitz is an arch-liberal, but a Jewish arch-liberal of an age to remember when being pro-Israel was a liberal priority).
3. That said, if nothing else, the NIE’s conclusions, if true, suggest that we at least have a little more time to deal with the threat. As Dershowitz suggests, this may be part of the Bush Administration’s slipping into “legacy watch” mode, i.e., concluding that it can’t really solve any more problems in the time remaining and instead trying to make them look solved so problems down the road get pinned on the next President (this is a tried and true formula across many policy areas; Bush didn’t invent it and neither did Clinton). Even so, the preferred solution on the Right for handling Iran has been to pursue a multi-pronged strategy aimed at destabilizing the regime from within and keeping it sufficiently harrassed from without to limit its ability to make trouble; almost nobody actually wants war with Iran, for a variety of reasons. The urgency of dealing right now with the Iranian problem has largely been driven by two things: the nuclear threat, which once accomplished would take most of our other options off the table in addition to creating its own hazards, and the continuing Iranian meddling in Iraq (and to a lesser extent Lebanon). Those aren’t the only problems the Iranians present (there’s the longstanding issue of Iranian support for international terrorism, for which Iran has justly headed the list of state sponsors of terror for decades), but they’re the ones that have demanded the most immediate response. If Iran is ‘keeping its powder dry’ on the nuclear front, along with improving conditions and a more aggressive U.S. posture in Iraq, that may give some real, and not just perceived, breathing room in dealing with the problem.
4. Of course, as Taranto and others have noted, if Iran really did downshift its nuclear program in 2003, even as a matter of sending it further under cover, it requires some fairly severe contortions to pretend that this was not a direct result of the Iraq War, combined with the general perception that Bush was a trigger-happy warmonger who had Iran next on his list.

2 thoughts on “Estimating Iran”

  1. Wait, you mean to tell me that the threat of war causes other countries to do what they don’t want to? That’s a novel concept….

  2. And what do you think of the very popular view by a leading Israeli analyst Obadiah Shoher? He argues (here, for example, www. ) that the Bush Administration made a deal with Iran: nuclear program in exchange for curtailing the Iranian support for Iraqi terrorists. His story seems plausible, isn’t it?

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