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US Estimate on Iran: Of New Intelligence and New-found Confidence

Dr S. Samuel C. Rajiv is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • December 20, 2007

    The latest US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear programme, “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities” of November 2007 (released on 3 December 2007) notes with “high confidence” that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons programme in the fall of 2003 and with “moderate confidence” that Iran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007. While noting with “moderate to high confidence” that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, it suggests that the halt to its pursuit of nuclear weapons was directly related to the international scrutiny and sustained international pressure. It recommends a greater degree of international scrutiny, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence. This it believes could prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons programme. The NIE examines with “high confidence” that Iran had the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decided to do so and with “moderate confidence” that convincing the Iranian leadership to forego nuclear weapons development would be difficult, due to the progress already made into producing a weapon, at least till 2003. It also notes that the Iranian leadership continues to link nuclear weapons possession with key national security and foreign policy objectives.

    The conclusions of the latest Estimate are at variance with the one issued in May 2005, which assessed with “high confidence” that Iran was determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and pressure. The White House National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley countered criticisms of the difference in the present assessment by the intelligence agencies with the previous estimate by stating that the present one was based “on new intelligence, some of which has been received in the last few months”. Reports noted that this could most probably be related to the intercept of communications from members close to Iran’s nuclear effort.

    The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) saw the report as vindicating its stated positions on Iran’s nuclear weapons. Director General Mohammed ElBaradei noted that the findings were “consistent” with the IAEA’s assessment and that it provided Iran with a “window of opportunity” to resolve the crisis. While adding that Iran still needed to “clarify some important aspects of its past and present nuclear activities”, ElBaradei admitted that the Agency had “no concrete evidence of an ongoing nuclear weapons program or undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran”. Israel, which has long contended its fears and apprehensions to an Iranian nuclear bomb, rejected the American assessment. Defence Minister Ehud Barak stated that Tel Aviv cannot just depend on one assessment and lower its guard, even if it came from one of Israel’s ‘greatest friend’. Foreign Office spokesperson Mark Regev charged that Iran’s nuclear programme was geared towards the production of nuclear weapons from the beginning, as there was no other “logical explanation for the investment the Iranians have made in their nuclear program”. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, however, affirmed that diplomacy remained the correct path to prevent Iran from developing non-conventional weapons.

    The NIE assessment seems to have toned down pressure over the possibility of a military strike against Iran. It also turns on its head one of the long-held US contentions that Iran was all along in pursuit of nuclear weapons and their related technology. Washington’s intelligence reassessment can be viewed from two angles. At one level, it further damages the credibility of its intelligence apparatus, particularly after the Iraq weapons of mass destruction fiasco. At another level, it would suggest that rigorous benchmarks have been put in place to prevent the occurrence of grave errors.

    In making out a case for greater international scrutiny, the NIE is categorical in asserting that this was indeed the reason for Iran halting its nuclear-weapons-related activities in 2003. The White House, following this line of reasoning, is also arguing for greater pressures, including tighter sanctions to prevent Iran’s nuclear quest. This seems to suggest that the Iranian domestic dynamics and its impact on the nuclear debate or the technical difficulties encountered by Tehran are not being sufficiently accounted for. It, however, needs to be pointed out that the NIE admits that the decision to abandon its nuclear weapon aspirations is solely the preserve of “an Iranian political decision …” Such a decision it further cautions is “…inherently reversible”.

    In the aftermath of the release of the assessment, the major players involved have reiterated the imperative of finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Reconciling Iran’s inalienable right to pursue a civil nuclear programme for ‘peaceful purposes’ and its nuclear weapon intentions would, however, require a greater degree of sophistication from all the sides. It remains to be seen if Washington’s re-assessment would pave the way towards more transparency and mutual complementarities among the players involved to address the remaining concerns.