Thursday, January 10, 2008

The NIE Iran Report: a Warning in Disguise

In the wake of disturbing international situations and trends, particularly the growing troubles arising in the Middle East, some people were quick to embrace the idea that Iran was no longer a nuclear threat. The support for such a theory came from the first paragraph of the National Intelligence Estimate’s November 2007 report on Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities, which began by saying “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” Better yet, the paragraph went on to say that “we judge with high confidence that the halt… was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure.” Such words were a welcome change from the flurry of news stories on the more daunting Middle East scenarios in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. The words of the rest of the report, though, depict a situation just as daunting, if not more so, than the rest of the Middle East picture. In short, the subsequent sections of the report show that Tehran remains very capable of obtaining nuclear weapons, despite its so-called halt, and is in fact still getting closer to becoming a nuclear power.

The people that interpreted the report’s first paragraph as meaning that Iran had halted its entire nuclear operation misunderstood the scope of that paragraph. When the report says Iran halted its “nuclear weapons program,” it is referring to “Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.”

The definition does not refer to the entire nuclear weapons process, and so the statement about the “nuclear weapons program” being halted does not extend to the entire nuclear operation. Ironically enough, the part of the nuclear program defined is one that does not require any sensitive, directly nuclear aspects. Any nation with sufficient engineering capabilities could very well design a nuclear missile. Of course, designing such a weapon would mean little if the country did not possess enough enriched uranium or other fissile material to build it. Therefore, a nation’s level of proficiency in nuclear weapon design does not serve as an accurate barometer of such a nation’s nuclear program.

A more accurate indicator would be if a county possessed or tried to obtain the necessary fissile material. According to the following paragraphs of the report, this indicator is present in Iran, as “Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so.” The report not only warns that “Iran’s civilian uranium enrichment program is continuing,” but also that “Iran resumed its declared centrifuge enrichment activities in January 2006,” and made “significant progress in 2007 installing centrifuges at Natanz.”

Iran’s continued enrichment of uranium along with its upgrading of its nuclear facilities should raise suspicions of a potential Iranian military nuclear objective. While this evidence alone cannot rule out the possibility that Iran has a civilian objective in mind, an examination of Iran’s interests can. For Iran, a civilian nuclear program does not make a whole lot of sense. With a large supply of domestic oil, it would not seem that Iran would have an immediate need for another source of wealth or energy, particularly one that is so costly and requires importing the fuel. A nuclear weapon, though, would likely be in their interests, allowing, among other things, for greater influence over their Middle Eastern neighbors, particularly over nuclear Israel, where the passionate issue of religion comes into play. Between this logic and the evidence amassed throughout the entire report, it seems most likely that Iran is furthering its nuclear weapons operation.

In fact, a closer examination of Iran’s strategy should cause even more foreboding thoughts. Suspending the design of nuclear weapons while continuing to enrich uranium is a way for Iran to not only further its nuclear ambitions, but also to lessen the diplomatic pressure levied against it. Ever since 2003, when satellite images were taken of several large and fortified nuclear facilities, Iran has faced the brunt of nuclear non-proliferation sanctions and has become increasingly isolated. The economic sanctions, although not applied by everyone, have nonetheless hampered Iran’s fragile oil-centric economy. The effects have certainly been felt by much of the Iranian population, sparking more internal pressure on a government already embattled by diplomatic pressure and isolation. While these measures have not been sufficient to cause Iran to change course or ideology, they have certainly made life much harder for Iran.

Iran’s suspension of its weapons design program, as depicted in this report, has changed all that. The latest wave of UN pressure has subsided, in large part because China, which was close to compromising with U.S. demands in the UN, has used the report as an excuse to withdraw its support for the U.S. backed measures. Indeed many in the United States now question whether taking such measures is still necessary or appropriate. In addition, Russia began supplying Iran’s Bushehr reactor with nuclear fuel following the report’s release. In one deft stroke, Iran had reversed its fortunes, appeasing enough of the world to lay off pressure while still gathering all the parts necessary for a nuclear bomb, waiting for the opportune moment to construct a nuclear arsenal.

In light of Iraq and similar debacles, the U.S. intelligence community has become increasingly restrained in its actions and reports, striving not to provoke anyone by being as careful as possible. How ironic, then, that such a report crafted to be as specific and comprehensible as possible has been so broadly misinterpreted. Worse yet, such misunderstandings have set the wrong events in motion. The report, in its entirety, does not describe a country bowing to international pressure but one that has modified its strategy in order to appease the aggressors while achieving the same goal. For a time, it seemed that North Korea was cooperating with international demands as well. Then, as international pressure eased, the nation quietly continued its rise to nuclear status. According to this report, Iran has made a similar impression. Unfortunately, this same report caused international pressure to once again ease off in the face of supposed success. One can only hope that Iran’s fate will not be the same as Pakistan’s or North Korea’s. Or this report may very well have drastic implications for years to come.

Sphere: Related Content

No comments: