New Intelligence Estimate Calls for Credible Diplomatic Option to Extend Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Halt

On December 3, 2007, the long-awaited and much delayed National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran was released to the public after more than a year of congressional and public demands for its release. The new assessment, which represents the consensus view of all 16 American intelligence agencies, says that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that the program remains on hold. This new assessment contradicts the 2005 NIE, which assessed with “high confidence” that Iran was determined to have a nuclear weapon and was working inexorably towards this end.

The new findings presented in the NIE are significant and it is clear that the intelligence community is working to ensure that the same intelligence mistakes that were made in the lead up to the Iraq war are not repeated again. At a minimum, the findings place the onus squarely on Iran hawks within the Bush administration if the intelligence is manipulated in a rush to war.

Releasing the NIE directly to the public is a departure from previous cases where the assessments were kept classified and portions only released during Congressional hearings or leaks to the media. Deputy Director of National Intelligence Donald M. Kerr said that given the new conclusions, it was important to release the report publicly. In a letter that accompanied the release of the NIE, Kerr wrote:

“The decision to release an unclassified version of the Key Judgments of this NIE was made when it was determined that doing so was in the interest of our nation’s security. The Intelligence Community is on the record publicly with numerous statements based on our 2005 assessment on Iran. Since our understanding of Iran’s capabilities has changed, we felt it was important to release this information to ensure that an accurate presentation is available.”

The assessment states: “Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005. Our assessment that the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously.” The newly-released NIE also states that Iran’s ultimate intentions about gaining a nuclear weapon remain unclear, but it’s “decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs.”

One of the key findings of the NIE is that “Some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways might – if perceived by Iran’s leaders as credible – prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.” Thus, the NIE could be a face-saving report for the Bush administration by stating that Iran did have a nuclear weapons program until the fall of 2003, but has since halted this work because of international pressure. This, combined with a credible offer for negotiations could pave the way for resolving the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program diplomatically.

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley’s response on December 3 to the public release of the NIE findings demonstrated that the administration could be seeking a way out of the hype it has created over Iran’s nuclear program and the corner it has put the U.S. in where we could eventually be left with nothing but a false choice between military confrontation or capitulation. According to Hadley:

“Today’s National Intelligence Estimate offers some positive news. It confirms that we were right to be worried about Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons. It tells us that we have made progress in trying to ensure that this does not happen. But the intelligence also tells us that the risk of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon remains a very serious problem. The estimate offers grounds for hope that the problem can be solved diplomatically–without the use of force–as the Administration has been trying to do. And it suggests that the President has the right strategy: intensified international pressure along with a willingness to negotiate a solution that serves Iranian interests while ensuring that the world will never have to face a nuclear armed Iran. The bottom line is this: for that strategy to succeed, the international community has to turn up the pressure on Iran–with diplomatic isolation, United Nations sanctions, and with other financial pressure–and Iran has to decide it wants to negotiate a solution.”

The NIE notes that when referring to the nuclear weapons program, “we mean 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.”

Also of note, because the information in the National Intelligence Estimate was finalized on October 31, it does not include any findings from the November 2007 report of International Atomic Energy Agency Director Mohammed ElBaradei. The reason for this is unclear as there may have been pressure to get the NIE published as soon as possible, particularly given mounting pressure from Congress for its release.

Congressional Pressure

Congress mandated the new National Intelligence Estimate in Section 1213 of the Fiscal Year 2007 Defense Authorization bill. It required the President to provide Congress with a report on his strategy regarding Iran, and the Director of National Intelligence to submit to the Congress an updated and comprehensive national intelligence estimate on Iran no later than 90 days after the enactment of the bill. When the NIE was not produced in that timeframe, the Senate included a clause in the Fiscal Year 2008 Defense Authorization bill which said Congress would withhold authorization of funding under the Defense Authorization bill until the NIE was produced:

“SEC. 1216. PRESIDENTIAL REPORT ON POLICY OBJECTIVES AND UNITED STATES STRATEGY REGARDING IRAN. Not more than 75 percent of the amount authorized to be appropriated by this Act and available for the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy may be obligated or expended for that purpose until the President submits to Congress the report required by section 1213(b) of the John Warner National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2007 (Public Law 109-364; 120 Stat. 2422).”

Congress has also introduced and debated other measures demanding the release of an updated intelligence estimate on Iran. When the Defense Authorization bill was being debated in the Senate over the Summer, a modified version of the Lieberman (I-CT), McCain, Kyl, Graham, Coleman, Collins, Sessions, Levin, Salazar, and Craig amendment No. 2073 (which passed 97-0 on July 11) to the Fiscal Year 2008 National Defense Authorization Act, expressed the Sense of Congress that: “(3) It is imperative for the executive and legislative branches of the federal government to have accurate intelligence on Iran and therefore the intelligence community should produce the NIE on Iran without further delay.”

In addition, the Iran Counterproliferation Act of 2007 includes a provision calling for the release of the updated National Intelligence Estimate on Iran as required under Section 1213 of the Fiscal Year 2007 Defense Authorization bill. The House version, H.R. 3390, was introduced by Rep. Daryl Issa on August 3, 2007 and the Senate version, S. 970, was introduced by Sen. Gordon Smith on March 22, 2007. However, both bills, which are meant to employ further unilateral punitive sanctions on Iran, are still being considered in the committees to which they were referred.

Time for Diplomacy Is Now

The National Intelligence Estimate finds that Iran “probably would be technically capable of producing enough [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame.” The report states that the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research judges Iran is unlikely to achieve this goal before 2013 “because of foreseeable technical and programmatic problems.” The NIE goes on to state that all of the intelligence agencies agree that it could take until after 2015 for Iran to attain a nuclear capability.

Iran hawks argue that attacking Iran yesterday might be too late. The NIE’s 3-to-8 year best-case-scenario timeline, grounded in technical expertise, clearly articulates there is no imminent threat from Iran and demonstrates that the time for diplomacy is now. It is now clear why the Iran hawks in the Bush administration spent a year trying to stop this report from seeing the light of day. It blows a devastating hole in any argument for military action.

With the right mixture of diplomatic tools, the National Intelligence Estimate presents an opportunity to break the deadlock for resolving the challenge of Iran’s nuclear program without reducing ourselves to the false choice of war or capitulation. The Bush administration should seize upon this opportunity and engage in direct, unconditional negotiations with Iran to resolve all outstanding issues over its nuclear program.

Carah Ong is the Iran Policy Analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation. She blogs on Iran at irannuclearwatch.blogspot.com.