January 10th, 2012
09:22 AM ET

Iran’s nuclear program: What intelligence would suffice?

Editor's Note: Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he blogs. You can also follow him on Twitter. The following is reprinted with the permission of CFR.org. 

By Micah Zenko, CFR.org

In August 2006, I wrote a piece for the Washington Post, “Share the Evidence on Iran,” which called on the George W. Bush administration to declassify the main findings of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. As many aspects of Iran’s progress towards nuclear capability had already been selectively leaked to the media, I argued that “declassifying the key judgments and dissents would publicly establish the intelligence community opinion” and clarify erroneous judgments.

My argument, formulated after reading several hundred declassified NIEs for a research project, was that, if President Bush authorized a preemptive attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities, his administration should put forth a compelling and qualified rationale for the necessity of such a risky endeavor. This should include the public release of the most accurate U.S. government estimates—in this case, the NIE—sanitized so as not to reveal classified sources or methods. President Bush was certainly aware of this reality when he revealed in 2006: “People will say, if we’re trying to make the case on Iran, ‘Well, the intelligence failed in Iraq, therefore how can we trust the intelligence in Iran?”

On December 3, 2007, the Bush administration decided to declassify three pages of the NIE entitled, “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities” (PDF). The opening statement was a shocker:

“We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”

Over the course of seventeen months, counterintelligence analysts carefully drafted and then “red teamed” the 2007 NIE on Iran (in comparison, the infamous 2002 NIE on Iraq was compiled and approved in only twenty days). The authors of the 140-page document—led by Vann Van Diepen, former national intelligence officer for WMD—were told that its content would never be publicized. In addition, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnellissued a directive to make declassification of the 2007 NIE impossible. However,according to David Sanger, “when Bush was briefed…he told McConnell that the conclusion was so dramatic that it would have to be made public.”

For a document that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence described as the “IC’s [Intelligence Community’s] most authoritative written assessments on national security issues,” a large number of bipartisan policymakers were disappointed by the main judgments of the 2007 NIE on Iran. Senator Mark Kirk called the 2007 NIE “a mistake,” and ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Howard Berman said that “neither the administration nor Congress paid it much attention.” Greg Schulte, former U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, unequivocally stated: “I never want to see something like the 2007 NIE again. Nothing did more to set back my job [at the IAEA] in terms of how key judgments were drafted.”

In late 2009, the IC began to update the 2007 NIE on Iran, with the final version reportedly completed in February 2011. Briefing Congress on the NIE behind closed doors, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified, “We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.” But, “We do not know…if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”

These discussions are significant because proponents of a preemptive attack on Iran’s suspected nuclear program rarely discuss how they are certain Iran will build a bomb, and how the American people should be made aware of this before the president orders military force.

It is unlikely that the IAEA inspection process will provide the smoking gun evidence of Iran’s decision to build a bomb. All of Iran’s fifteen declared nuclear facilities are routinely inspected by IAEA, and the environmental samples and physical inventory verifications would make it extremely risky for Iran to attempt to engineer fissile material at those sites. Moreover, it is doubtful that inspectors have the requisite intelligence means to positively identify covert nuclear sites.

It is true that the extensive circumstantial evidence is damning, and Iran has never fully implemented its Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) Safeguards Agreement. But is it in U.S. national interest to bomb Iran to defend the principle of full cooperation with the IAEA? I would say no.

The real questions for “attack Iran” advocates are: (1) how good would the intelligence have to be for President Obama to order an attack on the covert nuclear weapons sites, as well as the fifteen declared facilities, integrated air defense system, ballistic missile production sites, and other regime targets; (2) in what form would that intelligence be presented to the public?

Given the massive intelligence failure in Iraq as well as subsequent costs to the United States and Iraq, President Obama must know that “trust us” will not suffice on Iran.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Micah Zenko.

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Topics: Iran

soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. Hahahahahahahahaha

    None. You can't trust towel heads. Hahahahahahahahaha.

    January 10, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  2. whud

    So its perfectly clear, the laTEST NIE report says iran has never had plans to build a bomb. iran has no intention of buildinding a bomb. Therefore no more lies need to be told or propagated

    January 10, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • j. von hettlingen

      @whud, how can you be so sure yourself? The director of the National Intelligence wasn't sure himself. He was gussing and didn't know for sure if Iran was going to build nuclear weapons. Even the inspectors of the IAEA have difficulties in detecting Iran's activities. Now the Obama administration is torn between a preemptive strike and a non-intervention policy.

      January 10, 2012 at 10:50 am |
      • Onesmallvoice

        It shouldn't be, j. von hettlingen. What Obama and Ahmedinejad need to do is to sit down and negotiate a way out of this quagmire. The problem is, is that the MIC doesn't want this to take place!!!

        January 10, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • Onesmallvoice

      Quite right, whud. The right-wing thugs in Washington don't want the truth to be known since they're looking for an excuse to start a war with Iran in oder to get it's oil as in the cases of both Iraq and Libya!!! Washington is rife with greed as the driving force behind it's foreign policies. This needs to change and how!!!

      January 10, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  3. AZLib

    FACT after FACT continues to point out that IRAN is NOT a threat to the US. They (IRAN) does not have a blue water navy, they do NOT have missles that can reach the US, they do not have a history of invading other countries, the international community continues to indicate that their nuclear intentions are for power purposes. So why all the propaganda? Israel is once again using the US to do its dirty work. They are flooding the Jewish controlled media with propaganda after propaganda on this country similar to what was done with Iraq in the 90s... look what that got us. Israel has no intention of making peace with its neighbors and becuase of such is once again turning to the US to use our milatary, our children's lives, our tax money to attack another country all the while taking $6 billion a year we give them (which we borrow from red communist china with interest). Are you ready to have your children die for Israel? Are you ready to bankrupt the US for Israel? That is where this is leading us. Stop and think.. the Department of Defense should be about defending the US not about nation building. Iran is NO threat to the US in any means. So why attack or even pay attention to them? Israel that is why.. continues to push, continues to look to its sworn big brother to solve its problems. This is just not correct. Heck even Bush couldn't find any reason to attack that is what he wanted to do...(again).

    January 10, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • There is a threat to the US and it's not Iran

      The real threat to the US is Israel, not Iran. It's Israel's "Samson Option," their ultimate payback for thousands of years of persecution where they launch sub based ballistic missiles at US, Russian and European cities and plunge the world into a nuclear winter. As Martin van Creveld said some years ago, "We possess several hundred atomic warheads and rockets and can launch them at targets in all directions, perhaps even at Rome. Most European capitals are targets for our air force. Let me quote General Moshe Dayan: 'Israel must be like a mad dog, too dangerous to bother.' I consider it all hopeless at this point. We shall have to try to prevent things from coming to that, if at all possible. Our armed forces, however, are not the thirtieth strongest in the world, but rather the second or third. We have the capability to take the world down with us. And I can assure you that that will happen before Israel goes under."

      January 10, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  4. Iran already has a bomb

    The big lie is that Iran is still trying to get nukes after decades of trying. Fact is, Iran has the bomb and has had it for more than ten years. So any attack will be to prevent them from getting enough bombs to achieve a mutual-assured-destruction stalemate with Israel. And Israel is once again forcing us to do their dirty work by playing the mad dog, saying that they will take care of the problem themselves if we don't.

    January 10, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • Hahahahahahahahaha

      No really! Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

      January 10, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  5. Marek

    US still acts like if they can allow another nonsense conflict. Guys, you are bankrupt. Focus on yourself and change your foreign policy and mainly army strategy so you don't spend billions on stupid wars. In the end who is getting petrol deals in Iraq is China... Even if Iran has atomic bomb, still doesn't justify military conflict, it would just turn all people of Iran agains US. If you hold on and step back, give time Iran youth to take their hold on their future, everything will be fine.

    January 10, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
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