U.S. LOWERS RATING OF IRAN NUCLEAR THREAT
By Daniel Dombey (Washington), Stephen Fidler (London), and James Blitz (London)
Financial Times (UK)
December 3, 2007
U.S. intelligence downgraded its assessment of the risks posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions with a surprise declaration on Monday that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and may not have restarted it.
The conclusion undermines arguments for prompt U.S. military action against Iran to stop its nuclear program and provides support for intensifying international diplomatic and economic pressures on Tehran.
A National Intelligence Estimate released on Monday provides the most comprehensive and nuanced unclassified picture yet of how U.S. intelligence agencies view Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities.
It says Tehran halted its weapons program four years ago “primarily in response to international pressure” and suggests Tehran’s decisions “are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs”.
The last declassified assessment on the subject, in 2005, said the weapons program was continuing and expressed “high confidence” that Iran was determined to develop nuclear weapons. Since then, leading U.S. officials have used the 2005 report to claim Iran is actively pursuing nuclear weapons, which senior intelligence officials now believe is not the case. Monday’s report said: “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.”
The White House said it would be a mistake for the international community to ease pressure on Iran. “It confirms we were right to be concerned about Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons,” said Stephen Hadley, national security adviser. “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.”
John Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said the judgments demonstrated lessons learned from failures over Iraq. “They reflect a real difference from the views espoused by top administration officials,” he said. “This demonstrates a new willingness to question assumptions.”
The assessment distinguishes between the military’s weapons efforts -- which Iran has never admitted -- and Iran’s continuing uranium enrichment program, which is public. The report estimates the public program could produce enough material for a nuclear weapon in 2009 at the earliest -- but more likely in the 2010-15 time frame. Iran is also continuing to develop longer range missiles, it notes.
It states that Iran would probably use covert facilities rather than its declared nuclear sites for the production of weapons-grade uranium. If true, this would reduce the efficacy of military action.
--Additional reporting by Andrew Ward in Washington
LIKE IRAQ, U.S. INTEL ON IRAN FAULTY
By Terence Hunt
December 3, 2007
WASHINGTON -- First Iraq, now Iran. The United States has operated under a cloud of faulty intelligence in both countries.
In a bombshell intelligence assessment, the United States has backed away from its once-ironclad assertion that Tehran is intent on building nuclear bombs.
Where there once was certainty, there now is doubt. "We do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons," the new estimate said Monday.
Compare that with what then-National Intelligence Director John Negroponte told Congress in January. "Our assessment is that Tehran is determined to develop nuclear weapons."
Just last month, President Bush, at a news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, said, "We talked about Iran and the desire to work jointly to convince the Iranian regime to give up their nuclear weapons ambitions, for the sake of peace."
More ominously, Bush told a news conference Oct. 17, "I've told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."
Asked then if he definitely believed that Iran wanted to build a nuclear bomb, Bush said, "Yeah, I believe they want to have the capacity, the knowledge, in order to make a nuclear weapon."
Bush's National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said the president made comments like those "because he was describing the threat as the intelligence community itself had been describing the threat both publicly and in their briefings to him."
Intelligence officials advised Bush several months ago that they were reevaluating their assessments about Iran. They came to the White House last Wednesday and briefed him on their new findings.
The intelligence flip-flop recalled the embarrassing reversal that Bush was forced to make on whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The conviction that Saddam Hussein had such weapons was one of the factors behind Bush's decision to invade Iraq. It since has been determined that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction.
Democrats on Monday did not hesitate to suggest an Iran-Iraq comparison.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Democrats had requested the new Iran assessment "so that the administration could not rush this Congress and the country to another war based on flawed intelligence."
"I hope this administration reads this report carefully and appropriately adjusts its rhetoric and policy vis-a-vis Iran," Reid said. "The administration should begin this process by finally undertaking a diplomatic surge necessary to effectively address the challenges posed by Iran."
In the case of Iran, though, the White House has not dropped its suspicions that Tehran could pursue a nuclear bomb.
Iran continues to develop, test, and deploy ballistic missiles, and its civilian uranium enrichment program is continuing. "It can readily use the same technology to produce weapons-grade uranium," Hadley said.
In rewriting the conclusions about Iran, the new estimate said Tehran was pursuing a nuclear weapons program but halted that effort in the fall of 2003 under the weight of international pressure. Importantly, the estimate said Iran has not restarted the nuclear bomb program.
"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," the new estimate said.
While key facts have changed, the administration's strategy has not.
The White House says it will continue to try to build pressure on Iran to prevent it from ever acquiring nuclear bombs.
"The bottom line is that 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," Hadley said. "And Iran has to decide that it wants to negotiate a solution."
Some analysts believe the new conclusions will be a roadblock for Vice President Dick Cheney and other hawkish members of the administration to be more confrontational toward Iran.
"It's a good thing that we caught this before we marched headlong into another military conflict," said Jon Wolfsthal, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "This isn't the timebomb the administration made it out to be for the last several years."
Wolfsthal said the conclusion that international pressure prompted Iran to halt its program "is the piece of information that we missed in Iraq" where Bush believed that Iraq's pursuit of WMD was continuing despite sanctions. He said the administration did not appear inclined to change its strategy toward Iran. He said that "suggests they can't take yes for an answer."
THE FALLOUT FROM THE IRAN NUKES REPORT
By Tony Karon
December 3, 2007
Anyone following the Iran nuclear issue via the presidential debates might have been shocked to learn Monday that the U.S. intelligence community now believes that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program four years ago, and is unlikely to have restarted it.
The latest U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran, which expresses the consensus of the 16 branches of the intelligence community, is sharply at odds with most of the candidates' (and the White House's) notion that Iran is rushing to build nuclear weapons, and even contradicts a 2005 NIE finding that Iran was working inexorably towards a bomb. It says its finding that Iran suspended its bomb program in 2003 in response to foreign pressure "suggests it is less determined to build nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005." Even if Iran were to restart the stalled program, it would be at least two years away, and probably a lot more, from producing enough nuclear material to construct a bomb. Despite the fact that the assessment notes that Iran's intentions remain unclear and that its nuclear program would give it the option of building weapons, the report certainly strikes a blow against those who argue that military action is necessary to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons. But its findings are not especially surprising to those more closely following the concerns being raised over Iran's program.
President Bush's National Security Adviser, Stephen Hadley, rushed to assure the media that the glass was half full. "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," said Hadley. "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."
But the truth is that the finding underscores the complexity of the Iran nuclear issue in a way that undermines efforts to paint it as a fast-moving peril on the horizon -- especially to an American public that feels it was already duped once on Iraq's supposed WMD. President Bush made headlines six weeks ago by warning that Iran's nuclear activity could be the cause of World War III. Even then, his words were carefully chosen: Bush did not say World War III would be the consequence of Iran attaining a nuclear weapon; he said, "If you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from hav(ing) the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."
Bush's warning makes clear that the red line, for his Administration, is not an Iranian bomb program per se, but rather Iran attaining "the knowledge necessary to make" such a weapon -- by which he means mastering the technology of uranium enrichment. Enriched uranium is a key component (although hardly sufficient, by itself) for a nuclear weapon. But enriching uranium, to a far lower degree, is also an integral part of any civilian nuclear energy program -- and, it's entirely legal for any signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in good standing to enrich uranium under IAEA monitoring. Iran is a signatory of the NPT, although it has been ordered to suspend uranium enrichment because of its non-compliance with some transparency requirements in its previous nuclear activities. The suspension, therefore, is envisaged as a temporary requirement, until such time as Iran can satisfy concerns raised by the IAEA.
Washington, however, hopes that Iran can be prevented from enriching uranium at all, out of concern that once the technology is mastered, Tehran could simply withdraw from the NPT -- as North Korea did -- and proceed to build a nuclear weapon within a matter of months. The NIE notes that the civilian nuclear infrastructure Iran is building would put bomb-making capability within easy reach, should Tehran take a political decision to do so.
Iran, of course, has defied the demand that it suspend enrichment, even after the demand was backed by U.N. sanctions, but it has been working with the IAEA to resolve the transparency concerns. So, while Iran's objective is to resolve the outstanding issues without actually turning off its enrichment centrifuges, the U.S. objective is to get it to turn off those centrifuges regardless of the status of the transparency issues.
But, the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community that Iran represents no imminent nuclear-weapons threat will certainly take the wind out of the sails of those arguing for an urgent ratcheting up of pressure -- and even military action -- in response to the Iran "peril." To convince the American people that it may be necessary to start a new war in the Middle East in order to stop Iran from acquiring a technological capability that could theoretically be used to build weapons -- even if there's no sign it is currently trying to do so -- would, after all, be a tough sell.
And precisely because of its political impact, the NIE finding has prompted fury on the part of some in Washington, who see it as an inappropriate political intervention by the intelligence community that will weaken the U.S. hand in pressing for tougher action against Tehran. The report "empowers the Iranians and weakens everybody else," says one Pentagon official who asked to remain anonymous. "I think it is nauseating."
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, calls the NIE a "remarkable reversal." Last year, points out Riedel, the Director of National Intelligence "testified that Iran had a complex, multifaceted program to build a bomb. Now he says it was halted four years ago. Our allies will have new doubts about the reliability of U.S. intelligence on rogue states' nuclear activities."
Given the Bush Administration's unhappy history of political battles over intelligence findings, the likelihood is that the latest finding will spur a fierce new round of bureaucratic infighting. Whether they support the new Iran finding or oppose it, both sides will likely invoke the fact that the prewar NIE that portrayed Iraq as a WMD threat was so egregiously wrong. Intelligence findings, after all, are judgments based on the analysis of available facts -- it's not so much an inexact science as an inexact art. Still, for those in Washington pressing for a more aggressive Iran strategy, the job just became significantly more difficult.
--With reporting by Brian Bennett and Adam Zagorin/Washington.
U.S. SHOWED THE WORLD EXHIBIT A, IRAN AS NUCLEAR THREAT; NOW EXHIBIT B UPENDS IT
By William J. Broad and David E. Sanger
New York Times
December 4, 2007
WASHINGTON -- In the summer of 2005, senior American intelligence officials began traveling the world with a secret slide show drawn from thousands of pages that they said were downloaded from a stolen Iranian laptop computer, trying to prove that Iran was lying when it said it had no interest in building a nuclear weapon.
The slides detailed efforts to build what looked like a compact warhead for an Iranian missile and were portrayed by the Americans as suggesting that the Iranian military was working to solve the technical problems in building a bomb.
Now, that assertion has been thrown into doubt by a surprising reversal: the conclusion, contained in the declassified summary of a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear programs, that Iran’s effort to master the technology of building a nuclear weapon had halted two years before those briefings.
At the time of the laptop slide show, some European and United Nations officials questioned what they were being shown. “I can fabricate that data,” one said at the time. “It looks beautiful, but it is open to doubt.”
At the time, almost no one in the White House or the intelligence community is known to have seriously considered the idea that the weapons program might have been stopped. And the new intelligence assessment does not, as far as is known, suggest that the information relied on in 2005 was fabricated.
Perhaps the slide show presented by the Americans in 2005 was simply outdated -- the laptop’s data and other information, like the light from a distant star, taking years to arrive at the lenses of the intelligence gatherers.
The assessment does not explain -- unless it is addressed in more than 130 pages still marked classified -- how the May 2005 conclusion that Iran was still pressing ahead with a nuclear weapons program went awry.
President Bush himself has said on several occasions that he knew that proving the Iranian case to the world would be difficult. “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?” he said at a news conference in 2005. He concluded that building pressure on Iran “requires people to believe that the Iranian nuclear program is, to a certain extent, ongoing.”
Now, he could end his presidency with even his own intelligence apparatus uncertain about Iran’s true intentions.
“This report will be used to undercut our efforts to build a consensus that Iran must suspend its enrichment program, playing to those who support concessions and undermining the prospects for effective pressure on the regime,” said Robert G. Joseph, who helped to build the case against Iran in the Bush White House during the first term and moved to the State Department in the second term.
Mr. Joseph, who in 2005 was one of the officials who gave briefings on the laptop evidence, said Monday he could not recall “any suggestion in the intelligence that Iran was doing anything other than moving full speed ahead.”
Mr. Joseph’s skepticism is shared by some current officials, mostly hawks, who believe, as he does, that Iran is ultimately seeking a weapons capability. But the officials would not publicly challenge the new finding.
Several officials said that if the new National Intelligence Estimate is right, Iran’s strategy was an unusual one. It might be the first country in nuclear history to halt a covert program to make nuclear weapons, then speed up its program to enrich nuclear fuel, as it did in 2006, in very public defiance of international pressures to stop.
A senior administration official speculated that Iran may have concluded that the risk of getting caught with a covert weapons program was simply too high -- especially after the United States presented evidence of secret programs to North Korea in 2003 and Libya in 2003. The official said that perhaps Iran wanted to master the hardest part of the process first -- making nuclear fuel -- before risking the next step, designing a weapon.
Another official, a senior nuclear specialist with long technical experience in proliferation issues, said it was also possible that Iran had made so much progress in its clandestine work that the 2003 halt might have little practical significance, as long as it can keep working on its open efforts to produce fuel suitable for a weapon. “One scenario is that they’ve already solved all the weapons physics problems and are just waiting for the material,” he said.
But he conceded the other possibility, expressed by the intelligence analysis, “that they were spooked by the perceived pressures and decided to back away.”
International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have found that Iran, working in secrecy for 18 years, from 1985 to 2003, pursued many technologies to enrich uranium. Iran said it was simply seeking to enrich uranium to produce electricity, and had to do so in secret because Europe, Israel and the United States would try to deny it technology.
Much of Iran’s clandestine work violated Iran’s obligations under the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which requires signatories to fully disclose their atomic labors. At the same time, Iran made no secret of its ambitions to build large rockets and warheads that were ideally suited for delivering nuclear arms. For two decades, with the aid of North Korea, the Iranians have developed generations of long-range rockets.
The problem the administration faces now is that it is declaring that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons development with the same certainty that it insisted two years ago that the program was speeding ahead. Asked Monday to explain how that was possible, Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, said simply: “Iran is one of a handful of the hardest intelligence targets going. They are very good at this business of keeping secrets.”
--William J. Broad reported from New York, and David E. Sanger from Washington.
BARAK: IRAN LIKELY RESTARTED NUCLEAR ARMS PROGRAM
By Aluf Benn, Shmuel Rosner, and Yossi Melman
December 4, 2007
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Tuesday that Iran had probably restarted its nuclear weapons program, contradicting a U.S. intelligence report that said it was frozen in 2003 and remained on hold.
"It seems Iran in 2003 halted for a certain period of time its military nuclear program but as far as we know it has probably since revived it," Barak told Army Radio.
Barak said such reports were "made in an environment of high uncertainty."
For its part, Iran said Tuesday it welcomed the intelligence report. "It's natural that we welcome it when those countries that in the past have questions and ambiguities about this case . . . now amend their views realistically," Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told state radio.
Government sources in Jerusalem told *Haaretz* Monday night that the Bush administration appears to have lost its sense of urgency regarding Iran's nuclear program, making a military strike in 2008 increasingly unlikely.
The change in policy comes on the heels of the release Monday of the National Intelligence Estimate in Washington.
The report, which discounted the likelihood that Iran is on a path to develop nuclear weapons soon, did not catch the Israeli leadership by surprise. During their visit to Washington last week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were briefed on the report.
The document, which is a consensus paper containing the views of the 16 intelligence agencies in the American intelligence apparatus, concludes that Iran's actions are rational, motivated by "cost-benefit" and not driven by a mad dash to produce the bomb irrespective of all consequences.
According to the report, Iran ceased developing military nuclear capabilities in 2003 because of international pressure and is focused on a civilian nuclear program.
The report contradicts earlier U.S. intelligence reports, Israeli assessments, and the conclusions of senior officials in the Bush administration.
The new assessment concludes that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that the program remains on hold, contradicting an assessment two years ago that Tehran was working inexorably toward building a bomb.
Political sources in Israel said Monday night that it appears that the Bush administration has lost the sense of urgency and determination to carry out a military strike against Iran in 2008. The same sources said that the United States is unlikely to strike Iran in 2008, and will make do with more severe sanctions against Tehran.
According to the sources, the report suggests that Iran had developed a military nuclear program but was unnerved by the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and of Iraq in 2003.
Israel's intelligence assessment, which guides Israeli decision making, is that Iran could achieve a military nuclear capability as early as the end of 2009 or 2010.
Olmert had made it clear to the administration that Israel is basing its policy on this assessment, and reiterated this in Washington last week.
The difference in the American and Israeli assessments is derived not from different information but rather different approaches -- Israel focuses on the worst case scenario, while the U.S. approach assumes that, once acquiring the necessary technology, Iran will still have difficulty implementing it in order to produce the bomb.
In the report, U.S. intelligence assessments do not relate to Tehran's possible "hidden" aims. However, in a similar report in 2005, U.S. intelligence assessed that Iran seeks to acquire a nuclear weapons capability and is working toward that end.
A little over five years ago, a deeply mistaken intelligence estimate concluded that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons programs and was planning to restart its nuclear program. The report led to congressional authorization for a military invasion of Iraq, but most of those conclusions turned out to be wrong.
The new estimate on Iran does say that its ultimate goal is to develop the capability to produce nuclear weapons, and it is likely that Iran will achieve that goal by the middle of the next decade.
Moreover, the new report does not imply that Iran's leadership would be easy to persuade to relinquish its ambitions to become a nuclear power.
Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, had reported last month that Iran was now operating 3,000 uranium-enriching centrifuges, capable of producing fissile material for nuclear weapons.
INTEL REPORT REVEALS BUSH AND CHENEY'S IRAN WARNINGS AS FRAUDULENT
By Ray McGovern
** A new intelligence assessment that Iran's nuclear weapons program halted in 2003 utterly contradicts the dire claims made by the war-mongering White House. **
Consortium News / AlterNet
December 4, 2007
For those who have doubts about miracles, a double one occurred today. An honest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear program has been issued and its Key Judgments were made public.
With redraft after redraft, it was what the Germans call "eine schwere Geburt" -- a difficult birth, ten months in gestation.
I do not know how often Vice President Dick Cheney visited CIA Headquarters during the gestation period, but I am told he voiced his displeasure as soon as he saw the first sonogram/draft very early this year, and is so displeased with what issued that he has refused to be the godfather.
This time Cheney and his neo-con colleagues were unable to abort the process. And after delivery to the press, this child is going to be very hard to explain -- the more so since it is legitimate.
The main points of the NIE:
"We judge that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program . . .
"We assess with moderate confidence Tehran has not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007.
"We do not have sufficient intelligence to judge confidently whether Tehran is willing to maintain the halt of its nuclear weapons program indefinitely . . .
"We judge with moderate confidence Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame.
"We judge with high confidence that Iran will not be technically capable of producing and reprocessing enough plutonium for a weapon before about 2015."
Having reached these conclusions, it is not surprising that the NIE's authors make a point of saying up front (in bold type) "This NIE does not (italics in original) assume that Iran intends to acquire nuclear weapons."
This, of course, pulls out the rug from under Cheney's claim of a "fairly robust new nuclear program" in Iran, and President Bush's inaccurate assertion that Iranian leaders have even admitted they are developing nuclear weapons.
Apparently, intelligence community analysts are no longer required to produce the faith-based intelligence that brought us the Oct. 1, 2002, NIE "Iraq's Continuing Program for Weapons of Mass Destruction" -- the worst in the history of U.S. intelligence.
Truth be told, one of the Iran NIE's findings was written into its first draft, from which Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell drew in telling the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 27 that Iran could possibly develop a nuclear weapon by early-to-mid-next decade.
McConnell said not a word, though, about Iran's having halted its nuclear weapons program in fall 2003. And in February, he was still adhering to the faith-based approach, saying, "We assess that Iran seeks to develop a nuclear weapon."
At which point, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-South Carolina, tried to sum up the proceedings with the disingenuous comment, "We all agree, then, that the Iranians are trying to get nuclear weapons."
Curiously, McConnell indicated recently that the key findings of NIEs would no longer be made public.
My guess is that the Pentagon, and especially Adm. William Fallon, commander of our forces in the Middle East, succeeded in persuading McConnell to go public. Several months ago, Fallon was reliably reported to have said, "We are not going to do Iran on my watch."
And it is an open secret that he and other senior military officers, except those of the Air Force, are strongly opposed to getting into a war with Iran for which the U.S. is so ill prepared.
Will President George W. Bush and our domesticated media succeed in dismissing this latest NIE as "guesswork," as he has in the past? It is going to be highly interesting to see how the White House will try to spin this one.
--Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour. During his 27-year career as a CIA analyst, he chaired National Intelligence Estimates and produced/briefed the President's Daily Brief. He is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).