Three More Reasons to Reject the NIE on Iran

Borrowing a phrase from Hillary Clinton, acceptance of the key judgments found in the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear program requires the "willing suspension of disbelief."

Not only are we supposed to accept the finding that Iran halted its nuclear weapons development program three years ago; readers must also accept the notions that Tehran is suddenly vulnerable to international pressure, and suspended its most important state program on a "cost analysis" basis. Funny, but we never knew that Iran's ruling mullahs were B-school graduates.

But buying into the NIE's conclusions requires an ever greater leap of faith, or if you prefer, that Clintonian pause of disbelief. Forget about the personal and political agendas of the document's three primary authors-Thomas Fingar, Vann Van Diepen and Kenneth Brill. Reject the idea that the new information behind the NIE might have been the result of an Iranian deception campaign. And ignore the fact that the U.S. intelligence community has a less-than-impressive track record in identifying rogue state WMD weapons program, particularly those in the Middle East.

Need more evidence? Sadly, we can think of at least five other reasons to reject the NIE, based on the overall context of the assessment, and the information it either ignores or trivializes.

Supporters of the estimate would argue that some of these issues are beyond the scope of the report. There's a bit of truth in that position, but we would offer this counter-argument: any serious discussion of Tehran's nuclear program-and the reported "pause" must consider these three factors, as part of any debate over the Iranian effort, and how to contain it.

1. What About the Missile Program? The reported pause in Iran's bomb-making program has not been accompanied by a decrease in developing and fielding ballistic missiles-the ultimate delivery platform for any nuclear weapon. Since 2003, the tempo of Tehran's missile effort has increased significantly.

Over the past four years, Iran has operationally deployed the Shahab-3 medium-range missile (capable of reaching Israel) and built at least two massive, underground facilities to support that system. At least one of those bases has a vertical shaft, large enough to support an underground launch. It's the perfect setting for a "bolt-from-the-blue" nuclear attack, aimed at Tehran's primary regional rival-Israel.

Additionally, Iran is working diligently to add other missile systems to its inventory. Extended-range versions of the Shahab-3 are in various stages development, and Tehran recently-tested a solid-fueled, medium-range missile that would permit faster launches, with greatly decreased warning time. More ominously, Iran has also purchased the BM-25 missile system from North Korea, allowing them to strike targets as far away as southern Russia and southeastern Europe. True, these missiles can carry conventional or chemical warheads, but that is not the capability Iran had in mind, particularly when Israel has nuclear-tipped Jericho IIs aimed at its cities. Tehran's accelerated missile efforts beg an obvious question: if Iran has actually frozen its weapons program, why is it working so hard on first-strike nuclear delivery systems and support facilities?

2. Did We Forget About Arak? Declassified portions of the NIE focus heavily on Iran's uranium enrichment program, centered at the Esfahan and Natanz research facilities. Enriching uranium has long been considered Tehran's most likely path for obtaining the fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Still, it's important to remember that the Iranian program is a dual-track effort. In addition to the enrichment activities at Natanz, Iran is also building an industrial-scale heavy-water plant and "research reactor" at Arak, ostensibly for extracting radioactive isotopes for "peaceful" purposes, and producing fuel for other heavy-water nuclear power plants.

Both claims are demonstrably false. Medical and industrial isotopes are readily available from commercial sources, and heavy-water power plants are much more costly (and complex) than light-water reactors. Iran's only nuclear power plant-located at Bushehr-is a light-water design, and there are no plans for other heavy-water reactors beyond Arak.

On the other hand, the heavy-water plant and reactor at that location would be an ideal source for plutonium, forming the explosive core for a nuclear weapon. During the supposed "pause" in Iran's nuclear program, work on the heavy water plant at Arak has been completed; construction of the reactor is continuing, and it will go on line in 2009.

With both facilities operational, Iran could have enough plutonium for a nuclear bomb by the middle of the next decade-at the latest. Yet, the NIE makes only a passing reference to the plutonium track, stating that those efforts would produce enough material for a bomb until 2015. That's a rather confident assessment, considering that we didn't even know about Arak until 2002, and only through the reporting of an Iranian opposition group.

3. How Did We Get it Right-and Everyone Else Get it Wrong? Just hours after the NIE's key judgments were declassified, press reports from London and Jerusalem indicated that British and Israeli spooks strongly disagreed with the U.S. assessment.

While analysts rarely agree on everything, the non-concurrence of intel professionals in the U.K and Israel is cause for concern. The U.S. intelligence community maintains its closest working (and information sharing relationships) with its British counterparts. Indeed, American spy agencies rely on the U.K. for collection and analysis against key "accounts," including Iran. Given those ties, it's almost certain that British analysts had access to most, if not all, of the information used in formulating the recent NIE-yet they reached a very different conclusion.

The same holds true for Israel. Critics may claim that Tel Aviv lacks the wide range of technical collection systems available to the U.S., but that belies an important fact: in other disciplines (notably human intelligence) Israeli reporting on Iran is superior to that of western spy agencies, including our own. Intelligence-sharing relationships also give Israel access to a wide range of U.S. data, supplemented by their own long-range systems, including satellites.

Like the Brits, the Israelis looked at the same data sets and reached vastly different conclusions than the team which authored the NIE. It would be much more likely for all three intel communities to get it wrong-as in the case of Saddam's WMD program-than for one to get it right, and the others to miss the mark. And, the recent string of U.S. intelligence failures (mostly rooted in the Middle Eastern events) don't exactly inspire confidence in the NIE's key conclusions, or the notion that allied intel agencies got it wrong.

In fairness, much of the Iran estimate remains classified, and we can only hope that those sections provide a detailed rationale for the assessment's startling conclusions. Still, based on what we know, there is ample reason to be suspicious of the NIE and its key judgments. At a minimum, the document--and its authors-should be subjected to rigorous Congressional hearings.

Better yet, the raw intelligence data used in the NIE should be submitted to an analytical "Team B," comprised of U.S., British and Israeli experts. With so much riding on the assessment, it would be helpful to let an independent, multi-national panel review the information, and draw their own conclusions. Call us cynics, but we believe the allied team's key judgments on Iran (and its nuclear intentions) would be vastly different.

Spook86 blogs at In From the Cold