The public heaved a sigh of relief at the recent US intelligence announcement that Iran was not pushing its nuclear weapons programme in 2003 despite claims to the contrary , mixed with exasperation that yet again, the United States had misread the Middle East.
Unfortunately that relief is not born out by the facts. Close examination of the recent US National Intelligence Estimate (“NIE”) on Iran’s nuclear intentions, which judged “with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program” reveals that the headline assumption is based on a very narrow reading of what the US intelligence report said. The 2003 halt gives the West no comfort on Iran’s nuclear intentions. The important point to note is that the NIE estimate does not mean that Iran is no longer pushing for a nuclear weapons capability
The published NIE estimate, a 3½ page summary of a 130-page classified report, assumes a reasonable level of knowledge of the topic and a high level of knowledge of the background. An apparent 2003 halt in Iran’s weapons programme was known outside the intelligence community, but was it a complete halt, a pause, or the result of better Iranian security? The NIE now says it was a halt. It reached that conclusion based on multiple sources including notes of meetings within Iran, intercepts of telephone conversations, information from defectors as well as open source information.
The key “benefit” of the publication of the NIE estimate is to take the option of a US military attack on Iran off the table. The danger lies in misreading what US intelligence is now saying. This is likely for two reasons. First the NIE adopts a very narrow definition of a nuclear weapons programme Fissile material is dual-use. It can be used for civilian and military purposes, and distinguishing definitively is very difficult if not artificial, particularly when the “target” does not cooperate. The second reason requires an understanding of exactly what obtaining a deliverable nuclear weapon requires.
Such a weapon requires three things: The first is a delivery vehicle – a ballistic missile. Iran has this capability and continues to enhance it. The second is a significant quantity of fissile material, from either highly enriched uranium (“HEU”) or reprocessed plutonium. Iran refuses to halt its uranium enrichment programme. In fact this week Iran announced it had obtained 80 tons of enriched uranium from Russia. With enough time and further processing it will eventually get enough HEU for a nuclear weapon. The third element is the ability to “weaponise” this fissile material, to turn it into a usable nuclear weapon. This requires both design skills and the technological ability to cause an explosion. It is only this third element that the NIE has judged Tehran to have halted.
Design drawings for a nuclear weapon dating from 2003 were picked up on the hard drive of a laptop computer provided to the US by a Iranian defector in 2004. In addition the A.Q. Khan Pakistani black market network in nuclear technology offered such design information to a number of countries. Libya accepted the offer. Iran says it turned it down. It defies common sense to believe that Iran is ignorant of this technology, or will remain so.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the EU, the US, China and Russia, have focused their efforts to prevent Iran acquiring a nuclear weapons capability on its continued processing of fissile material at its uranium enrichment plant at Natanz.
How this would play out is relatively simple. Iran continues to legally reprocess uranium at its plant at Natanz until it is within weeks of having the ability to obtain the HEU required for a nuclear weapon. If it decides to take the next step, it can do so “legally” by citing special circumstances, withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (“NPT”) and having a “legal” nuclear weapon within a matter of weeks. This fatal flaw in the NPT is one that I and others have been flagging for some time.
The Iranian leaders are rational people. They consider the costs and benefits of their actions. All elements of the Iranian regime want a nuclear capability. The debate within the regime is only about the timing, the advisability of a postponement and the nature of and appropriateness of engaging in diplomatic discussions on this issue. It is also clear that the predominant role in decision making in Iran is the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (who is chosen by the religious elite, not the people) and who unfortunately is siding with the hardliners, including President Ahmadinejad, on the nuclear issue.
The international community is now faced with stark choices. The first is to assume all is well, reduce the pressure on Iran, and muddle through. Unfortunately this is now the most likely scenario, given the misreading of the NIE estimate The outcome is clear – an Iranian nuclear capability – the only issue being when. The serious alternatives are engagement or pressure, best used in tandem.
It is up to the international community, with the US playing a leading role, to show Iran the benefits of engagement and the costs of continuing its enrichment of fissile material. While it is very likely that Iran will never completely eliminate the option of seeking a nuclear weapon capability, now is clearly the time for the US to commence negotiations on a Grand Bargain with Iran. There are some indicators that the US is now considering indirect talks with Iran in this regard. A new president in the US will talk to Iran – the present administration risks appearing irrelevant if it does not do so. Over the last two years 13 countries in the Middle East have announced that they are embarking on a nuclear programme or are exploring the possibility of doing so. This massive proliferation threat will not abate because of this NIE estimate.
A meeting in December in London at the International Institute for Strategic Studies considering this NIE estimate, heard the view that Iran will “soon have the capability to enrich uranium which it could put to weapons purposes”. This developing risk needs to be the strong focus of the international community. An Iran with a nuclear capability and diplomatically disengaged from the rest of the world must not happen.