Implications of the U.S. Assessment on Iran

Monday, December 24, 2007

Kenneth Katzman 

On December 3, 2007, the US intelligence community threw US policy into temporary disarray by issuing a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that said that Iran had suspended the covert weapons aspect of its nuclear program since the fall of 2003. On this point, that of Iran’s efforts to design a nuclear weapon, the NIE reversed the findings of a 2005 NIE that assessed Iran as working on a weapons program. The press reporting about the NIE has focused almost entirely on this one new finding, and the implication that it is now highly unlikely that the Bush Administration would enjoy enough support to carry out military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Some analysis has indicated that it might be more difficult for the Administration to obtain support for increasing UN sanctions against Iran because Russia and China, in particular, will argue that Iran is not the potential nuclear threat the Bush Administration has claimed it is.

Some experts were correct in arguing, however, that the press headlines about the NIE misrepresented the NIE as indicating that there is no longer a threat from a nuclear Iran, that no additional sanctions are needed, that the threat of military action be withdrawn, and that the issue should, in essence, be “closed.” The key issue never was whether or not Iran was attempting to design, covertly or otherwise, a nuclear explosive device. According to most technical experts on nuclear weapons, weaponization is not the limiting factor in determining whether or not a particular country can become a nuclear power. The limiting factor, technically, is whether or not that country can make or acquire the fissile material needed for a nuclear weapon. In Iran’s case, therefore, the issue that led to the imposition of  international sanctions on Iran, in Resolution 1737 and 1747, is its ongoing efforts to enrich uranium. There were no indications either in the NIE or from the November 2007 report by the IAEA that Iran has ceased its uranium enrichment program, and in fact the IAEA report said that Iran has crossed a critical “threshold” in enrichment by operating 3,000 centrifuges in cascades. If Iran were to run the 3,000 centrifuges continuously for one year, it might be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one nuclear weapon. However, the NIE and other published reports say Iran has experienced some bottlenecks in the enrichment process, so the NIE puts the time frame for Iran to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb at anywhere from 2009 – 2015.

President Bush articulated the continuing threat of a nuclear Iran at a press conference the day after the release of the NIE. He noted, as have several experts on nuclear proliferation, that Iran could easily, and with little warning, reactivate its covert weapons program. Others noted that Iran continues to work on extended range missiles, such as the Shahab series, that are most suitable for delivering a nuclear weapon.   

The conclusion we can draw is that the Iran nuclear file is far from “closed, and that an appropriate and prudent US policy—the policy restated by the Administration after the release of the NIE—would be to continue to rally the international community to progressively increase international sanctions on Iran until it suspends its uranium enrichment program. In some ways, the NIE supported a continuation of existing policy by attributing Iran’s 2003 halt to its covert nuclear weapons program to international pressure and scrutiny. This suggests that continued scrutiny and economic pressure might yet succeed in compelling Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment activities.

There are early indications that the close allies of the United States have come to the same conclusion. In the aftermath of the release of the NIE, Britain, France, and Germany immediately issued statements that negotiations on another UN sanctions resolution would proceed and that all three agreed to continue to progressively ratchet up sanctions on Iran. Russia and China, on the other hand, exploited the NIE to support their pre-existing positions to avoid any major tightening of sanctions against Iran. It is likely that the United States will be able to achieve adoption of another sanctions resolution against Iran, but that the additional sanctions against Iran will be modest and not sweeping. It is unlikely, for example, that the November 2007 proposal by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown that international financing of energy projects in Iran will be adopted.   What is possible, perhaps, is a mandated ban on international travel by named Iranians associated with Iran’s nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction programs.

The net result, we must unfortunately conclude, is that future international pressure will now be insufficient to compel Iran to cease enriching uranium. Any new sanctions that could be agreed to by the UN Security Council will be insufficiently effective in injuring Iran’s economy to persuade Iran to comply with the Council’s cessation demands. Iran’s leaders will come to believe President Ahmadinejad’s “declaration of victory” about the NIE and will conclude that the enrichment program can be pursued without interruption or slowdown. Ahmadinejad might even be encouraged enough by the international disarray to advocate reviving Iran’s covert weapons program. Even if the Bush Administration were to accept the advice of some to begin direct talks with Iran on its nuclear program, Iran feels its leverage on the issue has increased and such talks would almost certainly produce no meaningful result.

The only measures that Iran fears enough to reconsider its policies are either very strict sanctions on its economy, such as a worldwide ban on banking interactions with Iran or sales to Iran of refined gasoline, or US military action. Of these two choices, only the threat, or actual implementation of, US military action would be guaranteed to slow or halt Iran’s march toward an eventual nuclear weapons capability. However, it is likely that the press headlines are correct that it will now be difficult, if not impossible, for the Bush Administration to contemplate military action against Iran’s nuclear program. International support for such action was minimal even before the NIE was released; now, in the wake of the NIE, such support will certainly be non-existent. In this changed environment, US and international security experts would be well advised to increase their thinking, writing, and advising about how to contain an eventual nuclear-armed Iran.


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