The Fallout from the Iran Nukes Report

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Atta Kenare / AFP / Getty

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivers a speech.

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 toward developing 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's 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