U.S. spies hold out hope the mullahs won't build a bomb.
Review and Outlook..
27 February '12..
What will it take to persuade the U.S. intelligence community that Tehran's nuclear intentions aren't exactly peaceful? Perhaps nothing short of an explosion.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its latest report on Iran on Friday, this time with the cheerful news that the regime has sharply increased its production of 20%-enriched uranium and in much greater quantities than it can possibly need for civilian use. More than a third of the new enrichment is taking place at its Fordow installation, which is inside a heavily fortified bunker carved into a mountain.
Stockpiling 20% uranium (reactor-grade is 5%) gives Iran the option to further enrich the fuel to bomb-grade level quickly and with relative ease. And speaking of a bomb, the regime last week forbade IAEA inspectors from visiting a weapons-facility at Parchin, which the Agency suspects has conducted nuclear-weapons design work.
If that sounds grim, America's spooks see a silver lining: Tehran may be doing what it can to manufacture the various components of a nuclear weapon, but it has yet to decide to assemble them into an explosive device. That's the public assessment of James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, seconded by CIA Director David Petraeus and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey.
Some anonymous intelligence sources go even further: According to a weekend story in the New York Times, they still believe the conclusions of a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which argued that Iran put its nuclear weapons-work on the shelf in 2003.
Mr. Clapper and friends are drawing a narrow distinction between having the ability to build a nuke and actually building one. In this ever-hopeful analysis, Iran might decide that it is better served possessing enough nuclear capability to keep its options open and its enemies on guard, without having to incur the risks of building and maintaining an actual arsenal. The model here is Japan, another country that could easily build nuclear weapons but chooses not to out of strategic, moral and political considerations.
There's a problem with this logic: Japan is not Iran. Democratic Tokyo threatens nobody. Theocratic Tehran never ceases making threats. The idea that Japan could, in theory, field a nuclear arsenal might serve as a deterrent against Chinese military planners, but it doesn't keep ordinary people in Seoul, Taipei or Manila awake at night.
By contrast, if the mullahs can readily acquire nuclear weapons, they will instantly change calculations in the Middle East and beyond. That event would broaden Iran's strategic and tactical options while complicating those for Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Gulf states and the U.S.
It would lead almost inevitably to a policy of seeking to placate Tehran at the expense of U.S. allies—lest, for example, some "provocative" Israeli action tempt Iran into building the bomb it nearly possesses anyway. The Obama Administration is already moving in that direction with its campaign, first private and increasingly public, to put a higher priority on deterring an Israeli attack on Iran than on preventing a nuclear Iran.
But what about those anonymous spooks whispering that the conclusions of the 2007 NIE are still good? We wonder if they've talked to the famous neocons at the IAEA, whose November report on Iran's nuclear programs noted "indications that some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003."
And that's the ultra-cautious view. Iran was already known to possess blueprints for a nuclear bomb. The really key aspects of a militarized nuclear program—uranium enrichment and the development of long-range ballistic missiles—are hiding in plain sight. If Tehran's intentions were truly peaceful, why would it refuse to negotiate seriously for so many years and in the face of increasingly tough sanctions that are making the regime even more unpopular?
The nonsecret evidence is overwhelming that Iran is driving headlong to get the capacity to build a bomb, whether or not it chooses to stage a test.
So why are our spooks so reluctant to say so? Part of it may be the lingering damage from the WMD mistakes over Iraq. No one in government wants to be blamed again for overestimating an enemy's capability, even if the history of intelligence has more episodes when America underestimated an adversary. Recall North Korea's invasion of the South, Saddam Hussein before the invasion of Kuwait, or the threat of terrorism on U.S. soil before 9/11.
President Obama has misjudged Iran at every turn—starting with his assumption that the mullahs would negotiate with him because he wasn't George W. Bush, that he would engender goodwill by downplaying Iran's stolen election in 2009, and that sanctions would make them bend. Wishful intelligence thinking won't deter Israeli leaders from defending their interests any more than it will stop Iran from obtaining weapons of mass destruction.
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