A couple stories this morning — one predictable, the other quite surprising — could push the Iran policy debate in two very different directions.
The Wall Street Journal reports that, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials, “U.S. spy agencies are considering whether to rewrite a controversial 2007 intelligence report that asserted Tehran halted its efforts to build nuclear weapons in 2003.”
The intelligence agencies’ rethink comes as pressure is mounting on Capitol Hill, and among U.S. allies, for the Obama administration to redo the 2007 assessment, after a string of recent revelations about Tehran’s nuclear program. [...]
So far, intelligence officials are not “ready to declare [the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate] invalid,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said, emphasizing that the judgment covered the 2003-2007 time frame only. That leaves room for a reassessment of the period since the December 2007 report was completed, the official suggested.
There have been rumors about this for a while. The revelation of the Qom facility, as well as the alleged so-called IAEA “secret annex” — which is said to claim that “Tehran has the ability to make a nuclear bomb and worked on developing a missile system that can carry an atomic warhead” — have put a lot of pressure on the intelligence community to take another look at Iran’s potential weapons program.
Even if it is determined that the Iranians have restarted weapons design work, however, it’s important to stress that there is still no evidence — and no, John Bolton’s op-eds don’t count as evidence — that Iran has decided to obtain a nuclear weapon, as opposed to breakout capacity. This is an extremely important distinction, one that Iran war advocates have consistently attempted to elide.
But it may not matter: Today David Ignatius notes a recent article in Nucleonics Week which “reported that Iran’s supply of low-enriched uranium — the potential feedstock for nuclear bombs — appears to have certain ‘impurities’ that ‘could cause centrifuges to fail’ if the Iranians try to boost it to weapons grade.”
This news strikes me as a potential bombshell. If the Nucleonics Week report is accurate (and there’s some uncertainty among experts about how serious the contamination problem is), the Iranian nuclear program is in much worse shape than most analysts had realized. The contaminated fuel it has produced so far would be all but useless for nuclear weapons. To make enough fuel for a bomb, Iran might have to start over — this time avoiding the impurities.
In his book The Inheritance, David Sanger goes into some detail on the extent to which U.S. intelligence had infiltrated Iran’s nuclear supply chain, feeding faulty equipment, technology and material to the program in order to hold back its development. It’s unclear yet whether that has anything to do with the uranium contamination, but if the problem is as extensive as Ignatius reports it could prove to be as much of a game-changer as the 2007 NIE was.