New Iran NIE Coming Soon?

As as been strongly hinted at elsewhere in recent months, Newsweek reports that U.S. intelligence agencies are “revising their widely disputed assertion that Iran has no active program to design or build a nuclear bomb.”

Three U.S. and two foreign counterproliferation officials tell NEWSWEEK that, as soon as next month, the intel agencies are expected to complete an “update” to their controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that Tehran “halted its nuclear weapons program” in 2003 and “had not restarted” it as of mid-2007. The officials, who asked for anonymity to discuss sensitive information, say the revised report will bring U.S. intel agencies more in line with other countries’ spy agencies (such as Britain’s MI6, Germany’s BND, and Israel’s Mossad), which have maintained that Iran has been pursuing a nuclear weapon.

Yet two of the U.S. sources caution the new assessment will likely be “Talmudic” in its parsing. They say U.S. analysts now believe that Iran may well have resumed “research” on nuclear weapons — theoretical work on how to design and construct a bomb — but that Tehran is not engaged in “development” — actually trying to build a weapon. “The intelligence community is always reluctant to make a total retreat because it makes them look bad,” says the third American.

It’s interesting to read this in light of an interview published Tuesday with the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, in which Burgess stressed that there is still no evidence that Iran has made a final decision to build nuclear weapons:

Burgess says the key finding that Iran has not yet committed itself to nuclear weapons, contained in a controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), is still valid.

“The bottom line assessments of the NIE still hold true,” he said. “We have not seen indication that the government has made the decision to move ahead with the program. But the fact still remains that we don’t know what we don’t know.”

General Burgess says it is difficult to ascertain the intentions of Iran’s leaders or the level of political infighting among the country’s leadership.

While clearly a walk-back of the 2007 NIE, Burgess’ point is still very significant. As MIT nonproliferation expert Jim Walsh has pointed out, the decision to move forward with nuclear weaponization is a serious one for any government, fraught with numerous political implications. It’s not simply a matter of Ayatollah Khamenei waking up one morning and saying “I think I’ll build a nuke today.”

Whether one terms them “Talmudic” or just “appropriately rigorous given the stakes,” these kinds of distinctions — research vs. development, design vs. build, nuclear weapon vs. weapons capability — will be really important to the debate going forward. As there was with Iraq, there is a highly organized movement afoot to pretend that none of this matters, that “the mullahs” have always intended to get their hands on a nuke, and that we should therefore prepare to bomb the hell out of Iran do what is necessary. We’ve already seen the beginning of an effort by some neocons to resurrect a “Team B” approach to hype the threat of Islamic extremism, ignoring the fact that such an approach, in all of its previous incarnations, generated nothing but staggeringly wrong conclusions about enemy capabilities, resulting is disastrously counterproductive policies.