In 2007, Washington’s Mid East hawks went berserk over a National Intelligence Estimate (N.I.E.) which asserted that, in the absence of any proof otherwise, Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program. The N.I.E., a consensus opinion of the U.S. intelligence community, took much of the wind out of the sails of the remaining hawks in the Bush administration and outside pundits who have long been pushing ever more aggressive actions against Iran.
In investigative reporter Seymour Hersh’s latest New Yorker piece, subtitled “How Real is the Nuclear Threat”, the only bombshell, considering the over-heated Washington discourse on Iran, seems to be that the intelligence community’s assessment has changed very little over the past four years. Congress saw the 2011 N.I.E. in February, and a public summary is unlikely to emerge, so public opinion relies on journalistic appraisals and Congressional statements to decipher what the report says. Hersh provides the best reported account yet about how 2007’s account of Iranian activity seems to have shifted very litte:
A government consultant who has read the highly classified 2011 N.I.E. update depicted the report as reinforcing the essential conclusion of the 2007 paper: Iran halted weaponization in 2003. “There’s more evidence to support that assessment,” the consultant told me.
Hersh’s piece is oddly timed, coming on the heels of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) revelation last week that Iran had worked toward a technical goal likely intended for an atomic warhead. But except for that one piece of evidence, the Iranian nuclear-weapon trail is surprisingly cold.
However, Hersh does shed some light on granular details of just how deep the U.S. intelligence apparatus has burrowed into Iranian territory:
The N.I.E. makes it clear that U.S. intelligence has been unable to find decisive evidence that Iran has been moving enriched uranium to an underground weapon-making center. In the past six years, soldiers from the Joint Operations Force, working with Iranian intelligence assets, put in place cutting-edge surveillance techniques, according to two former intelligence sources. Street signs were surreptitiously removed in heavily populated areas of Tehran — say, near a university supsected of conducting nuclear enrichment — and replaced with similar-looking signs implanted with radiation sensors. American operatives, working undercover, also removed bricks froma building or two in central Tehran that they thought housed nulear-enrichment activities and replaced them with bricks embedded with radiation-monitoring devices.
High-powered sensors disguised as stones were spread randomly along roadways in a mountainous area where a suspected underground weapon site was under construction. The stones were capable of transmitting electronic data on the weight of vehicles going in and out of the site; a truck going in light and coming out heavy could be hauling dirt — a crucial sign of excavation work. There is also constant satellite coverage of major suspect areas in Iran, and some American analysts were assigned the difficult task of examining footage in the hope for finding air vents — signs perhaps, of an underground facility in lightly populated areas.
All that James-Bond-meets-Sky-Mall-hiding-things-in-fake-stones-and-bricks and still — nothing!
The Hersh piece pits most of the world’s reliable intelligence agencies and diplomatic corps against Israel, the U.S. Congress, and sometimes the administration. Setting aside the political alarmism and of the latter set, one might be tempted to draw this very salient conclusion from Hersh’s report: the doomsday is not upon us, and Iran has not yet chosen to make a weapon. Indeed, former intelligence analyst Paul Pillar, who has himself worked on N.I.E.s, has made this point many times. Speaking last fall, he told the Arms Control Association:
[A]s to what we can or cannot expect from the intelligence community, we’re talking about Iranian decisions, I think, that have yet to be made. Or so far as we know they have yet to be made. And in this case, the decisions, whether to proceed to a weapons capability or how close to come to it, will depend in large part, among other things, on what the United States does vis-à-vis Iran. And again, these are all questions about which we cannot expect answers from the intelligence community, which among other things is not charged with assessing the future direction of U.S. policy.
Many analysts seem sure that Iran is bent on taking its nuclear program to the next step, but with the Iranian final decision seemingly unmade, it’s difficult to argue against a program of pressure and coercion that might usher Iran toward making the choice that the U.S. and its allies want — as opposed to a decision that could, in diplomatic speak, be considered “unhelpful”. But those who push a military strike or an explicit objective of regime change against Iran — namely Israeli and Congressional hawks and, of course, neoconservative pundits — seem to be pushing Iran precisely toward making “unhelpful” decisions, squandering what time is left before choices are made.