A number of conservative bloggers have seized on a sensationalistic LA Times’ story from yesterday which stated that “the Obama administration has made it clear that it believes there is no question that Tehran is seeking the bomb.”
In his news conference this week, President Obama went so far as to describe Iran’s “development of a nuclear weapon” before correcting himself to refer to its “pursuit” of weapons capability.
Obama’s nominee to serve as CIA director, Leon E. Panetta, left little doubt about his view last week when he testified on Capitol Hill. “From all the information I’ve seen,” Panetta said, “I think there is no question that they are seeking that capability.”
The language reflects the extent to which senior U.S. officials now discount a National Intelligence Estimate issued in November 2007 that was instrumental in derailing U.S. and European efforts to pressure Iran to shut down its nuclear program.
Not so much, actually. Delivering the intelligence community’s annual threat assessment (pdf) yesterday, director of national intelligence Dennis Blair “said US intelligence assesses that Iran has not restarted nuclear weapons design and weaponization work that it halted in late 2003.”
“Although we do not know whether Iran currently intends to develop nuclear weapons, we assess Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop them,” he said in an annual threat assessment to Congress.
The assessment essentially reaffirmed a 2007 intelligence report that at the time was widely seen as a setback to international efforts to put pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear program.
The 2007 NIE (pdf) has been the source of much controversy, but here’s what it actually said:
We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program (1); we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons. We judge with high confidence that the halt, and Tehran’s announcement of its decision to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program and sign an Additional Protocol to its Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement, was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.
1. For the purposes of this Estimate, by “nuclear weapons program” we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.
While it’s important not to underplay Iran’s problematic behavior here — the step from “civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment” to weaponization is a relatively small one — the distinction between “nuclear weapon” and “nuclear weapons capability” is not trivial. It’s clear that Iran would like the capability, but it’s also clear by looking at Iran’s behavior that the regime understands that actually building a weapon would trigger a number of highly undesirable consequences.
We should also remember that the main reason that the 2007 NIE made such a splash was because President Bush and other administration officials had, in the previous months, been engaged in a troublingly familiar threat-hyping exercise. Just as he had done in the lead-up to the Iraq war, President Bush represented “no doubt” about Iran’s intention to possess a nuclear weapon. The 2007 NIE showed that there was, in fact, some doubt, an assessment which remains operative today — the LA Times’ attempt to generate traffic notwithstanding.