The assessment, a National Intelligence Estimate that represents the consensus view of all 16 American spy agencies, states that Tehran is likely keeping its options open with respect to building a weapon, but that intelligence agencies “do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.”
Iran is continuing to produce enriched uranium, a program that the Tehran government has said is designed for civilian purposes. The new estimate says that enrichment program could still provide Iran with enough raw material to produce a nuclear weapon sometime by the middle of next decade, a timetable essentially unchanged from previous estimates.
But the new estimate declares with “high confidence” that a military-run Iranian program intended to transform that raw material into a nuclear weapon has been shut down since 2003, and also says with high confidence that the halt “was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure.”
Yes, that's correct. At the same time that Bush administration officials were warning us of the dire threat of the Iranian bomb, CIA officials were quietly concluding that Iran's nuclear weapons program had been shut down. If this news doesn't stun you, I don't know what does. As the NY Times states in a separate piece: "Rarely, if ever, has a single intelligence report so completely, so suddenly, and so surprisingly altered a foreign policy debate here." Indeed.
First of all, I-like many-had assumed that Iran was working on a nuclear weapons program with "all deliberate speed" so to speak, doing as much as they felt they could get away with without triggering more international reaction than they were prepared to deal with. Second, I'm shocked and amazed at the definitive tone of this report, which really only leaves as wiggle room the possibility that at some point in the future Iran might elect to revive it's weapons program. Here's the most relevant excerpt, via Kevin Drum:
We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.
....We assess with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons. We judge with high confidence that the halt lasted at least several years....We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007....Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005.
Moderate confidence is a hell of a lot better than "we don't know" or "Iran is definitely working on nukes."
But what's more shocking is that this report was even permitted to see the light or day. As Kevin reminds us in that same post, senior Bush administration officials worked to prevent the report's conclusions from coming out for over a year, and just as recently as Nov. 14th Director of Intelligence Mike McConnell indicated that no change was in the works in that regard. It was assumed by many critics of the Bush administration that they were merely working to keep quiet a report that would damage their efforts to go on the offensive against Iran, and rightly so apparently. But I don't think anyone anticipated that the report was this definitive.
So why was this report allowed to see the light of day? What changed in only a few weeks time? At first Kevin thought it was congressional pressure, but that doesn't seem to be the right answer. Drum also links to Joe Klein, who quotes a "senior U.S. intelligence official" as saying that recently obtained, high-quality intelligence led to the conclusion. Remarks at a press conference given by Stephen Hadley seem to confirm this. But quite frankly that sounds like face saving to me; I doubt there's any intelligence that alone would have prompted the release of this report's conclusions short of Iran permitting U.S. personnel to wander through Nantaz themselves. But Scott Horton quotes another source in the intelligence community who says:
“This is absolutely absurd. The NIE has been in substantially the form in which it was finally submitted for more than six months. The White House, and particularly Vice President Cheney, used every trick in the book to stop it from being finalized and issued. There was no last minute breakthrough that caused the issuance of the assessment.”
Strong words, but his source didn't know the real reason either. So...what then? Remember, the Bush administration has been hyping the threat of Iran despite knowing the conclusions of the report for months now. Revelation of the conclusions would not only derail the case for war, but be hugely embarassing to the administration. And yet they did it anyway. Why? The threat that someone else would go forward with/leak the report if they didn't admit it themselves? Your guess is as good as mine.
Either way, this report, combined with stories like this one, sure make it seem like the drive to bomb Iran is completely and utterly dead. At this point, we'd be lucky to even get a new round of sanctions, since our allies will sensibly conclude that there is no need to ramp up pressure on a program that isn't even in effect.
UPDATE: Kevin Drum speculates that perhaps what forced the issue was not a potential leak from the White House or an intelligence agency (my own uneducated, uninformed and baseless theory), but a very real leak in Iran's nuclear weapons program. The speculation is wild and unsubstantiated of course, but it's too interesting not to mention to you.
UPDATE II: Atrios, via John Cole, points out to us that since the national intelligence agencies have concluded there essentially is no nuclear weapons program in Iraq, necessarily we would not have known what to bomb had we elected to bomb Iran anyway. Though as Cole points out, a lack of feasible targets hasn't exactly stopped us in the past.
UPDATE III: By the way, it would be nice if somebody would ask Rudy Guiliani-if they can get in a question edge-wise amid all the other questions about funny accounting and secret trysts-if he shares the opinion of his chief foreign policy adviser, Norman Podhoretz, who believes that the intelligence community is simply acting out of a long-festering case of BDS.