THE consequences were not so serious, it would be tempting to mock the fiascos and flip-flops of America’s intelligence services. Before 2003 they said that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and was seeking nuclear ones. They were wrong. In 2005 they said that Iran had a secret nuclear programme and was determined to get a bomb. Now they say they were wrong about that too
This week’s national intelligence assessment says with “high confidence” that although Iran was indeed working on a bomb until the autumn of 2003 it then stopped. By the middle of this year it had probably (“moderate confidence”) not started again.
And unless it got fuel for a bomb from abroad it would take at least until late 2009 (“moderate confidence”) but more likely between 2010 and 2015 to make it at home.
What is the baffled layman to make of this? First that intelligence is neither art nor science but a system of best guesses based on incomplete evidence. If new evidence suggests that the previous guesses were wrong, it is a good thing that spies are willing to say so. Some of the outraged hawks who want America to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities accuse the spies of sexing down their latest Iran dossier in order to make amends for having sexed up the one that led America into a war in Iraq. But that would imply a truly impressive conspiracy between the 16 agencies that signed the report. Of course, the spies’ new assessment may be wrong, as their previous ones proved to be. But it is most unlikely to be a tissue of lies.
For that very reason, however, relieved doves who think the spectre of a nuclear Iran or of an American attack has now disappeared had better read the report again. Its final sentence says (“high confidence”) that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it chooses. As to what “eventually” means, the assessment has not changed: it was always late 2009 at the earliest but more probably the middle of the next decade. As to whether Iran will do so, the spies say (“moderate-to-high confidence”) that “at a minimum” it is keeping the option open.
That is troubling, because Iran can continue to work towards a bomb without resuming the secret programme America now thinks it stopped in 2003. That programme was about “weaponisation”: the fiddly business of making a device that can set off a chain reaction in nuclear fuel. But creating such a warhead is the easier part of building a bomb. Harder by far is making the fuel. And, as the report notes, making the fuel is precisely what Iran continues to do in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions at its uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz. For now, it is true, Iran is enriching the uranium at below weapons grade. It says it is doing so only in order to power reactors to produce electricity. But it has no such reactors. And to get the uranium to weapons grade it has only to run the stuff often enough through Natanz’s centrifuges.
In short, nothing in the new assessment makes the story Iran tells about Natanz any less fishy or the dangers posed by its dash to enrich uranium any less troubling. But it has utterly changed the politics of the issue. The case for American pre-emption now becomes almost impossible to sell either at home or abroad. That is probably a good thing, given that a military attack was always likelier to restore Iran’s determination to build a bomb than destroy its ability to get one. Unfortunately, the report may also make it harder for America and Europe to maintain, let alone sharpen, the sanctions the world has imposed in order to make Iran stop work at Natanz.
Talk if necessary, but keep up the sanctions
Since the spies say Iran stopped its bomb-making in 2003 because of world pressure, relaxing it now would be perverse. But to keep the world on side, America may have to show new flexibility. For example, while tightening sanctions, it could offer to talk to Iran about all aspects of their troubled relations, even before work at Natanz stopped. Iran might refuse. But that would at least make it clear which side was the spoiler.
* Dec 6th 2007. From The Economist print edition