AS FAR as George Bush is concerned, “Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous and Iran will be dangerous” if it gets sufficient knowledge to build a nuclear bomb. But his words this week were barely audible above the clamour detonated by a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the collective judgement of all 16 of America’s intelligence agencies, that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programme in the autumn of 2003.
To Iran’s irrepressible president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the report was a “great victory”—an own thumb-in-the-eye for the Great Satan.
At the very least, the spooks’ reassessment of Iran’s ongoing nuclear work seems likely to put a brake on already slow diplomatic efforts through the United Nations Security Council to pressure Iran into suspending its enrichment of uranium and its efforts to produce plutonium. Although a new resolution promising stiffer sanctions on Iran may still be circulated soon, both Russia and China say that the new NIE version of events means at a minimum a bit of a rethink.
Yet it’s a funny thing. Although the new judgement on Iran’s weapons work contradicts a 2005 NIE view that Iran was tinkering on regardless, the intelligence folk have not changed their prediction that Iran could have a nuclear weapon by around 2015. So does Iran have such military ambitions? And if so, why the presumed four-year pause?
When intelligence types talk of Iran’s weapons programme, what they mean is work to design a nuclear warhead, master the mechanics to make it go bang and covertly produce the highly-enriched uranium or plutonium for its explosive core. In 2002 much of Iran’s hitherto-secret uranium work, including its centrifuge-enrichment plant at Natanz, was exposed by an opposition group. Iran then came under mounting pressure to suspend such work and let in inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The intense scrutiny, the intelligence analysts think, caused Iran to halt its other nefarious activities too.
Yet, as a leaked speech by a senior Iranian nuclear official later made clear, Iran was not abandoning enrichment, only ducking and weaving to get the world off its back. Uranium and plutonium work, it insists, are legal under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—for peaceful purposes. The enrichment go-slow ended abruptly in 2006, however, with the election of Mr Ahmadinejad. Iran now has 3,000 centrifuge machines up and running at Natanz.
Does that matter if all the other work has stopped? Producing enough plutonium or highly enriched uranium (power reactors use the low-enriched sort, but this can be enriched to weapons grade by running it through the centrifuges a few more times) is the chief obstacle to building a bomb. Halting the obviously illegal work, while pressing ahead with enrichment in plain sight would still leave Iran with a weapons option, argued George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think-tank, back in 2005. The new NIE assessment comes to a similar conclusion.
Iran claims never to have had any intent to build weapons. The NIE disagrees. America is even more firmly convinced on the evidence it has obtained—some of it quite recently—that until 2003 Iran’s government was trying to build a nuclear weapon. It was “probably worse than we thought”, says Stephen Hadley, Mr Bush’s national security adviser.
It always was implausible that a country without a single working nuclear-power reactor would spend so heavily on, and be so secretive about, uranium enrichment. The IAEA still wants to know more about unexplained traces of highly enriched uranium found by inspectors and a document Iran had for years, but claims never to have made use of, showing how to shape uranium metal into hemispheres, a technique useful only for weapons. Inspectors also want Iran to account for drawings dated 2003 from a laptop provided to America by a defector the following year that show design work on a missile cone that could accommodate a nuclear warhead. Iran dismisses such evidence as “baseless”.
The latest NIE assessment expresses “moderate confidence” that Iran’s weapons pause continues. Israel’s defence minister, Ehud Barak, this week begged to differ. He acknowledged that the odds on an eventual American military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities have lengthened, but said Israel would not lower its guard “because of an intelligence report from the other side of the world, even if it is from our greatest friend.” Intriguingly, while the director-general of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, expressed himself pleased with the NIE reassessment, the New York Times quoted a senior official close to the agency as expressing more scepticism about what Iran is really up to.
So where does diplomacy go from here? The NIE suggests that the weapons pause may indicate more of a cost-benefit approach to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and that some cleverer combination of scrutiny and pressure, combined with juicier offers to take account of Iran’s security, prestige and other goals might prompt its regime to steer clear of further weapons work—though it could reverse course at any time. Yet that has been the basic diplomatic strategy all along: get Iran to halt enrichment and negotiate inducements, including co-operation on other advanced, but less dangerous, nuclear technologies, to make the suspension permanent. Mr Ahmadinejad firmly rules this out. Ironically, this week’s NIE will make it harder to muster the diplomatic wherewithal to press him to change his merry tune.
* From The Economist print edition (Dec.6, 2007)