Iran’s Nuclear Intentions

Adam Blickstein is right in arguing that restoring the intelligence community’s credibility will be essential to the ability of any future presidential administration to mobilize public opinion for a necessary intervention. Whether or not that’s possible in an age of “all info ops, all the time” remains to be seen. There will always be both known and unknown gaps in our intelligence, and how they are used to drive policy is often an essentially political decision. Jeffrey Lewis, in a post I flagged yesterday, called attention to the different ways in which the Clinton and Bush administrations assessed a known gap in intelligence on North Korea. The divergence in their conclusions has as much to do with political considerations as with the longterm strategic cost-benefit analysis.

A good place to start, though, would be in not purposely distorting the known intelligence, for instance, about Iran’s nuclear program, as Matthew Yglesias points out in an entertaining post here. That said, it’s important to be precise about what the NIE said and didn’t say (.pdf), and what we can and can’t know about Iran’s intentions. The NIE said that Iran has halted the weaponization component of its nuclear program. Most opponents of a war with Iran in particular and the Bush administration’s disastrous Iran policy in general latched onto that to argue that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons.

There are two problems with that argument, despite its apparent tautology. To begin with, the production of a deployable nuclear weapon depends on a number of components: weapons grade fissile material, a delivery system, and the actual implosion device necessary to set off the atomic reaction, among others. The NIE basically stated that Iran decided to freeze the last component, probably in response to heightened international concern and pressure. But Iran is still developing the first two components, and they are still just as applicable to any eventual nuclear design. It’s the equivalent of building a car frame, refining gasoline, and discontinuing the program that was developing the internal combustion engine.

From everything I’ve read, the actual weaponization device is not the most arduous part of the process. The uranium enrichment is. Which means that while Iran is no longer developing nuclear weapons, the question of whether it is still pursuing them boils down to its intentions. The fact that it had a weaponization program to begin with leaves little doubt as to its initial intentions. But here’s what the NIE had to say about Iran’s current intentions:

. . .we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.

There’s also this:

Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so. For example, Iran’s civilian uranium enrichment program is continuing. We also assess with high confidence that since fall 2003, Iran has been conducting research and development projects with commercial and conventional military applications—some of which would also be of limited use for nuclear weapons.

Finally there’s this:

We assess with moderate confidence that convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult given the linkage many within the leadership probably see between nuclear weapons development and Iran’s key national security and foreign policy objectives, and given Iran’s considerable effort from at least the late 1980s to 2003 to develop such weapons. In our judgment, only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons—and such a decision is inherently reversible.

It’s important to push back against any distortions of the intelligence, but it’s counterproductive to push back to the point of distorting to the opposite extreme. I advocate engaging Iran, because I think that whatever eventual concessions we might mutually make would be strategically less costly than an armed intervention.

But we shouldn’t be naive. We’re dealing with a hostile country harboring adversarial regional ambitions that has been opaque in developing its nuclear program and has a history of nuclear weapons intentions. There are also a variety of regional stability concerns and broader non-proliferation principles that would be jeopardized by an eventual Iranian nuclear weapons capacity, even if Iran itself is deterrable.

That makes for a much more complicated strategic problem to resolve in just about every possible way. But reality usually does.

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