Today's New York Sun has an insightful editorial on the problems with the recently-declassified NIE on Iran's nuclear weapons program. Reading between the lines of the document (as we have) the Sun finds it lacking in several respects.
For starters, one of the estimate's primary authors, Vann Van Diepen, seems to be less-than-objective on the issue. According to the Sun:
"Vann Van Diepen...has spent the last five years trying to get America to accept Iran's right to enrich uranium. Mr. Van Diepen no doubt reckons that in helping push the estimate through the system, he has succeeded in influencing the policy debate in Washington. The bureaucrats may even think they are stopping another war."
If that account is accurate, then it raises serious questions about the NIE's ultimate conclusion, since a "frozen" weapons program dovetails nicely with Mr. Van Diepen's position on Iran's enrichment efforts. Obviously, all analysts are subject to personal bias (to some degree), but you've got to wonder how someone with Van Diepen's agenda was assigned to the NIE team. Oh, that's right. He (reportedly) works for the CIA. And we know how elements of that agency feel about the Bush Administration and its policies toward certain countries, including Iran.
The Sun also observes that it's hard to believe that Iran would halt its nuclear weapons program--an effort that has been sustained for decades, despite increasingly international pressure. The estimate also assigns a degree of rationality to Tehran's nuclear decision-making, a quality noticeably absent in other Iranian programs and policies.
Indeed, why would a nation that denies the holocaust and advocates "wiping Israel off the map" suddenly bow to sanctions and pressure that were anything-but-draconian? Then, there's the issue of how much progress Iran made before the program was supposedly frozen, and the related matter of a possible, covert development program. Lest we forget, North Korea supposedly "gave up" its nuclear program in 1994 under the infamous "Agreed To Framework," but simply its developments underground, and produced an unknown number of nuclear devices over the years that followed.
On a similar note, Michael Ledeen (writing at NRO) notes that, "for the NIE to be true, the evidence would have to be awfully good. And evidence of that quality has been in famously short supply. We would add that detailed insights--and amplifying, hard-copy information--from General Asgari might remedy some of those concerns. However, we must add that the reliability of an intel source is validated over time, and through corroboration by other sources. Asgari defected less than a year ago, and (as we noted in the previous post), confirming some of his claims may be difficult, unless we have similar, high-level sources still in place.
Mr. Ledeen is also adept at spotting some of the "spook-speak" and weasel words that invariably qualify any intelligence estimate. At one point, the NIE states that Iran has a "latent" goal to develop nuclear weapons (they're just not doing it right now). And, in the estimate's key judgments, the analysts say that, it's likely that Iran will eventually develop nuclear weapons, perhaps in the 2010-2015 time frame. Apparently, the State Department "took a footnote" on that one, deviating slightly with the "consensus" and stating that development will not occur until after 2013. How they arrived at that conclusion is not explained in the document's declassified version.
Ledeen reminds us that we've been fooled on nuclear programs before, and Iran may be deceiving us now. We would add that Tehran's deception program isn't as advanced as Russia, North Korea or Pakistan, but then again, concealing a covert nuclear program doesn't take a lot of work. Key processes--including uranium enrichment--can be hidden in small, nondescript buildings like a warehouse, with no external indicators or signatures. And quite predictably, the NIE (renamed the Van Diepen Demarche by the Sun), refuses to rule out the possibility of a convert development effort, or the acquisition of fissile material or finished weapons, from external sources.
As with many NIEs, this one raises more questions than it answers. And remember: this document will be a cornerstone of U.S. policy-making toward Iran for at least the next two years, possibly longer. The potential consequences of "getting it wrong" are very grave, to say the least.