That dream became something of a reality just two years ago, when the U.S. Intelligence Community released its much-anticipated National Intelligence Estimate on Iran and its nuclear weapons program. By any standard, the report was a block-buster, contravening long-held assumptions about Tehran's ambitions to become a nuclear power.
With "high confidence," the NIE assessed that the Iranian government "halted" its nuclear weapons development program in 2003. Additionally, the intelligence community concluded that Tehran had not restarted the program in 2007, and was "less determined" to build nuclear weapons than in 2005. Based on those judgements, intel analysts determined that Iran was unlikely to produce a nuclear device before 2015.
Experts in Great Britain and Israel strongly disagreed with those findings, and for a variety of reasons. First, three of the NIE's key architects (Thomas Fingar, Vann Van Diepen and Kenneth Brill) had fought past battles with the Bush Administration on intel or arms control issues, or they were on record supporting Iran's right to enrich uranium. Those positions raised immediate questions about the "neutrality" of the estimate and its stunning conclusions.
Critics of the NIE also voiced concerns about the reliability of sources used in producing the assessment. Several intelligence officers told Bill Gertz of the Washington Times that a high-level Iranian defector, General Ali Reza Asgari, was a primary source for the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate and its controversial judgments. Asgari, a former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and a deputy defense minister, defected to the west while the NIE was under development. Information provided by Asgari reportedly prompted intel analysts to change their assessments regarding Iran and its nuclear weapons program.
But Asgari's sudden availability--and the quality of the information he provided--raised more red flags. Veteran defense writer Kenneth Timmerman reported that the U.S. was "duped" by an Iranian disinformation campaign, aimed at influencing intelligence assessments on that country's nuclear program. Other analysts found it curious that intel agencies burned by "single sources" in the past (remember "Curveball?) were assigning so much weight to information from one individual, despite his senior status in the Iranian government.
The NIE was also faulted for using "creative language" to support its central themes. While maintaining that Tehran had halted its weapons development effort, the estimate's authors conceded (mostly in footnotes) that other elements of the nuclear program--including uranium enrichment and missile production--were continuing. As we noted at the time, a nuclear weapons program actually has three distinctive tracks; perfection of the uranium "fuel cycle," development of delivery platforms, and fabrication of gravity bombs or warheads.
Indeed, the intelligence estimate freely conceded that two of the tracks remained active between 2003-2007. That, in turn, raised questions about the reported "suspension" of the weapons development effort. Put another way, it made little sense for Iran to halt its weapons research, particularly when other elements of the nuclear program were humming along.
Unfortunately, those concerns--and others--were quickly swept aside. The 2007 NIE became the gospel truth for Congressional Democrats and their allies in the mainstream press. If the Bush Administration had any secret ambitions for a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, those plans effectively died in December 2007.
What a difference two years makes. If the NIE had any remaining shreds of credibility, those were destroyed with today's bombshell revelation in the U.K. Times. Citing confidential documents obtained from intelligence sources, the paper reported that Iran is working towards a test of a neutron initiator, a key component used to trigger the explosion of a nuclear weapon.
According to the Times, the documents date from 2007, four years after Iran supposedly halted its weapons development program. Given the time and effort required to develop the initiator device--and plan a testing program--it seems clear that Tehran was still working on its bomb program after the reported suspension date. And, there is no civilian application for the trigger mechanism under development:
“Although Iran might claim that this work is for civil purposes, there is no civil application,” said David Albright, a physicist and president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, which has analysed hundreds of pages of documents related to the Iranian programme. “This is a very strong indicator of weapons work.”
The documents have been seen by intelligence agencies from several Western countries, including Britain. A senior source at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that they had been passed to the UN’s nuclear watchdog.
Readers should also note that the Times' story was written by Catherine Philip, a reporter in the paper's Washington bureau. That suggests that the documents came from U.S. intelligence sources, or (perhaps) a British liaison to one of our spy agencies. In any case, there is no doubt that American analysts have seen the documents. The real question is when our spooks got their hands on them, and why they've been suppressed--until now.
Sadly, we know the answer to that one. Evidence of an active Iranian weapons program does not fit the desired template of political elements within our intelligence community, or the Obama Administration. Claims that Tehran had suspended weapons development (and wouldn't produce a nuke until 2015) provided the rationale for continued diplomacy, aimed at shutting down the program. Never mind that years of talks between Tehran and the "EU-3" yielded nothing. Our new commander-in-chief preferred engagement, and his national security team wouldn't tolerate reporting that upset their planned strategy.
Meanwhile, Iran's centrifuges keep spinning and the mullahs inch closer to a nuclear weapons capability. We're guessing that more "honest" individuals within our various intel organizations have grown alarmed at the pace of Iranian development efforts and they're attempting to sound an alarm--and cover their backsides. Recent reporting on Tehran's nuclear program--including the trigger story--suggest that the regime will have a working nuclear device within two years, well ahead of the 2015 timeline touted just two years ago.
The Times' report also reminds us that the window for decisive action against Iran is rapidly closing. Unfortunately, there is no stomach for a military strike (outside of Israel). Western leaders seem content to maintain their "engagement" policy towards Iran, preferring to deal with Tehran's nuclear genie once it's outside the bottle.
If you doubt us, consider President Obama's comments during one of his TV appearances last night. Asked to grade his first year in office, Mr. Obama gave himself a solid "B+," claiming credit for (among other things) a "new international consensus on the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. So far, that "consensus" has done absolutely nothing to deter Tehran. What a surprise.