Tuesday, September 29, 2009

When Spooks Disagree

According to The New York Times, intelligence services in the United States, Israel and Western Europe are divided over the current status of Iran's nuclear program.

Depending on who you choose to believe, Tehran is (A) in the final stages of weaponization, the last step before mounting a nuke on a delivery platform; (B) has never resumed work on weaponization, after suspending that portion of its program in 2003; (C) never stopped work on weaponization, but the exact status of the effort is unclear, or (D) may be further along in its nuclear work than the IAEA is willing to admit.

If you haven't read the Times account, you might be interested to know that those assessments came from intelligence experts in Germany, Israel, the United States and France. If you'd like to take today's intelligence quiz, try to match the assessment with the country that offered it. If not, simply skip ahead; you'll find the answers in the next paragraph.


A France
B Germany
C Israel
D United States

As you might have guessed, the nation that believes Iran is nearing the end of the weaponization is Israel. Germany is the country which assesses that Tehran has never abandoned its weaponization efforts, although progress is difficult to ascertain. Meanwhile, French intelligence services think the IAEA knows more about Iran's nuclear ambitions than its has admitted, suggesting that Paris has its own suspicions about weaponization.

Finally, the U.S. is the only country that still maintains that Iran suspended its weaponization efforts in 2003. That was the central thesis of that controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Tehran's nuclear efforts, an assessment better known for its political implications, rather than its intel judgments.

Stating that Iran had halted the weaponization process, elements within the intelligence community effectively removed the military option as a means for dealing with the problem in the last year of the Bush presidency. Never mind that the NIE conceded that Iran was continuing other, critical elements of its nuclear program, such as uranium enrichment and development of medium and long-range delivery platforms.

In other words, Tehran was pressing ahead with material for a bomb and a means for putting it on target. All that was missing was a weaponization program, an effort that could be restarted relatively easily, with assistance from such partners as North Korea and Pakistan. Indeed, Pyongyang's recent nuclear test suggests that Kim Jong-il's scientists have developed at least a crude weapon design, one that can be downsized for delivery by medium and long-range missiles. Once North Korea has that technology, Tehran will have it in short order, since Iran is providing technical and financial support for Pyongyang's nuclear program.

Judging from the leaked assessments--and their clear divergence--a few facts seem painfully clear. First, western intelligence agencies lack reliable HUMINT reporting on Iran's nuclear efforts. Developing sources inside the theocratic regime has always been difficult, and there has been a significant counter-intelligence crackdown since the defection of a key IRGC general last year. With his departure, we're guessing the flow of new HUMINT data on Tehran's nuclear program has declined. In fact, Iranian exile groups remain one of our most important sources of information, although portions of their reporting is sometimes suspect.

Secondly, Iran is becoming increasingly proficient at concealing its nuclear activities. Not long after President Obama revealed that Tehran has built a second enrichment plant, Iranian officials invited the IAEA to inspect the facility. That offer suggests a certain degree of confidence in its ability to hide (or remove) sensitive functions before the inspectors arrive. "Open" inspections by the U.N. agency will reveal only what the Iranians want us to see. Key activities--including uranium enrichment--can be moved to buildings with no apparent "nuclear" signature. There is still ample reason to believe that Tehran has a parallel, covert program which has remained undetected.

In fact, the Germany's primary intelligence service (the BND) have maintained that position for years. One of my former colleagues, who spent years working with the agency, says the Germans became suspicious when Iran launched a massive railway expansion program in the early 1990s. A decade into the effort, more than 3300 km of new, standard-gauge line was under construction. Interestingly, one of those projects was designed to "by-pass" the holy city of Qom. It would be instructive to know how close that "belt line" lies to the recently-discovered nuclear facility. As a German analyst told my colleague, some of the new rail lines served areas that were relatively unpopulated, and almost devoid of significant economic activity.

Unfortunately, the lack of an intelligence consensus on Iran will make it more difficult for the west to choose a course of action. It is rather telling that French President Sarkozy has been much more forceful on the issue that President Obama. He clearly understands that Iran will soon have a nuclear bomb--and perhaps much sooner than anyone realizes. Meanwhile, Mr. Obama has (apparently) put his hopes in the power of diplomacy and a largely discredited NIE. From his perspective, we still have time to talk to Tehran and achieve some sort of solution, or cobble together "tougher" sanctions that everyone can support.

It's a risky gamble and unfortunately for Mr. Obama, the weight of the available intelligence is not on his side.


Rich said...

A conscensus on intel? Looking at the size, complexity and apparent cost of the Iranian program it is clear the Iranians are not likely to abandon this national effort in the face of partial sanctions or with any deal the West can offer. The interpretation of available intel is not the issue. The timing of when the Iranians can actually brandish (and not bluff or hide) a deliverable weapon may never be clearly determined, nor is it as critical as one might think when the question is 6, 12 or 24 months. Obama is unlikely to act militarily or possibly even support an IDF operation - and an "interpretation" that we just have years to come together on this plays well to continued talks & hollow sanctions. The Israeli timetable is in months, and they will likely be compelled to act unilaterally (we may still be "talking" with Iran). Unfortunately, Col Peters assessment does appear to be the most likely at this point in time.
The US has been aware of this particular facility at least since construction started, prior to Obama taking office. The Iranians basically have a massive and in large measure undisguised weapons development program. IMHO it will not be negotiated away or succumb to partial sanctions.
BTW, looking back I noticed that Cordesman also did not have this facility shown in the March 2009 CSIS report at:

John Burgess said...

Could it be that this Administration is gun shy? After all, the last one followed the consensus on Iraqi WMD and look where it got them... branded as 'liars' at best.

billmill said...
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billmill said...

What will it take to get this administration off its collective rear to take serious action?
I sure hope they are not waiting for a mushroom cloud over Tel Aviv

Augurwell said...
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Augurwell said...
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Augurwell said...

Hhm... In reality Canada's nukes are stored on H.M.(N.)S.S. so no one knows - until now ... but then Iran is not Canada.

The other two comments were too full of swearing.


Unknown said...

"Could it be that this Administration is gun shy?"

My diagnosis is spineless and clueless. Dream scenario is unfortunate incident leaves a Chernobyl like mess in Iran, inciting another regime change... Mossad could, FSB might, Obama would blow its cover.