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In Iran We Trust?

If Tehran breaks its promises, we’re unlikely to know.

Feb 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 21 • By GABRIEL SCHOENFELD
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Only in 2007, just as the reactor was ready to be loaded with uranium fuel, did U.S. intelligence conclude that Syria had built a gas-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor. It reached this judgment not by dint of its own collections efforts but thanks to incontrovertible evidence provided by Israel: photographs of the building’s interior. Under our eyes but without our seeing, the Syrians had come breathtakingly close to possessing an operational generator of the nuclear bomb ingredient plutonium.

“This was a significant failure on the part of U.S. intelligence agencies,” writes former defense secretary Robert Gates in his new memoir. Gates notes that “Syria for years had been a high-priority intelligence target for the United States” and that “early detection of a large nuclear reactor under construction in a place like Syria is supposedly the kind of intelligence collection that the United States does superbly well.” The failure clearly shook Gates and led him to ask President Bush: “How can we have any confidence at all in the estimates of the scope of the North Korean, Iranian, or other possible programs?”

That was the right question to ask in 2007 and it remains the right question to ask about Iran today.

It is especially significant that the CIA was undaunted by its own lapse. After Israel presented the United States with photographs of the interior of the building at al Kibar, the CIA told President Bush that while it now had high confidence that the structure was a nuclear reactor, it still had low confidence that Syria was engaged in a project to develop nuclear weapons. The reason for the low confidence estimate: It had scoured Syria and not been able to locate or identify any other components of a Syrian nuclear program. This was not a conclusion without consequences. In the wake of the WMD intelligence fiasco that precipitated the second Gulf war, President Bush was reluctant to strike the Syrian reactor without a rock-solid CIA judgment behind him. Israel was not so reluctant. It destroyed the reactor in an air raid on September 6, 2007.

What does all this mean for our dealings with Tehran? “With respect to Iran, the Syrian episode reminds us of the ability of states to obtain nuclear capability covertly,” is what U.S. intelligence itself has said about its own failure. But President Obama does not appear to take the reminder all that seriously. Even if inspectors were free to roam Iran at will, the ability of American intelligence to monitor a country whose territory is nearly 10 times larger than Syria’s would be in doubt. But under the preliminary agreement with Iran struck by President Obama in November, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors are not free to roam at will; it appears they will be confined to those nuclear facilities that the IAEA already knows about. 

In any longer term agreement with Iran, far-reaching and highly intrusive verification provisions are going to remain crucial. But even in the unlikely event that the United States and its negotiating partners persuade Iran to grant inspectors unlimited access to all potential nuclear sites on its territory, our ability to detect violations will still be limited. It may be difficult to conceal a large structure like a nuclear reactor from the lenses of American satellites (although Syria found it easy enough for a time). It is far easier to conceal facilities housing centrifuges for uranium enrichment, which can be underground and do not require the kinds of cooling facilities that reactors demand. The leaders of our spy agencies may boast of the kinds of intelligence collection that they have been reputed to do “superbly well.” But history shows that their tools are limited and their record spotty.

For more than 20 years, Iran has violated IAEA safeguard agreements, developed covert nuclear facilities, and sought to mislead the West about the scope and pace of its activities. As the American people weigh the value of an agreement with a regime that has a consistent record of cheating on international accords—not to mention lying, inciting hatred, terrorizing, and murdering—they would do well to understand that if the agreement is violated, we may not find out until it is far too late to rectify our oversight, for at that point, Iran will already have achieved its terrible goal.

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law and, most recently, A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign: An Insider’s Account

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