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What Will It Take to Kill the 2007 National “Intelligence” Estimate on Iran’s Nuclear Program?

8:50 PM, Feb 18, 2010 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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According to the New York Times, the IAEA says it has concerns about Iran’s “past or current undisclosed activities” aimed at developing a nuclear warhead. The Times discusses a new report by the IAEA:

The report also concluded that Iran’s weapons-related activity apparently continued “beyond 2004,” contradicting an American intelligence assessment published a little over two years ago that concluded that work was suspended at the end of 2003. While the intelligence agencies have never renounced that conclusion, several of President Obama’s top national security advisers have questioned it. Many in the Bush administration also doubted that conclusion. … 

But the report cited several pieces of new evidence, much of it collected in recent weeks, that appeared to paint a picture of a concerted drive in Iran toward a weapons capability.

The “American intelligence assessment” mentioned by the Times is the U.S. Intelligence Community’s (IC) November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear program. In its publicly released "Key Judgments," the IC concluded: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program." A footnote at the end of that sentence defined what the IC meant by “nuclear weapons program” (emphasis added):

For the purposes of this Estimate, by "nuclear weapons program" we mean Iran's nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran's declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.

Now, carving off Iran’s “civil work” was always dubious as it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine where Iran’s civilian work ends and its military intentions begin. Building the capacity to create highly-enriched uranium, which Iran continued to do, goes a long way to building a nuke even if they aren’t there yet (and the Times account says they aren’t). And Iran continued developing ballistic missiles capable of delivering a warhead as well. So, the IC cooked the books to come up with their (obviously desired) conclusion.

But let’s revisit the IC’s definition of a “nuclear weapons program.” The IC focused on (1) “nuclear weapon design and weaponization work,” and (2) “covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work.” The second part was included under the theory (which is, again, dubious) that Iran’s overt uranium enrichment facilities wouldn’t be used to create highly-enriched uranium at some point and only covert facilities, beyond the IAEA’s detection, mattered.

Well, this latest IAEA report apparently says that Iran continued working on nuclear weaponization – that is, (1) – “beyond 2004.” That’s after 2003, when the IC said this type of work ended.

And, lest we forget, we learned late last year that Iran was in the midst of building a covert uranium enrichment facility, meaning the IC was wrong on (2) as well.

The Times says “the intelligence agencies have never renounced” the 2007 NIE even though the Obama administration doesn’t believe it. Some of the most senior intelligence officials – including former DNI John Negroponte, former CIA Director Michael Hayden, and former DNI Michael McConnell -- have said they didn’t buy the 2007 NIE either. (See hereand here.)

We are left to wonder: What does it take, exactly, to kill a phony “intelligence” estimate?

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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