The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear weapons program lives on in the imagination of some government officials. At the end of a lengthy piece by James Risen in the New York Times this past weekend an anonymous official claims: “That assessment holds up really well.”
No, it does not.
The authors of the 2007 NIE famously argued that the Iranians halted their nuclear weapons program in 2003 and had not restarted it since. The U.S. intelligence community defined “nuclear weapons program” as “Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work.” For no good reason, the NIE’s definition excluded “Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.”
The idea was that while Iran continued to install centrifuges and improve its long-range missile capability it did so as part of a declared and purportedly civilian program, so there was nothing to worry about. As was widely pointed out at the time, this was foolish because a “civilian” nuclear program today can quite easily become a military program tomorrow. This has happened time and again around the globe.
The 2007 NIE was also flat wrong about Iran’s covert work. In September 2009, President Obama announced that “Iran has been building a covert uranium enrichment facility near Qom for several years.” Obama noted that “the size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program.” Incredibly, the intelligence community was aware of the facility at Qom before it even published the 2007 NIE.
This should have been the end of the 2007 NIE. Covert uranium enrichment was explicitly included in the NIE’s definition of Iran’s “nuclear weapons program.” By continuing to build such a facility, the Iranians showed that they had not decided to end all work on the bomb. They were simply trying to hide it.
And that is one of the main flaws in both the 2007 NIE and the narrative offered by U.S. officials to Risen. The part about covert uranium enrichment efforts has been disproven, so American officials are hanging onto nuanced arguments about the most clandestine aspects of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, including weapon design, or “weaponization.” The potential for failure cannot be overstated.
To his credit, Risen does a good job reporting on the many holes in the U.S. intelligence community’s knowledge of Iran’s nuclear machinations. As Risen has reported on multiple occasions, America’s spy network inside Iran has been seriously compromised, if not outright eliminated. Consider that one former intelligence official cited by Risen says, “Iran is the hardest intelligence target there is. It is harder by far than North Korea.”
North Korea is perhaps the most closed society on the planet. U.S. intelligence has long been almost entirely blind inside the country. According to Risen’s source, the spooks’ window into Iran is even smaller. They don’t really know what is going on; they are making guesses.
The 2007 NIE zombie suffered a head shot in 2010, Risen tells readers, when U.S. intelligence officials “[i]ntercepted communications of Iranian officials discussing their nuclear program.” This “raised concerns that the country’s leaders had decided to revive efforts to develop a weapon,” but “in the end, they deemed the intercepts and other evidence unpersuasive, and they stuck to their longstanding conclusion.”
Of course, this was not such a “longstanding conclusion.”
In its 2005 NIE, the U.S. intelligence community came to exactly the opposite conclusion – Iran was forging ahead with its nuclear weapons program. It was just two years later, in late 2007, that they reversed their stance by carefully selecting their words to achieve a desired conclusion. But even that policy-driven definition of Iran’s nuclear weapons program proved problematic just two years later when, in 2009, President Obama went public with the intelligence about Qom.
By early 2010, the U.S. government seemed ready to abandon any pretense of accuracy with respect to the 2007 NIE’s conclusions. On January 3, 2010 the New York Times reported:
Mr. Obama’s top advisers say they no longer believe the key finding of a much disputed National Intelligence Estimate about Iran, published a year before President George W. Bush left office, which said that Iranian scientists ended all work on designing a nuclear warhead in late 2003.