During a press briefing on Thursday, President Obama explained his administration's decision to cancel the deployment of land-based missile defense systems in Eastern Europe this way:
"â€¦we have updated our intelligence assessment of Iran's missile programs, which emphasizes the threat posed by Iran's short and medium range missiles, which are capable of reaching Europe."
In his own press briefing, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates elaborated. He explained that the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) believes Iran's long-range missile capability has been "slower to develop" than predicted and, therefore, the threat is "not as immediate as previously thought."
Does this mean that the threat of Iran deploying long-range missiles sometime in the next five to ten years has gone away? No.
Instead, the administration has chosen to emphasize the threat of Iran's short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles over its continuing development of a long-range capability. It says that this determination is based on an "updated" intelligence assessment.
There at least four obvious observations to be made here.
First, there is nothing surprising about this development and it is certainly not about Iran's missile programs alone. Although President Obama and Secretary Gates claim that a new intelligence assessment of Iran's missile program led to the decision, it is in reality the fulfillment of a long-time policy goal. The Democrats have been pushing to capitulate to the Russians on this for years.
Moreover, you could see this coming in Secretary Gates's discussion of the defense budget in April. Gates announced that the budget for missile defense was to be decreased by $1.4 billion, additional ground-based interceptors in Alaska were to be canceled, and funds were being directed to the same short and medium-range defense systems (SM-3, Aegis) that Obama and Gates are now emphasizing.
The appointment of Ellen Tauscher as the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security in June was another good indication of what was to come. For years, Tauscher objected to the Bush administration's pursuit of a land-based missile defense system in Eastern Europe capable of countering the threat of long-range missiles. Tauscher has repeatedly drawn a distinction between Iran's existing short and medium-range missile capabilities, and its continued pursuit of a more long-range missile capability. In an interview with Der Spiegel in 2007, Tauscher explained the thinking behind a missile defense bill she had introduced:
"In the bill, what we have done is we have effectively said that we don't want construction to begin. We don't want site preparation to begin. We want engagement on a diplomatic level. So we will slow them down. The current threat is short- and mid-range, I am for protecting against that now. The long-range threat, analysts say, will come out of Iran in 2015."
The Obama administration's talking points now mirror Tauscher's from yesteryear with one noteworthy exception -- they now say that Iran probably won't have a long-range missile capability by 2015. Thus, Obama and Gates argue, there is no need to deploy the missile defense system today if Iran is progressing more slowly than previously expected. But this leads us to the next point. Second, in all likelihood, the IC doesn't have a firm grasp Iran's long-range missile development and basing key decisions on the IC's analyses of Iran's missile programs alone is a fool's errand.
The 2015 benchmark Tauscher mentioned has been widely cited, but it was always a rough benchmark. Looking back through the IC's analyses of Iran's ballistic missile capability it is clear that our spooks have never really predicted with any great deal of confidence what was to come. In 1995, for example, our analysts explained: "We have no evidence Iran wants to develop an ICBM." Whoops, that turned out not to be true. So, our analysts rewrote their assessments. But those estimates, including one in 1999 and another in 2001, are filled with so many caveats that it is impossible to believe our super-secret intelligence on Iran's missile programs is all that good.
It is true that 2015 was the common benchmark deduced from these assessments, but you will be hard-pressed to find a single instance when the IC says that year is the definitive cut-off. And, as a report by the Congressional Research Service noted earlier this year, the IC has always been of multiple minds when it comes to Iran's development of ICBM's.
Therefore, it is hard to believe that the Obama administration's new analysis, which apparently pushes the 2015 benchmark back further, is much better than what we had previously. It is also hard to believe that the disagreements within the IC on this issue have been resolved.
But, isn't it fortunate that the new analysis fits the Obama administration's preconceived narrative (e.g. Tauscher's view) about Iran's long-range missile capabilities?
Right about now the press should be asking: What changed? What is the nature of the new analysis? Does it rely on new intelligence, or is it just a new analysis of old intelligence? If it does rely on new intelligence, then what is the nature of this information?
All of these questions, and more, are vitally important because we know that the IC has had a hard time collecting intelligence inside Iran. This brings us to our next point.
Third, oftentimes you don't need intelligence garnered in the shadows to see the enemy clearly. Iran regularly tests short and medium-range ballistic missiles. The available evidence, as reflected even in the Obama administration's new missile defense fact sheet, indicates that its capacity in this regard is continuing to grow. Why should believe the story is any different with Iran's long-range missile capabilities?
In fact, there is publicly-available evidence that Iran's long-range missile capabilities are improving.
It is no secret that the development of space satellites is closely related to ballistic missile development. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched its first satellite, Sputnik, into orbit. That same year the Soviets also developed their first intercontinental ballistic missile. Concerns over the dual use of technologies related to satellites have lived on ever since.
Flash forward more than forty years and you'll find the mullahs spending a large amount of money on its satellite program. In 2005, the Iranians announced they would spend $500 million over five years on satellites. For the perennially cash-strapped Iranians, this is an especially significant sum. But the mullahs have received a handsome return on their investment. In February of this year, Iran launched its own satellite into space for the first time. "It is certainly a reason for us to be concerned about Iran and its continued attempts to develop a ballistic missile program of increasingly long range," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said at the time. "They (Iran) pose a real threat and it is a growing threat," Morrell added.
State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Iran's satellite launch was cause for "grave" concern. "Developing a space launch vehicle that could be -- could put a satellite into orbit could possibly lead to [the] development of a ballistic missile system," Wood explained.
Indeed, Iran's ability to launch satellites could easily lead to a new long-range missile capability. Thus, the Obama administration's latest intelligence assessment is especially curious in light of the Iranians clear progress in launching satellites.
This brings us to our final point.
Fourth, this episode is eerily reminiscent of the IC's 2007 NIE on Iran's nuclear program, which was both fatally flawed and policy-motivated. Remember that the IC then reversed its conclusions from just two years prior. In 2005, the IC concluded that Iran was determined to develop nuclear weapons. In 2007, the IC said it could not tell whether Iran intended to develop nuclear weapons or not.
Such a sudden about-face does not inspire confidence in the IC's ability to get it right when it comes to the matter at hand here, especially because the IC is once again reversing itself.
In fact, there were good reasons in late 2007 to question the IC's judgment. There are, in general, three basic components to a nuclear weapons program: fissile material, weaponization, and a delivery capability. The 2007 NIE focused on only the second of these: weaponization. The IC claimed that Iran had stopped its weapons design program in 2003. Oddly, the IC pretended that uranium enrichment (the first and most essential component of Iran's nuclear weapons development) could be treated as a civilian endeavor that was unconnected to the mullah's quest for the world's most dangerous weapons. And the declassified portions of the NIE said nothing of any significance about Iran's delivery capabilities.
As many noted at the time, the IC's conclusions were clearly foolish.
The declassified "Key Judgments" of the 2007 NIE were so foolish, in fact, that senior intelligence officials began walking back from the assessment within just a few months. In April of 2008, as the Washington Times reported, both CIA Director Michael Hayden and Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell emphasized "that Iran continues work on the enrichment of uranium, which could be used to make a weapon, and on ballistic missiles, which could be used to deliver a nuclear warhead."
The Washington Times quoted then CIA chief Hayden as saying, "The other aspects of the Iranian nuclear effort, beyond the weaponization, the development of fissile material, the development of delivery systems, all continue apace." That is, as far as the heads of the U.S. Intelligence Community knew last year, there were reasons to be worried about Iran's development of missile delivery systems.
In 2007, the IC produced an intelligence assessment that was intended to downplay the threat of Iran's burgeoning nuclear program. Now, the IC has done so once again. The 2007 estimate was fatally flawed. Chances are, so is the latest analysis.
The press would do well to ask: What is the basis of the latest assessment? Is the administration merely putting its policy preferences (downplaying the Iranian threat, appeasing the Russians) ahead of sound analysis?