(Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis teaches politics and history at King College, USA. He is Senior Editor of intelNews.org.)
The vast majority of Western and Israeli defense and intelligence agencies agree that Iran’s ultimate aim is to fortify its military posture with nuclear weapons. Cross-agency --let along cross-national-- consensus on matters of nuclear intelligence is rare, but there is nothing profound about this particular agreement. Only a cursory look on a world map is sufficient to confirm --even strategically justify, some would say-- Iran’s nuclear intentions.First, the country is dangerously close to several confirmed or aspiring nuclear powers, including Pakistan, India, Russia, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Turkey. Second, Iranian strategists are faced with the reality of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, now implicitly acknowledged even by the US Pentagon (01). Last, but not least, Iranians are faced with the military encirclement of their country by an energy-hungry America from the east (Afghanistan) and west (Iraq) (02). One can therefore sensibly deduce that Iranian military strategists would be foolish not to consider going nuclear. Indeed, considering the above realities, a hypothetical abandonment of Iran’s nuclear option would be interpreted by a host of domestic forces as a fundamental betrayal of the country’s national interests. This accounts for the broad tacit consensus in favor of nuclearization within Iranian society.
Putting aside, however, the broad concurrence of opinion about Iran’s long-term nuclear intentions, very little is clear about the immediate status of the country’s nuclear program. Since the very commencement of its nuclear effort, Iran has maintained that its goal is peaceful; namely to invest in nuclear energy so as to free up large quantities of oil for exports, which will, in turn, translate in a drastic increase in desperately needed income in foreign currency. It is important to stress that the consensus among America’s intelligence agencies agrees that this is in fact Iran’s immediate goal. This was pronounced in the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a publicly available annual report cooperatively authored by the heads of all 16 US intelligence agencies. The 2007 report stated “with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program” (03).
Even before the recent disclosure by Iran --and not by US officials, as is often misstated (04) -- of a previously secret uranium-enriching facility near the city of Qum, several US commentators, mostly of the conservative persuasion, severely criticized the 2007 NIE (05). They have been doing so even more aggressively since the exposure of the Qum plant. In one characteristic example, a New York Post columnist went so far as to dismiss the 2007 NIE as a “fraud” (06).
But the reality is that the existence of Iran’s second uranium enrichment plant --of which, incidentally, Western and Israeli intelligence agencies have been aware for years (07) -- does not necessarily contest the findings of the 2007 NIE. As Federation of American Scientists researcher Ivanka Barzashka correctly points out in a well-researched article (08) on the Federation’s website, “we cannot definitively conclude that the [Qum] enrichment plant has a military function”. Additionally, Iran’s offer to comply with International Atomic Energy Agency inspection standards, should not be lightly dismissed by proponent’s of the existence of Iran’s nuclear armament program (09).
In fact, the 2007 NIE consensus among US intelligence agencies, namely that Iran’s nuclear armament program has been essentially halted, remains unchanged even after the revelation of the Qum plant, for the simple reason that the authors of the 2007 NIE report were aware of the plant’s existence at the time of writing. Consequently, US intelligence agencies are today “[standing] firm in their conclusion that while Iran may ultimately want a bomb, the country halted work on weapons design in 2003 and probably has not restarted that effort” (10).
Interestingly, this conclusion is not shared by other Western and Israeli intelligence agencies, most of which firmly believe that Iran’s nuclear armament program is active and guides the country’s nuclearization efforts. Along with the Israelis, who have been repeatedly restrained by Washington from launching direct military strikes against Tehran (11), French, German (12) and British (13) intelligence sources believe Iran is actively and aggressively pursuing the bomb.
Ironically, the setting of this intelligence debate is a mirror image of the discussion about Iraq’s purported “weapons of mass destruction”, which took place in early 2003. At that time, the Americans were the ones eager to enter into war, based on unconvincing suspicions that caused skepticism in London, Frankfurt and Paris. It is very likely that US intelligence agencies are now hesitant to draw firm conclusions about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, precisely because of their unfortunate experience in the case of Iraq. Back then, their “false intelligence” (14) (George W. Bush) helped plunge the US into an unpopular, bloody war, which destabilized Iraq, further diminished America’s standing in the Arab world, and brought the US economy into the brink of collapse.
Now, six years later, Washington is right to be hesitant about opening yet another front in the so-called “war on terrorism”. US strategy planners should offer their country’s intelligence agencies the opportunity to rectify their shoddy performance in 2003, before deciding to delve into yet another dangerous and unpredictable war in the volatile Middle East.
01 I. ALLEN "US Pentagon report acknowledges Israel has the bomb" intelNews [20mar2009]
02 In fact, it can be reasonably argued that the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the years immediately after 9/11 had an accelerating effect on nuclear proliferation among non-nuclear powers, such as North Korea, Syria and, of course, Iran, all of whom had reason to believe they were next on the list of invasions.
03 US National Intelligence Council National Intelligence Estimate: The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, [jul2007]
04 J. FITSANAKIS "How did Iran know US planned to reveal nuclear facility?" intelNews [28sep2009]
05 I. ALLEN "Article questions 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran" intelNews [10dec2009]
06 R. LOWRY "Iran: The great US intelligence fraud" The New York Post [29sep2009]
07 M. HOSENBALL "More Details on What the US Knows About Iran's Secret Nuclear Site" Newsweek [25sep2009]
08 I. BARZASHKA "The Qom Uranium Enrichment Facility: What and How Do We Know" Federation of American Scientists [29sep2009]
09 ANON. "US Welcomes Iran Inspection Offer" BBC [26sep2009]
10 W.J. BROAD and M. MAZZETTI "Intelligence dispute brews over state of Iran’s nuclear plans" The New York Times [29sep2009]
11 D.E. SANGER "US Rejected Aid for Israeli Raid on Iranian Nuclear Site" The New York Times [10jan2009]
12 ANON. "Iran could have the bomb in six months, says German intelligence" intelNews [15jul2009]
13 ANON. "British intelligence believes Iran has resumed work on nuclear warhead" The Daily Telegraph [30sep2009]
14 ANON. "Bush: My biggest regret is false intelligence on Iraq WMDs" Reuters [12jan2008]