Wednesday, August 19, 2009

NIE 2: FOIA report that Iran is four years away

When the 2007 NIE came out, saying that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapon program in 2003, this was a clear indication that progress was being made in the secret talks between Iran and the US.

The effect of the report, which was immediately apparent to everyone, was that the United States deliberately gave up any pretext for any military attack. By doing that, it also reduced any pressure on Russia and China to cooperate with sanctions.

How this effect was accomplished was that the NIE used a definition of weapons program that had never been used by the US before. The US had never said that Iran's enrichment program was a civilian program, separate from its ability to create weapons, but is said that here.

The recent release of the state department report that Iran cannot produce enough highly enriched uranium for four years strikes me as similar. And makes me suspect that there has been movement in discussions behind the scenes. It seems that this conclusion is possible because the report assumes Iran will not use Natanz to make HEU.

Here is Jacqueline Shire discussing it:

INR believes that for a variety of reasons, Iran will not have the means to produce enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a bomb until mid-this decade (or 2013).

The reason for that is that they believe Iran would not use the facility at Natanz to produce HEU, that they would pursue a covert program - that they would do it in secret. So if you build a secret enrichment facility you need more equipment, you need a location, you need time, and INR concludes, for reasons that kind of escape me, that it would take Iran a long time to build this covert enrichment facility.
Shire believes that people are misreading the report to say Iran does not have breakout capability. I suspect the point of the report, the reason the report was produced and released, is so that people will "misread" it exactly that way.

The NIE was implausibly presented as something that went against Bush's wishes. Actually, the President has every right to order his intelligence subordinates to revert to the US standard position that Iran's enrichment is inherently nuclear which would have made the NIE's conclusion unreachable. The Bush administration wanted that conclusion and after the NIE was released, Iran's clients in Iraq quieted down and US killed in action in Iraq reached historic lows.

If US/Iran talks had reached that point year earlier, there likely would have been far less of an anti-war backlash in US politics and Republicans would be in a stronger position today. There would also be hundreds of US servicemen and thousands of Iraqis alive who unfortunately died because the US was late to see the value of cooperation with Iran.

We have not seen yet what agreements the US' most recent gesture may be an indicator of. The impact of the report is that the US is at least willing to define Iran's nuclear program as four years away from being nuclear capable continuously.

I think there is a fairly good chance that there will be a breakthrough this year in which the US commits to accepting Iranian domestic enrichment and an Iranian nuclear capability.


Peter said...

"The NIE was implausibly presented as something that went against Bush's wishes."

But wouldn't you say that Bush himself looked very unhappy and disappointed about the NIE at the press conference he had on this topic?

Arnold Evans said...

Good point. I do remember Bush seeming irritated by the obvious implications of the report.

It would find it hard to believe Bush is capable of any kind of subtle acting performance.

Possibly it was a decision he didn't fully agree with. Possibly he was maneuvered into accepting it by someone else when Bush didn't really understand what he approved.

The 2007 NIE, in one of its first footnotes, defines uranium conversion and enrichment as outside of a nuclear weapons program. That was a political decision made by a subordinate to Bush. With that decision made, and "weapons program" defined that way, clearly Iran does not have a weapons program. Iran had been implementing the Additional Protocols for almost two years shortly before that, and would have had no motivation to restart any program since then since the major bottleneck is actually amassing fissile material.

So there was a political decision made by the US executive branch when Bush was commander-in-chief.

The presidency-as-an-office approved the decision. The decision to redefine "weapons program" in a way that would remove the accusation from Iran really cannot have been made anywhere but the presidency as an office.

It is more likely that Bush as a personality was irritated, confused or disappointed by his own office of the US president than that his office was not the originator of the conclusion of the NIE.

Iran also pretty clearly began giving more undivided support to the Maliki government after the report was issued. Isolating at least Sadr. It was clearly within Iran's power to, through Sadr and others, impose more costs on the US military in Iraq.

Possibly all coincidences, but why would the US remove pressure on Iran for free? Why would Iran, at the same time, remove pressure on the US for free?

Most likely there was a deal of some kind whose details have still not been released, but whose results are clear.