- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 4, 2005

Just how far is Iran from the bomb? The short and honest answer is: No one knows. Not the United States, despite an intelligence community that swallows up $40 billion a year in taxpayer money. Not the Israelis, who fear they will be on the receiving end. And least of all, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is only allowed to see those facilities in Iran that the Iranian government chooses to let it see, and has no mandate to investigative weapons programs.

The uncertainties and gray areas are so many that virtually any answer about Iranian nuclear weapons development has supporters within the U.S. intelligence community. Therein lies a grave danger to our national security.

A recently completed National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran, leaked to a reporter hostile to the administration before its key policy-makers saw it Tuesday, appears to take issue with statements by President Bush and other administration officials who have warned of a coming nuclear showdown with Iran.

The published account of the NIE is headlined “Iran is judged 10 years from nuclear bomb” and suggests the intelligence community is backing off earlier, much nearer-term estimates. But the NIE doesn’t say that, according to a senior intelligence official and others familiar with the highly classified report.

The NIE judged Iran will not be able to produce enough fissile material to make a weapon before “early to mid-next decade,” these sources said. “That’s virtually identical to earlier timelines” of Iran’s nuclear weapons development, they added.

The vagueness of that answer, however, reveals how little insight the U.S. intelligence community has into the inner workings of Iran’s Islamic regime. It also shows how skittish the intelligence community has become in the wake of errors made in pre-war intelligence on Iraqi weapons programs.

Rather than look at Iranian capabilities and warn policymakers of their potential security risks to the United States, there seems to be an emphasis now on finding “creative” explanations why those capabilities might be entirely innocent. That is a deadly approach to national security.

The president and top policymakers need to know worst-case and best-case scenarios. The president’s job, after all, is to defend our nation from grave potential risks. There can be no room for sugarcoating the threat from Iran. But according to officials familiar with the hand-wringing that went into this latest NIE, the product has just turned into mush.

Iranian officials have never hedged their own intentions. In 1995, Iran’s top arms control official stunned a panel of international nuclear weapons experts at a conference in Castiglioncello, Italy. “While I do not believe Iran is actively seeking nuclear weapons, at the same time Iran is not going to renounce that option,” the official said. His government was “keeping its nuclear options open.”

One clear sign of Iran’s nuclear intentions was mentioned in this latest NIE, though downplayed in press reporting. This was new intelligence, including technical drawings, from an Iranian missile technician who defected to a Western intelligence agency.

The drawings provided by the defector detailed a new design for the re-entry vehicle of the Shahab-3 missile that would allow it to accommodate a nuclear warhead. “Clearly, if Iran is reconfiguring the Shahab-3 to carry a nuclear bomb, that assumes that they already have a bomb design,” said an administration official familiar with the intelligence. But the National Intelligence Council refused to draw that conclusion.

For nearly 20 years, Iran has worked hand-in-glove with infamous Pakistan nuclear impresario A.Q. Khan, who became an adviser to Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization in 1987. If the Iranians used the equipment the IAEA now knows they bought from the Khan network, today they could have enough fissile material to produce between 20 and 25 nuclear weapons.

The Iranians claim they spent huge sums to purchase this equipment on the black market, just to keep it in crates in a warehouse. Both the IAEA and the National Intelligence Council apparently buy into that Persian fairy tale.

Tuesday, Iran broke the seals on its uranium processing plant and announced it would resume enrichment work, violating its own pledge to the IAEA. Even the French have seen the light and threaten to take Iran to the U.N. Security Council.

The only good news is that we now have a United Nations representative who has seen through these Persian fairy tales. Ambassador John R. Bolton arrived in New York as the nuclear showdown with Iran begins in earnest.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is president of the Middle East Data Project Inc. and author of “Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran” (Crown Forum).

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