April 14, 2008 | Commentary on Middle East
New information continues to blast away at last November's controversial National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the supposed dormant state of Iran's nuclear weapons program, which the US intelligence community believes ended in 2003.
This week, Iran announced putting an additional 6,000 centrifuges on-line at its underground Natanz uranium enrichment plant and opening a new facility for processing uranium ore into yellowcake, the first step in the uranium enrichment process.
As is well known, Iran already has 3,000 centrifuges spinning at Natanz, which - if unchecked - could produce enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon if running "efficiently" 24/7 for a year.
(Fortunately, from an engineering perspective, experts question how efficiently the centrifuges are operating, which could slow or inhibit the production of enriched uranium - the long-pole in the tent of nuclear weapons development.)
The new uranium ore facility and the trebling of Iran's enrichment capacity to 9,000 centrifuges means Iran could produce enough highly enriched uranium for several nuclear weapons in a year's time.
Of course, Tehran has also long made clear it plans to move toward industrial-scale uranium enrichment, which could include as many as 54,000 centrifuges, providing capacity for a substantive nuclear arsenal.
The United Nations Security Council has called upon Tehran repeatedly to halt uranium enrichment - which it hasn't - causing Turtle Bay to impose punitive economic sanctions on Iran no less than three times (the latest in March) over its "peaceful" nuclear program.
It gets worse . . .
In February, based on intelligence from a number of countries - not just the United States - the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), made several startling conclusions about Iran's nuclear program.
The IAEA intelligence showed that after 2003, Iran was involved in studies on multipoint detonation systems for nuclear weapons, which are critical for triggering a chain reaction in a nuclear detonation.
The Vienna-based organization also concluded Tehran had been involved in work as late as 2004 on the design of a nuclear warhead for the Shahab-class ballistic missile, which can strike the entire Middle East, including Israel, and southern Europe, too.
The nuclear agency also asserted that Iran had been involved in undeclared uranium conversion activities, beyond their declared work at their Isfahan plant, where they're turning yellow cake into uranium hexafluoride gas for enrichment at Natanz.
Increasing suspicion, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered the launch of a single-stage ballistic missile described as a "space launch vehicle," or SLV, from a new space center in northern Iran.
While Iran's space launch program could be relatively benign, such as for putting communications or scientific satellites into orbit, it could also be setting the stage for the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile program.
Theoretically, if you can launch a ballistic missile that can place a satellite into earth orbit, you have the scientific wherewithal to hit a target anywhere on Earth with a warhead, including a nuclear weapon.
Not surprisingly, just this month, the US intelligence community began to walk back its estimate on the state of the Iranian nuclear weapons program as set forth in the NIE.
Just two weeks ago, CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden noted: "Why would the Iranians be willing to pay the international tariff [i.e., economic sanctions] they appear to be willing to pay for what they are doing if they did not have, at a minimum . . . a desire to keep the option open to develop a nuclear weapon and perhaps even more so that they have already decided to do that?"
Hayden continued to try to explain away the wide-spread public misperception over the NIE by adding: "The other aspects of the Iranian nuclear effort, beyond weaponization, the development of fissile materials, [and] the development of delivery systems, all continue apace."
Hayden's boss, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, also chimed in, lamenting that the declassification of the NIE was done hastily and "If I had to do it over again, I would be very specific in how I described what was cancelled and what continued."
These recantations are all fine and good, but the damage in the court of world opinion has been done. Our allies on this issue, especially in Europe, see the unclassified publication of the NIE as extremely unhelpful in advancing a case against Iran.
Unfortunately, all signals point to Iran having the seemingly undeniable strategic intent of developing a nuclear weapons capability.
So why does it appear we may have gotten it wrong?
Several reasons come to mind. First, the public only saw the NIE's unclassified key judgments, which may not have accurately reflected the classified version of the 140-plus page report.
Second, Iran is a "tough target" for intelligence collection. Third, an NIE is more like a photograph than a movie; it's based on what you know at a specific moment in time. Fourth, written by human beings, NIEs are vulnerable to individual biases.
But regardless, the fate of this country's security is tied to estimates like these. Intelligence is our first line of defense in a dangerous world. We must get it right for the benefit of both the public as well as the policymakers.