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December 10, 2007

The Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program

If the Bush Administration had not long-ago fumbled away all claims to competence by its handling of everything from after-war Iraq to after-hurricane New Orleans, it might have been able to claim some credit for the “end” of the Iranian nuclear weapons program. If you look at everything that happened in 2003, you could even claim that America’s swift defeat of Hussein’s forces in Iraq in the spring and the earlier rapid regime change in Afghanistan had a major effect on Iran’s decision to halt its weapon program in the fall “in response to international pressure” as the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) puts it.

In order for Iran to have halted its nuclear weapons program, it had to have had such a program to begin with – something that those anxious to embrace the latest NIE seem to be willing to concede although Iran, itself, does not. So there was a nuclear WMD program going on in the neighborhood; we just went to the wrong address in response to the 911 call. But, despite that mistake, the response seems to have halted the WMD program (besides getting rid of Saddam Hussein).

Unfortunately, this is a rosy view. Had we and the Iraqis not bumbled the aftermath of the war in Iraq and lost both domestic and international support, Iran might have built on its moment of tractability. Instead Iran is proceeding full speed ahead to refine uranium to what it needs for making weapons, is not giving access to inspectors, and is testing delivery missiles. They can afford to suspend their weapon assembly program until they have enough sufficiently fissionable material for weapons but can (and will) resume it when they please if they haven’t already.

What the latest NIE actually says is that they have a high degree of confidence that the suspension “lasted at least several years”.

“We judge with moderate confidence that the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon is late 2009, but that this is very unlikely.

“We judge with moderate confidence Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame.”

Not terribly reassuring even if you believe this year’s confidence which contradicts last year’s confidence. Logically a finding that a country is NOT doing something which it would hide if it were is much more subject to error than a finding that they ARE doing something. It’s very hard to prove a negative.

So nothing has really changed except that it is now more difficult to rally world opinion for meaningful pressure on Iran to stop making bomb ingredients. (BTW, I do think that national intelligence estimators and everyone else SHOULD admit when they think they’re wrong; a coverup would have been even worse.) President Bush is right that Iran is no less dangerous this week than it was last and that international pressure is needed to contain that danger. But the combination of lame-duckhood and serious incompetence makes him seem wrong even when he’s right. Even the apparent success of the surge in Iraq has not put his credibility back together again. History may be more charitable but that doesn’t help us rally domestic or world opinion today. That’s a shame and dangerous to boot.

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