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ROUGH ESTIMATE
WHAT US INTEL MISSED ON IRAN NUKES
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
December 8, 2007

Sold! Iran's Ahmadinejad loves the new US National Intelligence Estimate. December 8, 2007 -- WHATEVER its merits in terms of reliable information on Iran's nuclear ambitions, the new US National Intelligence Estimate has something for everyone.

President Bush can cite it in support of his contention that the Islamic Republic had been lying about its nuclear program for years and that at one point Iran had been engaged in building a bomb.

And Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can use the new NIE in support of his no-compromise stance against the American "Great Satan." For more than two years, he has been telling Iranians to ignore American threats and UN Security Council resolutions and pursue the nuclear program as a national priority.

The Democratic majority in Congress will find the NIE useful for its desire to tie Bush's hands as tightly as possible. The Europeans, along with the Russians and the Chinese, will use the new report to comfort themselves that they can stop worrying about the prospects of Khomeinism obtaining a nuclear arsenal.

The NIE also offers the U.S. "intelligence community" a chance to improve its badly tarnished image. It received a lot of flak for having reported that Saddam Hussein was still busy building weapons of mass destruction in 2002. Having learned its lesson, the "community" now offers the kind of product that the market wants: a cocktail of ambiguity, wishful thinking and pious hope.

The new NIE is problematic on several accounts. To start with, its methodology remains a mystery. It seems to rely heavily on minutes of secret conversations between senior Iranian military leaders and their political bosses in Tehran. That, of course, opens the possibility of disinformation: Isn't it possible that the Khomeinist leadership in Tehran cooked up the whole thing to confuse its enemies?

One possible source for those memoranda was a senior Iranian diplomat who, according to Ahmadinejad, contacted the British and provided them with "top-secret material" on Iran's nuclear program. But why would the diplomat do that - and why should that same diplomat be arrested and then quickly exonerated of all charges?

Alternately, what if Gen. Reza Asgari who defected to America - or, according to one version, was abducted by the Americans last year - was a mole sent by Tehran to provide Washington with false minutes of the supposed conversations? The possibilities for political spin, not to mention concocting yarns of espionage, are simply endless.

The estimate doesn't change the fact that Tehran has always claimed and continues to assert with great self-confidence that it never had a secret program. Thus, this is not a case like South Africa, Libya or North Korea - all of which admitted the existence of their respective nuclear programs before undertaking to scrap them.

The NIE could do a great deal of harm in a number of ways. It may confirm the already widespread illusion that intelligence can be a substitute for policy. That would enable the political leadership to avoid even debating a credible policy on dealing with the Khomeinist regime.

The NIE could shift, and to some extent has shifted, the focus of the debate from a possible threat from Iran to the time at which President Bush learned about the so-called "new facts." That, in turn, could add fuel to US self-flagellation while encouraging professional anti-Americans across the globe.

�A�S I have written before, Tehran's policy has never been aimed at actually making a nuclear weapon. From the late '60s (even before the Khomeinists seized power) it has aimed at acquiring what's called a "nuclear surge capacity." This means having the knowledge, technological base, infrastructure and raw material needed to make nuclear weapons in a short time - without actually making the bomb.

It's like someone who builds a kitchen and assembles the ingredients to make a soup at any moment - but decides not to do so for the time being.

Acquiring "surge capacity" was a key part of the late shah's overall strategy and has remained a pillar of Iran's defense doctrine. The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stopped the nuclear program in 1979 along with many of the shah's projects - but it was restarted long ago by President Hashemi Rafsanjani and has been pursued with varying degrees of vigor by his two successors.

How far has it gotten? As far as scientific knowledge and technological base are concerned, Iran has made great strides. It is also building the industrial structures needed through the centrifuge-making plants at Natanz and possibly Isfahan. For the needed raw materials, it is proceeding with its uranium-enrichment program.

So, the kitchen is built and the ingredients for the soup fast assembled. But no one can come up with a lawyer-proof case that the Khomeinists are actually building a bomb. But when, and if, such a case becomes possible, it may be too late. This is the beauty of aiming at a "surge capacity."

With the Americans settling scores with one another and the Europeans dancing around the issue, the Islamic Republic under its new radical leader is surging ahead to achieve the late shah's ambition. It's this fact that many might wish to ponder, not the Byzantine subtleties of an NIE crafted to please everyone.

It's certainly foolish to cry wolf where none is around. But it could be suicidal to pretend there can be no wolf where one may come along.

 

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