The prospect that the Islamic Republic of Iran could acquire nuclear weapons ought to be too serious for it to succumb to political spin, especially from within the U.S. intelligence community.
But leakers seeking to embarrass the Bush administration have been furiously spinning the extraordinary information obtained over the past eighteen months from an Iranian walk-in about Iran's nuclear intentions, seeking to downplay its importance and suggesting that the intelligence community is divided over how to interpret it..
Here is what we know about the extraordinary documents provided by the walk-in on a laptop computer. They include:
-design information for modifications to the re-entry vehicle of Iran's Shahab ballistic missile, to allow it to carry a nuclear warhead to Israel;
-drawings of a deep underground shaft, fitted out with remote-controlled sensors and a distant control booth, which analysts acknowledge has all the hallmarks of a nuclear weapons test shaft;
-a complete set of drawings, worked up by an front company in Tehran for Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, for a small, clandestine uranium-conversion facility that could replace the large, commercial plant in Isfahan should the U.S. or Israel take it out in a military strike.
Last Thursday, the IAEA Board of Governors examined an extraordinary report from the agency's chief inspector in Iran, that twice cited "nuclear weapons" work in Iran. Foreign diplomats who heard the report said it was "astonishing," and was the first time the Agency had ever openly referred to evidence of an Iranian weapons program.
"No one doubts any longer what the Iranians are up to," a Bush administration official tracking Iran's nuclear development told me yesterday. "Even the Russians and the Chinese know exactly what the Iranians are doing."
The only ones who don't understand what Iran is up to, it seems, can be found in the U.S. intelligence community - at least, those members of it who are furiously leaking to the Bush-bashing press.
A front page analysis in yesterday's Washington Post, for instance, claimed that "U.S. and allied intelligence analysts" estimate that Iran could be "as much as a decade away" from nuclear weapons capability. Even that rosy projection assumed that the project "encounters no major technical hurdles." Beyond that, the Post asserted, whether Iran's leaders have actually decided to pursue a weapons program and the "concrete progress" they have made "remain divisive questions among government analysts and U.N. inspectors."
Proof of how iffy the intelligence obtained from the defector's laptop, according to the Post, was the fact that "nowhere, for example, does the word 'nuclear' appear" on the test shaft and control room drawings. "What do expect them to do," a Bush administration official said, "write 'nuclear-weapons document' all over these things?"
The intelligence spin-meisters convinced the gullible Post reporters that "other suggestive evidence is cloaked in similar uncertainty." For example: "U.S. intelligence considers the laptop documents authentic but cannot prove it . CIA analysts, some of whom had been involved only a year earlier on the flawed assessments of Iraq's weapons programs, initially speculated that a third country, such as Israel, may have fabricated the evidence."
Now there's a novel spin. If the world is concerned that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, it's all because of the Jews! That such nonsense passed muster at the Post shows yet again just how far a once great newspaper has fallen.
It took eighteen paragraphs of spin for the Post to include the view of "some policymakers" in the administration who "have begun pushing back, suggesting that the CIA is demanding an unrealisitcally high standard of evidence before reaching conclusions that the White House believes are obvious."
Must be those pesky "neo-cons" again. Perhaps Vice President Cheney has been hanging out at Langley again, asking questions - heaven forbid! - of CIA weapons analysts.
But the most damaging thing about the leaks to the Post was this piece of intelligence:
"Experts at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico ran the schematics [for the Shahab-3 nuclear-capable warhead] through computer simulations. They determined two things: The drawings were an effort to expand the nose cone of the Shahab-3 to carry a nuclear warhead, and the modification plans, if executed, would not work."
Now, developing the intelligence and the computer capabiltities to come to that conclusion cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars and fifty years of nuclear weapons expertise to develop. Thanks to a dumb reporter at the Washington Post, we just gave it to the Iranians for thirty-five cents.
The United States provided the documents taken from the defector's laptop to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, which shared them with the Iranians last fall. The Iranians understood immediately that the jig was up, and didn't need to caveat that conclusion.
In response, they hardened their tone, cut off negotiations with the IAEA and the EU-3, and made a variety of dire threats, including unilateral Iranian military action against the United States, Israel, and our Middle East allies.
And now for the really bad news. A U.S. intelligence official, who has reviewed intelligence reports from Europe, tells me there are source reports from Iran that suggest the Iranian regime is preparing for a nuclear-related test before March 20 - the date of the Iranian new year.
Separately, an Iranian defector, who held a senior position in the intelligence office of the Supreme Leader until July 2001 and maintains face-to-face contact with top intelligence and military officials inside Iran, told me recently that Iran has conducted "more than four" tests of non-nuclear components for a nuclear explosive device in recent months.
That suggests that Iran is attempting to build an implosion device, a sophisticated design that can be made small enough to fit on top of a ballistic missile. An implosion device uses specially-shaped high-explosives, packed around a hemispherical core of highly-enriched uranium, to trigger the nuclear chain reaction.
If so, Iran would need to test the weapon to validate the design, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official, since the high explosive charges must be shaped with extraordinary precision to compress the HEU core rapidly enough to explode. Any mistake in the design could cause the weapon to "fizzle."
Not all nuclear weapons designs require testing. U.S leaders felt confident enough of the bulky gun-design weapon dropped by the Enola Gay onto Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 that they never tested it. (The first U.S. nuclear weapons test in the Alamogordo test site in New Mexico three weeks before Hiroshima was of a more complex implosion device).
So why would Iran go to the trouble of designing a 400-meter deep test shaft, complete with submerged precision instruments to measure the blast and a remote monitoring site?
Is Iran really ten years - or more - away from being able to conduct such a test? Or are they just six weeks away? Or six months? Or six years?
Getting the answer to that question right may be the single-most important task facing the U.S. intelligence community. And yet, the answer given so far - ten years or more - reminds me of a chronic gambler who stakes his winnings on the hope that his opponent is just bluffing.
Any reasonable analyst - U.S., or other - must assume that the Iranians are serious, capable, and doing their best to hide their capabilities from the IAEA and from foreign intelligence agencies. We should be assuming that they have more, not less, than what meets the eye.
We can't afford to be playing poker with Armageddon. It's as simple as that.
Copyright©2006, Kenneth R. Timmerman