Just how far is Iran from thebomb? The short and honest answer is: No one knows. Not the UnitedStates, despite an intelligence community that swallows up $40billion a year in taxpayer money. Not the Israelis, who fear theywill be on the receiving end. And least of all, the InternationalAtomic Energy Agency, which is only allowed to see those facilitiesin Iran that the Iranian government chooses to let it see, and has nomandate to investigative weapons programs.
The uncertainties and gray areas areso many that virtually any answer about Iranian nuclear weaponsdevelopment has supporters within the U.S. intelligence community.Therein lies a grave danger to our national security.
A recently completed NationalIntelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran, leaked to a reporter hostile tothe administration before its key policy-makers saw it Tuesday,appears to take issue with statements by President Bush and otheradministration officials who have warned of a coming nuclear showdownwith Iran.
The published account of the NIE isheadlined "Iran is judged 10 years from nuclear bomb" and suggeststhe intelligence community is backing off earlier, much nearer-termestimates. But the NIE doesn't say that, according to a seniorintelligence official and others familiar with the highly classifiedreport.
The NIE judged Iran will not be ableto produce enough fissile material to make a weapon before "early tomid-next decade," these sources said. "That's virtually identical toearlier timelines" of Iran's nuclear weapons development, theyadded.
The vagueness of that answer,however, reveals how little insight the U.S. intelligence communityhas into the inner workings of Iran's Islamic regime. It also showshow skittish the intelligence community has become in the wake oferrors made in pre-war intelligence on Iraqi weapons programs.
Rather than look at Iraniancapabilities and warn policymakers of their potential security risksto the United States, there seems to be an emphasis now on finding"creative" explanations why those capabilities might be entirelyinnocent. That is a deadly approach to national security.
¬Ý¬Ý¬Ý¬ÝThe presidentand top policymakers need to know worst-case and best-case scenarios.The president's job, after all, is to defend our nation from gravepotential risks. There can be no room for sugarcoating the threatfrom Iran. But according to officials familiar with the hand-wringingthat went into this latest NIE, the product has just turned intomush.
Iranian officials have never hedgedtheir own intentions. In 1995, Iran's top arms control officialstunned a panel of international nuclear weapons experts at aconference in Castiglioncello, Italy. "While I do not believe Iran isactively seeking nuclear weapons, at the same time Iran is not goingto renounce that option," the official said. His government was"keeping its nuclear options open."
One clear sign of Iran's nuclearintentions was mentioned in this latest NIE, though downplayed inpress reporting. This was new intelligence, including technicaldrawings, from an Iranian missile technician who defected to aWestern intelligence agency.
The drawings provided by the defectordetailed a new design for the re-entry vehicle of the Shahab-3missile that would allow it to accommodate a nuclear warhead."Clearly, if Iran is reconfiguring the Shahab-3 to carry a nuclearbomb, that assumes that they already have a bomb design," said anadministration official familiar with the intelligence. But theNational Intelligence Council refused to draw that conclusion.
For nearly 20 years, Iran has workedhand-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 boughtfrom the Khan network, today they could have enough fissile materialto produce between 20 and 25 nuclear weapons.
The Iranians claim they spent hugesums to purchase this equipment on the black market, just to keep itin crates in a warehouse. Both the IAEA and the National IntelligenceCouncil apparently buy into that Persian fairy tale.
Tuesday, Iran broke the seals on itsuranium processing plant and announced it would resume enrichmentwork, violating its own pledge to the IAEA. Even the French have seenthe light and threaten to take Iran to the U.N. Security Council.
The only good news is that we nowhave a United Nations representative who has seen through thesePersian fairy tales. Ambassador John R. Bolton arrived in New York asthe nuclear showdown with Iran begins in earnest.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is presidentof the Middle East Data Project Inc. and author of "Countdown toCrisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran" (Crown Forum).