Interpreting the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran

By Dingli Shen | January 15, 2008

The recently released National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program seemed to contradict Bush administration claims and left many in China puzzled.

In its newly released National Intelligence Estimate (NIE),
“Iran: Nuclear
Intentions and Capabilities”
[PDF], the U.S. National Intelligence Council concludes that Iran
most likely suspended its nuclear arms program in fall 2003 and that it’s unlikely that Tehran is
currently developing nuclear weapons.

The NIE rocked the world and left many in China puzzled. Did the U.S. intelligence community
prove many of the U.S. government’s assertions about Iran wrong? Did it hogtie the Bush
administration’s Iran policy by branding it ill-founded? And how should the rest of the world view
such a contradictory posture?

From my viewpoint, the assessment should help President George W. Bush out of a bind (and maybe
enhance his legacy), while keeping the noose tightly around Iran’s neck.

Continued pressure on Iran. The assessment confirms that Iran was developing
nuclear weapons between the 1980s and 2003 and that this secret program broke the country’s
international commitments, validating the pressure the international community has placed on Iran
since. But the NIE gave no reason to assume that the Iranian nuclear issue is resolved or that it’s
time to stop or ease sanctions against Tehran. And its bottom-line finding that Iran did once try
to develop nuclear arms should keep Tehran’s hands tied and stiffen the resolve of those countries
that back sanctions until Iran fully complies with the relevant U.N. Security Council

In my opinion, despite the suspension of its nuclear program, the sanctions against Iran should
be continued because of how uncooperative Tehran has been in clarifying its past nuclear work. And
as long as Iran continues to enrich uranium in defiance of relevant U.N. Security Council
resolutions, the country deserves further punishments.

The NIE’s conclusions are certainly tougher on Iran than any of the reports the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has issued on Tehran’s nuclear activities. So far, the IAEA has levied
penalties against Iran for its reluctance to come clean about its secret nuclear program, not
because of any bomb making. In fact, the most recent IAEA report maintains that there’s no reason
to believe Iran is developing nuclear arms now. However, the international watchdog cannot
determine the nature of Iran’s past secret nuclear program, and there are still many suspicions as
to why Tehran insists on continuing to enrich uranium–although the pace at which it’s conducting
uranium enrichment is not as fast as previously imagined.

But since both the NIE and IAEA conclude that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons at the
moment, it would be a mistake for the Bush administration to continue to threaten Iran with
military action. In some ways, the NIE helps establish the legal groundwork for the administration
to readjust its Iran policy and provides a reason to stop threatening Tehran with war on the
grounds that Iran maintains a clandestine nuclear weapons program. Most likely, the United States
will continue to press for a thorough investigation into the nature of Iran’s past nuclear program
so that the NIE’s conclusions are verified in the eyes of the international community. Such a
thorough investigation shall be followed by long-term, close monitoring of Iran’s nuclear
activities, limiting Iran’s freedom to develop nuclear energy for civilian use and preventing
Tehran from subverting peaceful nuclear technology to weapons work.

The Bush legacy. The Bush administration’s decision to begin a preemptive war in
Iraq in March 2003 despite a lack of evidence proving that Baghdad possessed weapons of mass
destruction has been fiercely criticized by the international community. But the timing of when the
NIE asserts Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program (just a few months after the Iraq War began)
is curious and gives credence to the possibility that Iran’s pragmatic leaders decided to halt its
secret weapons program out of fear the United States would attack it next. (There are similar
claims that the Iraq War played a role in Libya’s decision to voluntarily surrender its nuclear
weapons program; and although other factors were certainly at play, it cannot be denied that the
Iraq War is among them.) Therefore, the NIE’s findings could tacitly enhance Bush’s place in

In the short-term, at least, the NIE hopefully calms the war rhetoric, freeing up resources for
the United States to devote to other international affairs such as the peace plan in the Middle
East. At the same time, it prevents the U.N. Security Council from backing away from the existing
sanctions placed on Iran–one means of keeping Tehran from rekindling its nuclear weapon

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