Tuesday, August 02, 2005

...but may be a decade away from a nuclear weapon

In my last post, I noted that Iran was about to remove the IAEA seals from one of its uranium-conversion facilities, thereby re-entering "the nuclear game". That's very bad news, of course, but Iran's latest move surely reveals the limitations of Europe-led diplomacy. That diplomacy ought to continue, if at all possible, but, clearly, Iran is going to be a big problem somewhere down the road -- and it could be a problem that calls for more than the soft hand of diplomacy.

Regardless, a new U.S. intelligence report (see here for the Post article) indicates that Iran may be a decade away from nuclear weaponry:

A major U.S. intelligence review has projected that Iran is about a decade away from manufacturing the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon, roughly doubling the previous estimate of five years, according to government sources with firsthand knowledge of the new analysis.

The carefully hedged assessments, which represent consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies, contrast with forceful public statements by the White House. Administration officials have asserted, but have not offered proof, that Tehran is moving determinedly toward a nuclear arsenal. The new estimate could provide more time for diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. President Bush has said that he wants the crisis resolved diplomatically but that "all options are on the table."

The new National Intelligence Estimate includes what the intelligence community views as credible indicators that Iran's military is conducting clandestine work. But the sources said there is no information linking those projects directly to a nuclear weapons program. What is clear is that Iran, mostly through its energy program, is acquiring and mastering technologies that could be diverted to bombmaking.

The estimate expresses uncertainty about whether Iran's ruling clerics have made a decision to build a nuclear arsenal, three U.S. sources said. Still, a senior intelligence official familiar with the findings said that "it is the judgment of the intelligence community that, left to its own devices, Iran is determined to build nuclear weapons."

At no time in the past three years has the White House attributed its assertions about Iran to U.S. intelligence, as it did about Iraq in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion. Instead, it has pointed to years of Iranian concealment and questioned why a country with as much oil as Iran would require a large-scale nuclear energy program...

The new estimate takes a broader approach to the question of Iran's political future. But it is unable to answer whether the country's ruling clerics will still be in control by the time the country is capable of producing fissile material. The administration keeps "hoping the mullahs will leave before Iran gets a nuclear weapons capability," said an official familiar with policy discussions.

The key passages are in bold. Needless to say, one hopes for a diplomatic solution -- well, preferably, one hopes for reform (and ideally for a new regime) that would bring Iran closer to the West (indeed, as I've argued before, the West needs to encourage Iran's reformist tendencies). Iran may yet be looking ahead to building a nuclear arsenal, but at least there seems to be enough time to pursue non-military options.

Everything ought to be on the table, yes, but there's evidently no need to rush into any sort of ill-advised, short-sighted military campaign (or to fix the intelligence around some equally ill-advised, short-sighted policy).

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