Iranian Prognostications

What to make of the just-released National Intelligence Estimate saying that Iran stopped trying to build a nuclear weapon in 2003?

The just-released National Intelligence Estimate on Iran concludes that the Islamic Republic halted its efforts to produce a nuclear weapon in 2003 and, despite rhetoric to the contrary, is unlikely to have enough enriched uranium in order to be able to assemble a weapon no earlier than 2010 and perhaps not even until 2015.

There is, of course, a hedge, where the report says, "We judge with moderate confidence that the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon is late 2009, but that this is very unlikely."

The NIE concludes that the Iranian leadership is guided "by a cost-benefit approach" and suspended nuclear weapons production not only because of international pressure but because there were other "opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige and goals for regional influence in other ways."

What is striking about the NIE is the extent to which Ray Takeyh's 2003 National Interest essay predicted these trends. Four years ago, he had written "Iran's nuclear calculations are not derived from revolutionary designs but from a desire to craft a viable deterrent capability against a range of evolving threats" and that "influential voices in Tehran are calling for restraint and sensing that possession of such weapons will ill-serve Iran's core interests in the Middle East." He went on to say, "An influential segment of the theocratic oligarchy insists that acquisition of such weapons will only accentuate Iran's strategic vulnerabilities and destroy its carefully crafted security and economic ties with the Gulf states and the European Union."

Of course, we should be cautious in evaluating the NIE. George Washington University professor Amitai Etzioni, who recently penned his "Plan B" approach for Iran in these pages, said:

"These kind of reports-whether they are alarmists or claim that there is no cloud in the sky-have proven wrong time and again. I do not mean only with reference to reports on WMD in Iraq but also with reference to USSR military power, on which the Cold War relied for decades. I hope this estimate is correct and all the others, from those provided by IAEA to those by Israel, are wrong. But would we not all sleep better if the Iranians would invite the international community to have a closer look, as promised by the NPT?"

The Bush Administration notes that the NIE still demonstrates that Iran poses a threat, but it also undercuts arguments being made to other governments about the urgency of the threat.

Certainly the position taken by Russian president Vladimir Putin is strengthened. Back in October he had said, "We do not have data that says Iran is trying to produce nuclear weapons. We do not have such objective data. Therefore we proceed from a position that Iran has no such plans, but we share the concern of our partners that all [of Iran's nuclear energy] programs should be as transparent as possible."

Despite Zbigniew Brzezinski's optimism about a joint Sino-American approach on Iran, I suspect that the Chinese will also echo Mr. Putin's doubts about the urgency of any nuclear threat from Iran. They too will insist on continued negotiations and may not believe that further coercive sanctions are justified at this period-and can cite a U.S. intelligence estimate to boot.

Certainly this report will muddy the waters on any international consensus about Iranian intentions-and capabilities.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.