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The Bogus Iran Intelligence Debate

To better understand the debate over the state of Iran’s nuclear bomb building capabilities, it helps to talk to someone who has built a nuclear bomb. Tom Reed served as Secretary of the Air Force and head of the National Reconnaissance Office in the 1970s, but in an earlier life he designed thermonuclear devices at Lawrence Livermore and watched two of them detonate off Christmas Island in 1962.

How hard is it, I asked Mr. Reed when he visited the Journal last week, to build a crude nuclear weapon on the model of the bomb that leveled Hiroshima? “Anyone can build it,” he said flatly, provided they have about 141 lbs. of uranium enriched to an 80% grade. After that, he says, it’s not especially hard to master the technologies of weaponization, provided you’re not doing something fancy like implosion or miniaturization.

Bear that in mind as the New York Times reports that U.S. intelligence agencies are sure, or pretty sure, that Iran “still has not decided to pursue a weapon”—a view the paper says is shared by Israel’s Mossad. The report echoes the conclusion of a 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that Iran put its nuclear-weapons program on the shelf back in 2003.

All this sounds like it matters a whole lot. It doesn’t. You may not be able to divine whether a drinker, holding a bottle of Johnnie Walker in one hand and a glass tinkling with ice in the other, actually intends to pour himself a drink. And perhaps he doesn’t. But the important thing, at least when it comes to intervention, is not to present him with the opportunity in the first place.

That’s what was so misleading about the 2007 NIE, which relegated to a footnote the observation that “by ‘nuclear weapons program’ we mean Iran’s nuclear weapons design and weaponization work. . . . [W]e do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.” What the NIE called “civil work” is, in fact, the central piece in assembling a nuclear device. To have sufficient quantities of enriched uranium is, so to speak, the whiskey of a nuclear-weapons program. By contrast, “weaponization”—the vessel into which you pour and through which you can deliver the enriched uranium cocktail—is merely the glass.

It’s for this reason that Iran has spent the better part of the last several years building a redundant enrichment facility deep underground near the city of Qom. And thanks in part to the regular reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world doesn’t need to rely on spies or shady sources to figure out just how much uranium the Iranians have enriched: At last count, more than five tons to a 5% grade, and more than 100 kilos to 20%.

In other words, having a debate about the quality of our Iran intelligence is mostly an irrelevance: Iran’s real nuclear-weapons program is hiding in plain sight. The serious question policy makers must answer isn’t whether Iran will go for a bomb once it is within a half-step of getting one. It’s whether Iran should be allowed to get within that half-step.

That is the essence of the debate the Obama administration is now having with Israel. The president has stated flatly that he won’t allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon. Good. But Israelis worry that Mr. Obama will allow them to come too close for comfort (or pre-emption). Israel cannot be reassured by the administration’s apparent decision to make its case through a series of media leaks, all calculated to head off a possible Israeli strike.

On Monday, the Times published the (leaked) results of a “classified war game” in which an Israeli strike on Iran leaves “hundreds of American dead,” perhaps through an attack on a Navy warship. That isn’t exactly the subtlest way of warning Israel that, should they strike Iran, they will do so forewarned that American blood will be on their hands, never mind that it’s the Iranians who would be doing the killing.

Is this outcome likely? Maybe, though it assumes a level of Iranian irrationality—responding to an Israeli attack by bringing the U.S. into the conflict—that top U.S. officials don’t otherwise attribute to Iran’s leaders. But the deeper problem with this leak is that an intelligence product is being used as a political tool. It was the same story with the 2007 NIE, whose purpose was to foreclose the possibility that the Bush administration would attack Iran.

It should come as no surprise that an intelligence community meant to provide decision makers with disinterested analysis has, in practice, policy goals and ideological axes of its own. But that doesn’t mean it is any less dangerous. The real lesson of the Iraq WMD debacle wasn’t that the intelligence was “overhyped,” since the CIA is equally notorious for erring in the opposite direction. It was that intelligence products were treated as authoritative guides to decision making. Spooks, like English children, should be seen, not heard. The problem is that the spooks (like the children) want it the other way around.

How, then, should people think about the Iran state of play? By avoiding the misdirections of “intelligence.” For real intelligence, merely consider that a regime that can take a rock in its right hand to stone a woman to death should not have a nuclear bomb within reach of its left. Even a spook can grasp that.

Bret Stephens

March 19, 2012

Related link – http://tinyurl.com/7nws27f

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