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A Manufactured Debate - Is Iran Designing Warheads?

In the New York Times is a curiously worded article about the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons headlined "A Nuclear Debate - Is Iran Designing Warheads?" It is confirmation that the disaster-in-a-binder 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran has legs far longer than the year the report was produced.

Astoundingly, due to this report - authored by three State Department transfers to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence - it is presented that "American spy agencies have stood firm in their conclusion that [Iran] halted work on weapons design in 2003." This is a position that even the French scoff at, to say nothing of the Israelis or the Germans.

More importantly for your digestion, it is simply fiction to write that "American spy agencies" hold this position. I know for a fact that most American intelligence shops - if not all but one - vehemently disagreed at the time of the report's crafting. They insisted that this conclusion was pure fantasy and inserted by its former-State Department (and not intelligence) authors who had a political axe to grind and an end to achieve: Preventing what some wrongly saw as a potential for President George W. Bush to take military action against Iran.

The key graphs excerpted below.

Behind their show of unity about Iran's clandestine efforts to manufacture nuclear fuel, however, is a continuing debate among American, European and Israeli spies about a separate component of Iran's nuclear program: its clandestine efforts to design a nuclear warhead.

The Israelis, who have delivered veiled threats of a military strike, say they believe that Iran has restarted these "weaponization" efforts, which would mark a final step in building a nuclear weapon. The Germans say they believe that the weapons work was never halted. The French have strongly suggested that independent international inspectors have more information about the weapons work than they have made public.

Meanwhile, in closed-door discussions, American spy agencies have stood firm in their conclusion that while Iran may ultimately want a bomb, the country halted work on weapons design in 2003 and probably has not restarted that effort -- a judgment first made public in a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate.

The phrase "in closed door discussions" reveals that the reporters are being fed this version of the tale, likely from within the White House. It is absolutely incomprehensible to suggest that now or in 2007 that "American spy agencies" stand firm on an issue that was derided by most in the intelligence community when it was first floated in 2007 and remains unresolved to this day because the NIE is the "official record" of sorts until a new one is produced.

The suggestion that Iran "halted its nuclear warhead design research in 2003" appeared in the opening paragraph of the executive summary of the lengthy report and stood unsupported throughout the detailed body of the document. In fact, in the body of the 2007 NIE on Iran was contradictory to that opening statement.

But it didn't matter. The damage would be done and the authors knew it. And its ill-effects are clearely still being felt today. This is what you get when you have three career State Department employees with political axes to grind author an intelligence estimate.

Does it not strike as at least odd that the United States is the only one who holds this view? That Germany, Israel and France - France - think this is crazy? I am not sure how the New York Times can suggest that this is an all too familiar scenario that, "in essence, is a mirror image of the intelligence dispute on the eve of the Iraq war. " No reasonable state not allied with Saddam Hussein or an American strategic adversary suggested that he did not possess weapons of mass destruction. The debate in 2002 and 2003 was not on "whether" - such as the American administration is now making it - but on "what to do about it."

This debate is wholly different. And the outcome hinges on politicized American NIE fiction from 2007 and a foolish measure of faith and trust that the Iranian regime can be reasoned with or strong-armed out of their nuclear weapons program through infamous strongly worded statements from Turtle Bay or sanctions that have never worked and will always be neutered by Russia or China or both.

It's delusional. Clarity, logic and history stare us in the face. We can't call it something else and make it so, no matter what approach one would take from that point forward. Can't we at least get to a common sense starting point and debate what matters rather than argue the delusional?

UPDATE: Before the Times' report, I spoke this morning about the current implications of the disastrous opening graph to the 2007 NIE in my weekly podcast, which focused primarily on Iran. For the audio stream or MP3 download, go here:

The Steve Schippert Show - September 28, 2009

My weekly National Security podcast, The Steve Schippert Show, is also available via iTunes. You can subscribe for automatic downloads each Monday morning.

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