Features | Security | Central Asia

Back to the Drawing Board on Iran

A new US intelligence estimate shies from accusing Iran of restarting pursuit of a nuclear bomb. But Arab world unrest has strengthened its hand.

In mid-February, the 16 agencies that make up the US intelligence community began circulating a comprehensive new evaluation of Iran’s nuclear programme. The document, a National Intelligence Estimate, is the first on Iran since a controversial 2007 estimate declared that Iran had ‘halted its nuclear weapons programme.’ That determination led to howls of protest from neoconservatives, hawks, and pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington, and so this time Iran watchers collectively held their breath to see whether the new report would reach a different conclusion.

It didn’t.

Unlike the 2007 estimate, the 2011 version won’t be declassified. However, according to press reports—and to statements from senior US officials such as James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence—the new estimate seems to shy away from concluding that Iran has resumed the pursuit of a nuclear bomb. Instead, it suggests that at the highest levels of Iran’s national security apparatus—which means inside Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s office, within the Supreme National Security Council, and among President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s aides—there’s a serious debate over whether or not to proceed with a militarization of the programme.

It’s probably accurate to conclude that Iran hasn’t decided one way or another whether to seek a bomb, although last month the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that it had recently received new information that might pertain to an Iranian effort to develop a missile capable of carrying a nuclear payload.

But one crucial assumption among the drafters of the US NIE is open to question and could be seriously flawed. This relates to the usefulness of the sanctions imposed on Iran’s economy by the UN Security Council, and the even stronger unilateral measures imposed by the United States and other nations, including from the European Union. According to a US official quoted by the Wall Street Journal, the debate inside Iran has been sparked to a significant degree by the effectiveness of sanctions. ‘The bottom line is that the intelligence community has concluded that there’s an intense debate inside the Iranian regime on the question of whether or not to move toward a nuclear bomb,’ a US official told the Journal. ‘There’s a strong sense that a number of Iranian regime officials know that the sanctions are having a serious effect.’

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That’s questionable. It is also unlikely that a covert campaign of sabotage, assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, and the well-publicized Stuxnet computer worm have intimidated Iran into having second thoughts, either. In fact, on the nuclear front at least, things seem to be going Iran’s way.

The revolt in the Arab world has riveted the world’s attention, shifting it away from Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme. The turmoil in the Middle East has driven oil prices up sharply and funnelled billions of dollars into Iran’s coffers, giving Ahmadinejad cash to spread around to ease budget pressures, provide for social welfare programs, and ease the pain of recent cuts in government subsidies for fuel and food. The uncertainty in the oil markets, as a result of instability in Libya and the Arab Gulf states, has weakened calls for an embargo on Iranian oil exports and helped Iran to find new buyers among independent oil traders in Asia. There’s little chance thatthe United Nations Security Council will consider another round of economic sanctions against Iran. ‘Any new proposal, at least those which I hear from time to time, will basically be aimed at suffocating the Iranian economy, which was not part of the agreement when E3+3 (Great Britain, France, and Germany, plus the United States, Russia and China) started,’ said Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister. ‘New sanctions mean creating economic and social problems for the Iranian nation and hence the Russian government cannot support such measures.’

Meanwhile, despite pressure from neoconservatives and Republicans in Congress for a tougher policy toward Iran, the Obama administration and the US military have continued to virtually rule out a military strike against Iran’s facilities. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently that an attack might have ‘unintended consequences’ that could be destabilizing. And his deputy, Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright told Congress that it would be several years at least before Iran could build and deploy a deliverable weapon, even if wanted to.

As recently as January, the conventional wisdom in Washington was that because of sanctions, sabotage, and technical difficulties, Iran’s enrichment programme had suffered serious, even debilitating setbacks. But in February, reports by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), the International Institution of Strategic Studies (IISS), and the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) all concluded that Iran had weathered recent setbacks unscathed.

Reports of those setbacks dated back to December 2009, when Iran took 984 centrifuges off line—six cascades of 164 centrifuges each—for unexplained reasons. In November 2010, Iran halted enrichment entirely for one week, and IAEA observers saw nearly a thousand centrifuges carted off. Much credit was given to the Stuxnet worm, which was jointly developed by Israel and the United States, according to the New York Times, for a reported slowdown in Iran’s production of enriched uranium. But according to ISIS, IISS, FAS,and the IAEA itself, Iran has managed to repair or replace its damaged units, and throughout 2010 it continued to stockpile low-enriched uranium (LEU) at a steady pace.

In fact, according to ISIS, Iran increased its output of LEU from 80 kilograms a month to 115 kilograms a month. In all, the IAEA reports, Iran had stockpiled 3,135 kilograms of LEU by October 2010, when the IAEA carried out a round of inspections, and added another 471 kilograms of LEU by February 2011. And, perhaps in a sign of defiance, when Ali Akbar Salehi resigned as head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization after being named foreign minister he was replaced by Fereydoun Abbasi. Last November, Abbasi was wounded in a bomb attack allegedly carried out by Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service.

All of this doesn’t mean that Iranian officials aren’t weighing the pros and cons of plunging ahead with their nuclear programme, or even seeking a bomb. But if the United States is making its calculations based on a belief that Iran is feeling so much pain from sanctions that it may be compelled to concede in talks, they’re likely wrong. Indeed, if anything, Iran’s leaders may be feeling overconfident. So far, they’ve managed effectively to put down demonstrations sparked, in part, by contagion from the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Libya. They’ve isolated Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, and this week, hardline clerics forced the removal of Mousavi’s ally, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, from his post as chairman of the Assembly of Experts, the elected body that appoints the supreme leader and, theoretically, can oust him. Most worryingly, Tehran has concluded that the fall of long-time US allies such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, and the revolts in Libya, Bahrain, Jordan, and elsewhere can only weaken the US position in the region, creating space for Iran to seek new relationships and new alliances.

If so, Iran won’t be in a mood to compromise. At the end of February, Salehi met with Catherine Ashton, the European Union representative, declaring, ‘I hope that the meeting today will facilitate the work for the upcoming meeting of the P5+1.’ Since the last round of talks between Iran and the P5+1, held in late January in Istanbul, however, there has been no sign of renewed momentum for talks.

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For the United States, that means that it may be time to go back to the drawing board.