Back to the Drawing Board on Iran
Image Credit: Office of Iranian President

Back to the Drawing Board on Iran


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.

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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.’

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.

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