Sorry about the light posting as of late — the day job has been busier than usual and the new column at Foreign Policy is definitely a lot of work.
I’ve started a few posts, but got hung up in the usual ways — the problems turned out to be more interesting than I thought or documents harder to obtain. I am hoping some of these efforts will bear fruit at some point.
In the meantime, I have a long piece up at Foreign Policy looking at the recent history of US National Intelligence Estimates on Iran’s nuclear capabilities and intentions, titled The Ayatollah’s Pregnant Pause. I didn’t write the title, but I wish I did.
As I said, it is long. Despite clocking in around 3,000 words, there were bits and pieces that needed to be trimmed. Some of them I still want to share.
First, and most important, the original draft contained a shout-out to my friend Paul Kerr, who currently works at the Congressional Research Service. We’ve known each other since the late 1990s and much of my thinking about the 2005 and 2007 NIEs arises directly from our conversations while he was at the Arms Control Association and blogging here. I highly recommend his CRS report, Iran’s Nuclear Program: Status.
Second, I wanted to republish the two talks by Hassan Rowhani that appeared in Rahbord and Keyhan. These are amazing documents (Wonkporn!) for those of us interested in Iran’s decision-making during the early stages of the nuclear crisis. The fact that they were available to contemporary policymakers will always amaze me. Every time I re-read them, I spot something new, such as the reference to a “private entity” that almost certainly refers to the Mohsen Fakrizadeh’s Physics Research Center (PHRC).
Third, speaking of the notorious MoFak, one section that needed to be trimmed was a discussion of the details in the various IAEA reports, including the Annex on “possible military dimensions.” One of the most useful details is this chart in IAEA GOV/2011/65 showing the evolution of Fakhrizadeh’s empire from the PHRC to the SPND:
Fourth, and finally, a word about the decision faced by Israeli and US policymakers. The decision to conduct an airstrike or not is an interesting policy choice. (Keeping in mind I have a very high burden of presumption against the use of force in general.) The benefit of a strike is an induced pause in the program — more or less what we have now though imposed through force. The question is whether an airstrike creates more delay than the current indecision of the Supreme Leader. So far, I think, the best answer has been no — the NIE believes Iran is reluctant to force the issue by attempting to weaponize its capabilities.
This framing of the policy problem assumes that, once attacked, the Supreme Leader would very likely order a crash program to acquire a nuclear deterrent, a fear that stems directly from Saddam’s reaction to Israel’s destruction of the Osirak reactor. One of the dumbest things I have seen written in a long time is this:
A similar argument was used by critics of the prospective Israeli strike against Iraq’s nuclear reactor back in 1981 (the critics included then Labor Party head Shimon Peres, now Israel’s president, who reportedly is a major critic of the prospective attack on Iran). But that successful strike actually put paid to Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program, which was never resurrected.
Iraq did reconstitute its nuclear program as we discovered after the 1991 Gulf War. There is no room for disagreement on this factual point. Whether the Iraqis were competent enough to ever figure it out, they successfully hid an enrichment program for a decade, which probably accounts in no small part for Iran’s late 1980s interest in enrichment technology.
Moreover, the Iraqi “nuclear weapons program” — in the sense of a formal commitment by Saddam to seek nuclear weapons — is best understood a response to the strike on Osirak. All of the historical evidence that I have seen –largely in the form of memoirs by Iraqi scientists like Madhi Obeidi, Imad Khadduri and Jafar Dhia Jafar — suggests Saddam had yet to decide to seek nuclear weapons until the humiliation of the strike by Israel. One can suspect he would have gotten around to it eventually, but as it happened the best evidence is that the airstrike was the catalyst for the Iraqi nuclear weapons effort, which then proceeded undetected for nearly a decade.
The Syria case, on the other hand, is the best case, especially if Assad falls before whatever remains of his nuclear weapons program can bear fruit. That leaves a question about whether Iran is more like Iraq or Syria. The Iranian program is both less vulnerable than the Syrian program and, according the NIE, paused. These are important differences: By building an unsafeguarded reactor with the assistance of North Korea, Assad created both a signal of his intention to acquire a nuclear weapon and a fat, juicy target. The Surpreme Leader has not been so careless, either with regard to Iran’s intentions or capabilities. Nor do I have confidence that the Islamic Republic is nearly as vulnerable as the Assad regime, which appears to be crumbling but has yet to fall.
I still think diplomacy remains a better option for dealing with this problem, all things considered.