With former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton and other critics complaining that the National Intelligent Assessment (NIE) of Iran’s nuclear capabilities is tantamount to policy-making by “refugees from the State Department brought into the new central bureaucracy of the director of national intelligence” who have been hostile to the Bush administration’s foreign policy objectives, Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) is planning to introduce legislation to constitute a bipartisan congressional commission to investigate the report’s conclusions and specific intelligence on which they are based.
Some details about the intelligence that went into the 2005 and 2007 NIE reports are trickling out. The Washington Post reports that an Iranian defector with a laptop computer stuffed with “thousands of pages of drawings and information stored on the computer indicating that Iran had been trying to retrofit its longest-range missile, the Shahab III, to carry a nuclear payload … formed the backbone of a National Intelligence Estimate issued in 2005 that declared ‘with high confidence’ that Iran was working to build a bomb.”
According to the WaPo, President Bush was specifically interested in the status of Shahab III and pressed intelligence agencies for more information. The effort yielded communications intercepts that included conversations between Iranian military officials involved in the weapons development program - one whose names appeared on the Iranian defector’s laptop. The New York Times reports that the military officials “complained bitterly about what they termed a decision by their superiors in late 2003 to shut down a complex engineering effort to design nuclear weapons, including a warhead that could fit atop Iranian missiles.”
Ironically, these intercepted communications were corroborated by the information on the laptop that led the NIE to conclude that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons: The laptop contained no new drawings on its hard drive after February 2003.
Nonetheless, as Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) points out, “If [the NIE] is inaccurate, it could result in very serious damage to legitimate American policy." Writing in The Christian Science Monitor security expert Bennett Ramberg suggests a way to keep tabs on Iran’s nuclear intentions without resorting to cloak-and-dagger methods that may unearth disinformation as well as actionable intelligence:
In 2005 and 2006, Tehran called for "international partnerships" and "joint ownership" of fuel-cycle facilities that would allow complete transparency through co-management of enrichment plants. Reluctant to legitimize Tehran's enrichment foothold, the US ignored the overture. But, unable to get support from China and Russia for more economic penalties, Washington today doesn't have any practical alternative. …
Looking forward, however, the US intelligence community concedes that "we do not know whether it [Iran] currently intends to develop nuclear weapons." The estimators warn that Tehran will continue to expand the number of enrichment centrifuges. Today, Iran operates 3,000 machines despite "significant technical problems." In time, it proposes to have 50,000 which, un-tethered, will provide it with the option to go nuclear. …
[T]he "international joint ownership" and "international partnerships" Tehran advocated would include co-decisionmaking and facility access that assures Iran's nuclear fuel cycle remains on the straight and narrow to avoid a weapons breakout.
A new door would open to resolve the enrichment impasse if two things happened. First, tethering must be linked to Iran's promised ratification and implementation of the Additional Protocol, allowing inspectors unimpeded visits to all suspicious nuclear enterprises. Second, it must be tied further to Security Council adoption of automatic onerous punitive measures to combat cheating – a military blockade of the country, for example.
Those who would oppose this strategy by claiming that it would enhance Iran's weapons breakout capacity ought to acknowledge that today's untethered program poses the greater risk.
Would the Iranians have floated this trial balloon if they had something to hide? By the time Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s was elected president of Iran in June 2005, the country’s nuclear program had been had been halted for roughly 18 months – so why did he defy the U.S., International Atomic Energy Agency and UN Security Council? Standing up to President Bush not only played well on the Arab street, but could have been an elaborate fake-out to get the administration to overplay its hand as it had with WMD in Iraq, further damaging America’s international credibility.