• U.S.

Iran’s Nukes: Now They Tell Us?

11 minute read
Joe Klein

The President looked awful. He stood puffy-eyed, stoop-shouldered, in front of the press corps discussing the stunning new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that Iran halted its nuclear-weapons program in 2003. He looked as if he’d spent the night throwing chairs around the Situation Room. A reporter noted that he seemed dispirited, and the President joked, “This is like–all of a sudden, it’s like Psychology 101, you know?” He added, “No, I’m feeling pretty spirited, pretty good about life, and I made the decision to come before you so I can explain the NIE.” And then, defiantly, “And so, kind of Psychology 101 ain’t working. It’s just not working. I understand the issues, I clearly see the problems, and I’m going to use the NIE to continue to rally the international community for the sake of peace.” And then he walked out.

In truth, Bush seemed as befuddled as everyone else about how and why the nation’s intelligence community–the 16 federal agencies charged with spying–had issued an NIE that so profoundly undermined his provocative rhetoric toward Iran. As recently as Oct. 17, the President had said Iran’s bomb-building program could be a precursor to “World War III.” It was a statement that was both outrageous in its extravagance and very strange. Bush acknowledged that he had first heard in August that a new intelligence analysis of Iran’s nuclear-bomb program was imminent, but–and here comes the strange part–he hadn’t bothered to ask the Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, what it might contain. “If that’s true,” Senator Joe Biden opined soon after, “then this is … one of the most incompetent Presidents in modern American history.”

The moment certainly seemed historic. This was, quite possibly, the most assertive, surprising and rebellious act in the history of the U.S. intelligence community. The Administration seemed to have lost control of its secrets. Gone were the days when spymasters would come to the White House for morning coffee and whisper the latest intelligence to the President, and the rest of the world would find out decades later, only after numerous Freedom of Information requests had prized the buried treasure from the CIA vault. Now the latest intelligence evaluations were being announced worldwide, nearly in real time. “It’s just mind-boggling,” a former CIA officer told me. “The impact of the Iraq WMD fiasco is coming home to roost. The intelligence community was badly burned by that. And the various players never want it asked of them again, ‘Why didn’t you stand up to the Administration and tell it the truth?”’

The truth about Iran appeared to shatter the last shreds of credibility of the White House’s bomb-Iran brigade–and especially that of Vice President Dick Cheney, who had been stumping haughtily for war. It was a political earthquake, reverberating through the presidential campaign. Within hours, Hillary Clinton was under renewed attack by her Democratic opponents for voting for a bellicose anti-Iran resolution in the Senate this year. But the unintended damage was to the credibility of the Republican presidential candidates, all of whom had noisily rattled sabers about Iran. Once again the black-and-white neoconservative view of the Middle East region had been proved wrong. At first the antique neocon Norman Podhoretz actually insisted, “The intelligence community, which has for some years now been leaking material calculated to undermine George W. Bush, is doing it again. This time the purpose is to head off the possibility that the President may order air strikes on the Iranian nuclear installations.” Soon, even Podhoretz was in retreat.

But it wasn’t just the intelligence community that had been trying to prevent the war hawks in the Administration from bombing Iran. The Secretaries of State and Defense and the leaders of the uniformed military had decided that diplomacy was the best way to deal with an admittedly hostile and dangerous foe in Tehran. Almost exactly a year ago, after the firing of Donald Rumsfeld, the President met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the “Tank,” the Pentagon’s secure facility. Bush asked the Chiefs about attacking Iran. He was told that a bombing campaign could do severe damage to Iran’s military and nuclear facilities, but the Chiefs said they were opposed to such a strike because of the probable “blowback.” The Iranians, Bush was told, could make life very difficult for the U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq. They could shut off the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, thereby creating a global economic crisis. And they could use the threat of Iran-sponsored terrorist attacks on the American homeland

At about the same time, a new NIE on Iran was meandering through the intelligence community. A senior U.S. intelligence official told me last week that the report was prepared to say with a “moderate” degree of certainty that Iran had stopped its nuclear-weapons program, but the information wasn’t very conclusive. That finding would have put the U.S. in the same camp as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)–deeply concerned about the Iranian efforts to enrich uranium but skeptical about the regime’s efforts to fashion that uranium into a bomb.

The intricacies of nuclear proliferation can get very complicated very quickly, but under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), nations have the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes but they must do it in a transparent manner, under international supervision. Iran was, and is, a matter of real concern to the IAEA because it had been caught hiding part of its enrichment program–and because it was widely believed that Iran had a secret bomb-building program (which indeed it had, as of 2003). Even after the new intelligence assessment, Iran’s uranium-enrichment program remains troubling to the international community because enrichment is considered the most difficult part of building a nuclear bomb. Iran claims it is enriching the uranium for a peaceful nuclear-power program, but–given its ocean of oil–most international observers don’t believe it.

Iran has an opaque and nearly impenetrable government structure, and it’s hard to know who exactly controls the levers in that country. There are two of everything. There is a popularly elected President (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) and a–more powerful–Supreme Leader (Ayatullah Ali Khamenei). There is an Iranian army and a–more powerful–Revolutionary Guard Corps. As recently as two years ago, a senior U.S. diplomat told me, “We don’t know anything about what goes on inside that government.” But that has changed fairly dramatically in the past year. A special CIA Iran-analysis group, which calls itself “Persia House,” was split off from the agency’s Middle East regional analysts. A major effort was made to recruit human intelligence sources inside Iran. And then, in June and July, the new Iran assets began to pay off. Some of the information may have come from an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps general named Ali Reza Asghari, who defected to Turkey in February. But a senior U.S. intelligence official assured me, “It was multiple collection streams. You don’t get a ‘high’ degree-of-probability assessment without multiple sources.”

In August, National Intelligence Director McConnell ordered CIA Director Michael Hayden to have ready by Labor Day a new intelligence estimate reflecting the latest information. Hayden said he needed more time. McConnell set a Nov. 30 deadline. Because some of the information sources were new, Hayden decided to launch a “red team” counterintelligence operation to make sure that the U.S. wasn’t falling for Iranian disinformation. In late October, the Persia House and red-team analysts offered their findings to Hayden and his deputy, Steve Kappes, around the coffee table in Hayden’s office. The red team found that the possibility of Iranian disinformation was “plausible but not likely.” That assessment led two of the 16 intelligence agencies, but not the CIA, to dissent from the final “high” degree of certainty that Iran had stopped its weapons program in 2003. On the other hand, there was general agreement on a “moderate” finding that Iran had not restarted the program. The National Intelligence Board met and reached its conclusions on Tuesday, Nov. 27. “The meeting took a little more than two hours,” a senior intelligence official told me. “There have been times when it has taken multiple meetings that went on for hours and hours to reach a consensus, especially when dealing with one of Iran’s neighbors.”

Hayden and his senior Iran analysts briefed President Bush on the new NIE on Wednesday, Nov. 28. But it seems apparent the President made little effort to figure out how his Administration could leverage the shocking candor of the intelligence report to his advantage in dealing with Iran. “He could have said to the Iranians, ‘This document shows that we’re not rushing to war. We’re not out to get you,'” said Kenneth Pollack, a National Security Council staff member during the Clinton Administration and author of The Persian Puzzle. “‘But we–and the rest of the world–are very concerned about your uranium-enrichment program, and so let’s sit down and talk about it.'”

Oddly, Bush didn’t seem to ask for a delay in the release of the report. He could easily have requested a few weeks for his Administration to chew over the import of the NIE, discuss it with our allies, organize a new diplomatic initiative to negotiate with the Iranians. As it was, Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns briefed the U.N. Security Council members who had been considering a new round of sanctions against Iran about the same time that word of the NIE broke in the press. When it did, the Chinese, who had seemed surprisingly ready to approve the sanctions, started backing away from that position.

There was one key finding that the President didn’t discuss and wasn’t asked about during his White House press conference: that Iran had stopped its weapons program “in response to international scrutiny and pressure.” Several intelligence sources told me they considered this the most important finding in the report. “Iran isn’t impervious,” said one. “Diplomatic pressure works. That’s something we simply did not know before.”

But diplomatic pressure has been embraced only reluctantly, if at all, by Bush and Cheney. Even when the President does get behind an initiative, as he did with the recent Annapolis conference to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, there is an ad hoc, unprepared quality to the effort–a transparent, last-minute rush to cobble together a legacy. What the NIE makes plain is that diplomacy, combined with the threat of international sanctions, has much greater potential when applied to the Iranians than it has ever had in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To be sure, dealing with the Iranians isn’t easy. In 2000, President Bill Clinton tried to stage a handshake at the United Nations with then President of Iran Mohammed Khatami–but at the last minute Khatami was ordered to back down by his superiors in Tehran. The truth is, the Iranian mullahs have often been as reluctant to negotiate with the U.S. as Bush has been to deal directly with them–although there may have been an Iranian initiative in 2003, when it appeared that U.S. armies would soon be perched on two of Iran’s borders, in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is a dispute in the intelligence community about whether that démarche, which came to the U.S. via the Swiss embassy and promised broad-ranging negotiations, was a freelance effort by Iranian moderates or had been approved at the highest levels of the Iranian government.

The NIE represented another promising opportunity missed. Imagine if the President had said, “This report means we don’t want war. We want to talk, and everything–including lifting of the economic sanctions and our acknowledgment that you are a major regional power–is on the table so long as you put everything on the table too. That means not only your uranium-enrichment program but also your support for terrorist organizations.” How could Iran have said no to that?

But that would have required some other President. This President appears to lack the desire, creativity and patience to engage in the most important diplomacy that a nation can face–with its enemies–over issues that could mean the difference between war and peace.

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