Analysis // Ben FrankelAnalysis // by Ben Frankel: U.S. still fighting for sanctions on Iran, but with a weaker hand

Published 19 February 2008

The Bush administration shot itself in the foot by releasing a confusing and partially misleading intelligence assessment of Iran’s nuclear weapon activities; the administration dealt a near-fatal blow to the effort to intensify economic sanctions on Iran, instead creating a situation in which the world will either have to accept a nuclear-armed Iran or go to war to stop it

It is difficult to think of a more misconstrued document than the recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) which said, in the couple of pages which were released to the public (nearly 200 pages remain classified) that Iran had, in 2003, halted the work of its nuclear weapons design group. The administration wanted to show that Iran had lied all along when it said that it had never planned for or did work on nuclear weapons, and that it did, indeed, have a weapon design group. The net result of the administration’s strange decision to release even two pages of the NIE — this has never been done before — was the exact opposite: Rather than convince people that Iran was working on getting the bomb, many clinged to the verb “halted” as proof that Iran was not interested in obtaining nuclear weapons.

This conclusion, of course, is nonsense. There are three elements to the pursuit of nuclear weapons: The two most demanding, expensive, and time-consuming are the creation of fissile material (either by enriching uranium or separating plutonium from spent uranium rods) and the design and testing of missiles to carry the nuclear warheads. The smallest activity, the one demanding fewer people and resources, is weapon design. The work of a weapon design group can be started, halted, started again — with outsiders having great difficulty even knowing about it. Now, the very NIE that says that it appears that the Iranian “halted” the work of their weapon design group in 2003, asserts that on the truly important elements of the nuclear bomb program — creating fissile material and building and testing missiles — the Iranians have actually increased and intensified their activity. We do not know why the Iranian “halted” — if they even did — the work of the weapon design group in 2003. If they did, it is more likely than not that there was no point, at that time, in continuing the work of such a group: Iran had not yet mastered uranium enrichment, and its missile program was lagging. It is more likely than not that the design group was so far ahead in its own work relative to the necessary work on the two other elements of a nuclear weapon program that, against the backdrop of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and a year and a half after the toppling of a regime in another