“Iran is today the world’s leading state-sponsor of terror,” declared President George W. Bush in a speech given in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, during his January trip to the Middle East. “Iran’s actions threaten the security of nations everywhere. So the United States is strengthening our long-standing security commitments with our friends in the Gulf—and rallying friends around the world to confront this danger before it is too late.” 1
It has been more than two months since 16 U.S. intelligence agencies presented an updated National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that concluded with “high confidence” that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in fall 2003. 2 While the NIE appeared to put at least a temporary stop to talk of direct U.S. military action against Iran, it has not quelled the notion that Iran must still be dealt with militarily. Nor has it laid to rest the debate over Iranian nuclear arms; some pundits, governments, and foreign intelligence officials maintain that the NIE got it wrong.
Soon after the release of the NIE, the Telegraph (London) reported that, “British spy chiefs have grave doubts that Iran has mothballed its nuclear weapons program … and believe the CIA has been hoodwinked by Teheran.”3 An unnamed senior British official told the Telegraph that the country’s intelligence personnel “are skeptical” about the report’s conclusions and methodology. “We want to know what the basis of it is, where did it come from? Was it on the basis of the defector? Was it on the basis of the intercept material? … It’s not as if the American intelligence agencies are regarded as brilliant performers in that region. They got badly burned over Iraq.”
Israel, too, took issue with the NIE. As the New York Times reported: “Israel said Tuesday [December 4] that it remained convinced that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons and that it had probably resumed the weapons program the Americans said was stopped in the fall of 2003. … [Defense Minister Ehud Barak] suggested that Israel would not rest in its efforts to stop Iran’s activities. ‘It is our responsibility to ensure that the right steps are taken against the Iranian regime,’ Mr. Barak told Israeli Army radio. ‘As is well known, words don’t stop missiles.’”4
Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalem Center’s Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, a Likud-aligned think tank in Israel that is funded by the billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, wrote last December in The New Republic: “What makes Israeli security officials especially furious is that the report casts doubt on Iranian determination to attain nuclear weapons. There is a sense of incredulity here: Do we really need to argue the urgency of the threat all over again? The Israeli strategists I heard from ridicule the report’s contention that ‘Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.’ … No one with whom I’ve spoken believes that professional considerations, such as new intelligence, were decisive in changing the American assessment on Iran. What has been widely hailed in the American media as an expression of intelligence sobriety, even courage, is seen in the Israeli strategic community as precisely the opposite: an expression of political machination and cowardice.”5
Halevi argues that now, “If sanctions fail to stop Iran from achieving the potential to produce nuclear weapons, the dirty work will be left to Israel, just as it was left to Israel to stop Saddam Hussein from going nuclear.”
Is it possible that despite the NIE, Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, as it bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981? Others have raised the idea that Israel might take the reins on an attack against Iran. Neoconservative writer Norman Podhortez—who has repeatedly trumpeted the “case for bombing Iran”6 —assesses the NIE as a political document intended to hamstring any Bush administration attempt at exercising a military option against Iran. Yet just because the new NIE has made it “politically impossible” for the United States to commence airstrikes against Iran, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done; Podhoretz suggests that Bush is “fixing to outsource the job to the Israelis.”7 After all, immediately after the NIE’s release, Bush still vehemently declared that he was determined not to let Iran become a nuclear power, saying, “It’s not going to happen on my watch.”8
At the annual Herzliya Conference in Israel this January, where the theme was the “Balance of Israel’s National Security,” the NIE was a hot topic. Speakers at the four-day conference included Norman Podhoretz; Natan Sharansky and Martin Kramer of the Adelson Institute of Strategic Studies, which cosponsored the conference; Steven Emerson of the Investigative Project on Terrorism; former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, now a fellow at the Manhattan Institute; David Wurmser, former Mideast adviser to Dick Cheney; Herbert London, president of the Hudson Institution; Kori Schake, former director of defense strategy at the National Security Council and current Hoover Institution fellow; Ben Wattenberg of the American Enterprise Institute; and John Bolton, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Speaking on the second day of the conference, Bolton—who has long urged that military action should be taken against Iran as a last measure to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons 9 —made the argument that the NIE’s conclusions were likely to prevent Bush from attacking Iran. He then said that Israel instead might take the lead: “It’s close to zero percent chance that the Bush administration will authorize military action against Iran before leaving office. … Israel should be willing to see [itself] as a possible last resort.”10
This points to a sentiment in Israel that should it decide to take action, Israel would likely be going it alone. As Halevi put it: “the NIE will ensure that if Israel does attack, it will be widely branded a warmonger, and faulted for the inevitable fallout of rising oil prices and increased terror.”
Jennifer Laszlo-Mizrahi, cofounder of The Israel Project, said that the NIE is “highly problematic, obviously, because it gives people who want to get off the hook an opportunity to do so." She added, "I see this as a major setback."11
Perhaps the criticism took a toll. On February 5, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell delivered his annual threat assessment to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed that same day, Bolton suggested three things McConnell could do during his testimony—all of which revolved around Bolton’s assumption that the NIE was flawed. First, Bolton wrote, McConnell should “explain how the NIE was distorted, and rewrite it objectively to reflect the status of Iran’s nuclear programs.” Then he should “commit that NIEs will abjure policy bias,” and lastly, “reaffirm the existing policy that NIE key judgments should not be made public. Then, stick to it and enforce discipline against leaks.”12 In essence, Bolton wanted McConnell to fix what he saw as having been broken by the NIE.
In his testimony, McConnell did indeed seem to recast the situation. As U.S. News & World Report put it, “when McConnell got to the Iran file, the NIE’s findings seemed to be repackaged in a way that emphasized a sense of undiminished threat and suspicion of Iran’s long-term nuclear ambitions. McConnell stressed what many critics said the December NIE should have—that Iran, albeit under international monitoring, continues to move forward on the single most important part of attaining a nuclear-weapons capability: learning how to enrich uranium. The intel chief also focused on Tehran’s efforts to perfect and deploy ballistic missiles that would be able to reach North Africa and Europe.”13
The Foundry, a Heritage Foundation blog, commented that “McConnell’s retreat on the NIE’s conclusions validates many of the exact criticisms leveled against the report.”14
With a recent Government Accountability Office report concluding that sanctions against Iran have not worked and with new talks under way to intensify the sanctions,15 Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, asked in a recent Time magazine piece: “Would Israel go it alone, bomb Iran’s nuclear infrastructure?”16
Baer, Time magazine’s online intelligence columnist and author of See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism, queried an official in the Bush administration, who told him: “Fly over our fleet in the Gulf? I doubt it.” Then the official added: “An Israeli attack is not expected. But on the other hand it’s not unforeseeable."
Bill Berkowitz is a contributor to PRA’s Right Web program (https://rightweb.irc-online.org).
1 President George W. Bush, “President Bush Discusses Importance of Freedom in the Middle East,” Emirates Palace Hotel, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, January 13, 2008.
2 National Intelligence Council, “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,” National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), November 2007.
3 Tim Shipman, Philip Sherwell, Carolynne Wheeler, “Iran ‘Hoodwinked’ CIA over Nuclear Plans,” Telegraph, December 12, 2007.
4 Steven Erlanger, “Israel Insists that Iran Still Seeks Bomb,” New York Times, December 4, 2007.
5 Yossi Klein Halevi, “An Insult to Intelligence: The Israeli Defense Community Responds to the NIE,” The New Republic, December 6, 2007.
6 See, for example, Norman Podhoretz, “The Case for Bombing Iran,” Commentary, June 2007.
7 Norman Podhoretz, “Stopping Iran: Why the Case for Military Action Still Stands,” Commentary, February 2008.
8 Mike Nizza, “Bush’s Refrain: Not on My Watch,” The Lede, New York Times, December 4, 2007.
9 Toby Harnden, “We Must Attack Iran Before It Gets the Bomb,” Telegraph, May 17, 2007.
10 John R. Bolton, Lecture Summary, Eighth Herzliya Conference, January 2008.
11 Hilary Leila Krieger, “Pro-Israel Groups: NIE Rattles Our Anti-Iran Efforts,” Jerusalem Post, December 5, 2007.
12 John R. Bolton, “Our Politicized Intelligence Services,” Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2008.
13 Thomas Omestad, “Intelligence Chief Reshapes Iran NIE,” U.S. News & World Report, February 6, 2008.
14 “Morning Bell: Stop the Tehran Two Step,” The Foundry blog, Heritage Foundation, February 6, 2008.
15 Government Accountability Office, “Iran Sanctions: Impact in Furthering U.S. Objectives Is Unclear and Should Be Reviewed,” GAO-08-58, December 18, 2007.
16 Robert Baer, “Looking for Help in Containing Iran,” TIME.com, January 23, 2008.