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February 13, 2009

Change? or more of the same?

iran-missile1The Obama administration since taking office has declared with some conviction that it believes Iran is probably pursuing a nuclear weapons cabability.  This despite the intelligence community’s reaffirmation of its 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which declared that Iran halted its weapons program in 2003.

Obama, who was elected with a mandate for changing the policies of the previous administration, has trumpeted his new approach to dealing with Iran.  But this is a pretty glaring contradiction–if it is still the consensus of all 16 US intelligence agencies that Iran halted its weapons program, then it would have to be a political decision to continue the Bush administration’s public line that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon.  So what’s going on here?
During his Senate confirmation hearing, CIA Director-designate Leon Panetta said of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability:

From all the information that I’ve seen, I think there is no question that they are seeking that capability.

Only yesterday did the administration begin to walk back from that line somewhat, when Adm. Dennis Blair, nominee for the position of Director of National Intelligence, said:

Although we do not know whether Iran currently intends to develop nuclear weapons, we assess Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop them… I can say at this point that Iran is clearly developing all the components of a deliverable nuclear weapons program — fissionable material, nuclear weaponizing capability and the means to deliver it.

So what exactly do we take from all this?
Obviously, the Obama administration’s policy review is still ongoing; therefore there will be no major change in America’s approach to Iran until that review is finished and the policy is decided upon.  But the question of “Is Iran pursuing a nuclear weapon?” seems to be pretty straightforward, right?  Wrong.
Most experts agree that Iran probably isn’t hell-bent on building a nuclear bomb as soon as it can.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not pursuing a weapons capability.  Let me explain.
Iran’s current nuclear program is devoted mainly to building up its capacity for enriching uranium, the material that can be used to run a power plant or to fuel a bomb.  At this point in the program, there is little difference between a weapons program and a civilian program–either way, Iran would have to build cascades of centrifuges that will enrich sufficient quantities of uranium for whichever purpose they have in mind.
Meanwhile, Iran seems to be building up its missile capabilities (though this aspect is largely overblown in Washington), and has been less than fully cooperative with IAEA inspectors (raising the level of doubt in Iran’s peaceful intentions).
It is important to note, though, that the IAEA has in place some pretty strong safeguards that tell us a lot about Iran’s intentions.  Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA director, has declared with full confidence that Iran has not diverted any of its low-enriched uranium (which can’t be used in a weapon, but which could be re-enriched to weapons grade) from its stockpiles.  Additionally, the IAEA has declared that there is no evidence of a nuclear weapons program at any of the declared nuclear sites in Iran.
What they can’t confirm, however, is the absence of any covert weapons program.  But that’s a pretty hard thing to do–confirm the absence of something secret…
So where does this leave us?
Well, we know that if Iran were to decide tomorrow that it wants a nuclear weapon, it would have to kick out all of the IAEA inspectors.  This would be a dead giveaway to the international community that Iran has gone off the reservation.  But we also know that Iran doesn’t have to make that decision just yet.
It’s very likely that all Iran wants is the capability to build a bomb, much like Japan has.  By developing the infrastructure to create a nuclear weapon in a short amount of time, a country effectively achieves all of the positive benefits without incurring many of the costs of “going nuclear.”   Most experts agree this is what Iran wants–technically, they wouldn’t be breaking any laws.  But it’s by no means a comfortable situation.
Here’s the big deal, though.  Everything hinges on Iran’s political decision to make a bomb or not.  That means that if the international community can effectively convince Iran not to do it, then this crisis will be averted.  And that’s good news, because all of our previous efforts to deny Iran the ability to develop a weapon have essentially failed.  They have enrichment technology, they’re developing longer-ranged missiles, and you can find technical specifications for warhead designs on the internet.
So now all Obama has to do is figure out how to negotiate with Iran in a way that acknowledges their technical capabilities but that prevents a military application for what they’ve already developed.  Shouldn’t be too hard, right…?
update: Check out Laura Rozen’s post on the same topic (coincidence, I swear) over at the Cable.  Also Paul Pillar’s take here.

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