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The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece today that criticizes continued reliance on the U.S. Intelligence Community’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of 2007, which stated that in 2003 Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program. The article’s author points out that the NIE defined “nuclear weapons program…[as] weapon design and weaponization work and . . . uranium enrichment-related work” rather than Iran’s “declared” nuclear facilities.”
The author argues that the NIE was misleading, since U.S. intelligence knew about Iran’s Qom facility at the time. The logic follows that Iran was working towards uranium enrichment, and, therefore, its nuclear weapons program was still active. Of course this thinking is flawed.
The NIE definition of nuclear weapons program has three parts: weapon design, weaponization work and uranium enrichment-related work. Simply enriching uranium does not equal a nuclear weapons program. The United Arab Emirates is planning on developing a facility to generate nuclear power, but this does not mean they are automatically working towards developing an atomic weapon. Brazil and Japan even have active enrichment programs, but you don’t hear anyone talk about the looming Brazilian nuclear weapon.  It seems reasonable to assume that the real indicators of an active nuclear weapons program is actually enriching uranium to weapons grade levels and designing the weapons parameters.
In addition, the fact that the I.C. knew about the Qom facility in 2007 does not mean that the NIE was faulty. We often make the mistake of believing that our spies know everything about everyone; unfortunately it’s not that easy.  While the I.C. did amazing work to discover the facility at an early stage, it was not clear what exactly the site was being constructed for.  (Remember that no nuclear materials had been introduced, even by the time the facility was revealed to the public).  We still don’t know exactly when the decision was made to convert the facility from its original purpose (some type of tunnel complex, possibly for a munitions depot) to an enrichment site.
The Wall Street Journal piece is representative of a recurring problem in numerous recent articles that have covered Iran’s nuclear program. The U.S. Intelligence Community’s yearly budget is $75 billion, and out of that massive budget came an NIE that stated Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. However, articles continue to appear that argue against the NIE report, and yet those articles fail to deliver any new evidence to support their claims.
It is always good to question government, and make sure government officials are held accountable. At some point, however, it begins to appear unreasonable when good intelligence is repeatedly questioned.  Are we really supposed to believe that the Wall Street Journal editorial board knows more than the US Intelligence Community?

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