Misestimating Iran's Nuclear Strategies
By Walid Phares
"IT'S THE MISSILES NOT THE FISSILE"
The release to the US Congress of the NIE Iranian threat report has unleashed a wave of discussions streaming directly into the debate about the war on terror. From there, obviously, the ripple effects of the findings - plus their politicization - are feeding the critics of the War in Iraq; but more importantly, impacting both the friends and the foes of the United States, including principally the Iranian regime.
Basically, Americans and their allies are faced with a new assertion, created by this intelligence estimate, that the decision makers in Tehran had already abandoned their nuclear military strategy as of 2003; and hence, the US and its coalition would be at fault if it engaged in any military action against targets inside Iran. Specifically, due to American intelligence conclusions, the public - both domestic and international - are being led to believe that in the fall of 2003, the Iranian leadership had decided to stop its process of building an atomic weapon; and that further, today, in the fall of 2007, there isn’t an Iranian nuclear threat to America, to the region and to the international community.
Thus, logically, as a conglomeration of various interests is using the NIE findings as tacit approval for shielding the Iranian regime, Washington naively has trapped itself with the product of the best of the best in its national intelligence apparatus. Every word now used by this writer will be put to the task of demonstrating to my readers that, if anything, this NIE Report has revealed a major systemic problem with United States national security analysis; and that further, America’s ability to understand and detect threats against itself has been compromised.
The end product of this top US evaluation of the Khomeinist menace is not so different, unfortunately, from previous assessments in the 1990s which dismissed - or even ignored - the threat posed by our other foes: Jihadists, Salafists in general, and al Qaeda in particular. This NIE report is drawing significant debates at critical times; but the most serious conclusion I would make about its findings is that the systemic crisis, about which the 9/11 Commission warned the US Government and public, is still alive and evolving.
Here are talking points to demonstrate why the message of the report is flawed; how it is being used against US national security interests; and what the consequences will be of this derailment in threat analysis.
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1. The NIE findings based their final conclusion - that the Iranian regime had abandoned its nuclear strategy - on information obtained from Iranian officials who stated they’d stopped their nuclear program in the fall of 2003. So, our best senior analysts’ conclusions are based on statements made by Iranian regime cadre known for their deceptive tactics. The document insisted that the findings didn’t attempt to analyze the Iranian regime’s intention but instead were meant merely to assert that Tehran is changing attitude; but yet the key assumptions made by the NIE bosses used the statements of the regime, not the intentions behind these statements, to construct conclusions about a course of action. That would be the equivalent of considering the statements of Adolf Hitler as true when he assured Britain and France that the invasion of Czechoslovakia was the end of his Nazi program in 1938.
My counter argument is that stopping a single production process of a nuclear weapon is not equivalent to putting an end to a strategic policy of obtaining such arms. A real change in Iranian strategy would be indicated only if the office of Ayatollah Khamenei and the central powers of his regime openly would state that they have abandoned the pursuit of military nuclear power. That has not happened; and worse, the opposite has been happening. The ruling elite have been increasingly boasting about their intention to achieve nuclear parity and their right to obtain these weapons and even to use them.
Note well: the NIE’s referral to the 2003 decision by the Khatemi Government to halt its previous method of obtaining the nukes is not the equivalent of Mohammar Qaddafi’s strategic choice to abandon the pursuit of WMDs, or the South African and Ukrainian choice to de-proliferate, as examples.
2. The NIE architects chose not to inform policy makers and the public about the wider context in which that specific 2003 decision was made, or about the subsequent steps in the Iranian nuclear strategy. Such selectiveness crippled the political conclusion of the document. Not to analyze why a foe halted a process, while he resumed many other processes to obtain even greater results, derails US analysis of the enemy’s global strategies.
Indeed the real story is that the Iranian regime reconfigured its previous nuclear strategy - gradual build up - because by the end of the summer 2003, with “hostile forces” (the US-led coalition) deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, they knew if they didn’t alter the pursuit of that initial route, they could expect a lethal reaction. Since the US strategic intentions weren’t clear in the eyes of the Iranian strategists, they acted as if Washington and its allies were moving forward to disarm Iran’s regime. The Khatemi Government, preferring to avoid an unbalanced confrontation, decided to suspend the open build-up of nuclear power, because it simply concluded that the US would be able to strike them from two borders. Hence, the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard) seized the nuclear program and reconverted it in the underground. Thus, the global strategy wasn’t halted, but an alternative strategy was begun.
3. In 2004, a US election year, the deep American divide over the War in Iraq was perceived by the Iranian hardliners as an aid to re-launch the rapid-pace nuclear race. Ironically, it was the efforts of the so called “antiwar” movement within the United States that encouraged the Jihadists of Iran to reignite the military nuclear program. By early 2005 Ahmadinejad was brought to power, and greater Syro-Iranian backing of terror in Iraq was employed to weaken the hostile forces to the west of Iran. From an Iranian perspective, one of the “insurgency’s” goals was to give Tehran the time and the ability to run faster towards deploying the nuclear weapons-to-be.
4. The NIE failed to see and explain that the 2003 decision was a change of strategy not a halt to a strategy; for the Ahmadinejad plan was to ensnare the US in Iraq so that it couldn’t destroy the process of Iran’s shifting the balance of power in its crucial early stages. Tragically, what was missed in Washington is that Tehran was building the missiles before completing the fissile. While attention was focused on the uranium enrichment process, the Pasdaran were setting up the delivery system, i.e., the actual threat system.
The bomb part of the Iranian nuclear strategy was the last stage, while the missiles were the most urgent to acquire first. Strategically it makes sense, because if the Iranians had produced a weapon, it could have been taken out via airpower without the risk of a second strike (since the delivery system would have been absent). But if the missiles were obtained before, the world couldn’t intervene preemptively against them. And when the bombs were ready (through assembly or purchase) they would be locked on the rockets. At that particular time, unilateral strikes against the Iranian weapons would run the risk of Iranian missile counter attacks against the free world.
Tehran played it very wisely and outmaneuvered its enemies in the West; it got away with the missiles, which are now advanced and deployed. Hence all that the Khomeinists need to achieve by the end of 2007, as their delivery systems are developed, is a conclusion in Washington that will deter it from acting against the nukes, the fusion centers, the launching ramps and other types of deployment. The NIE report has paved the way for that decision.
By cleverly convincing the American intelligence community and the public that Tehran had already abandoned the whole nuclear strategy in 2003, Iran has delegitimized America’s ability to act against the missiles. Hence the field is wide open for the secret nuclear program to accelerate, as the delivery system is being completed. By the time America discovers it has been duped, the nukes will be sitting on top of the missiles. All the Jihadi strategic planners had to do was to use America’s political systems against itself. Hence, because the NIE analysts failed to provide the global context of the Iranian strategy and have been pressing for a political agenda over national security priorities, Iran’s Khomeinists are winning, regardless of who will occupy the White House in January 2008.
Our next President will be faced with security crises by far more dramatic and formidable than any challenges we’ve witnessed since 9/11: Iranian missiles with Jihadi bombs aimed at two thirds of the world.
Dr. Walid Phares is the Director of Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a visiting scholar at the European Foundation for Democracy. He is the author of the War of Ideas