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Iran Threat Assessment: The Do-Over

Historically, National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) for high-level government decision-makers have been classified.  Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell reinforced the security justifications for secrecy this past October, but on Dec. 3 the National Intelligence Council, which McConnell heads, publicly released key findings of a new assessment of Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities (see below and on the following eight pages). The report markedly contradicts an earlier estimate from May 2005 that concluded Iran was “determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure” (see Page 9). That NIE was issued under the directorship of McConnell’s predecessor John Negroponte, a Bush loyalist who previously was ambassador to Iraq and to the United Nations and is now deputy secretary of state.

The 2007 estimate is the product of McConnell’s new procedure for collecting and analyzing intelligence, a change that increased the number of sources examined and eliminated the requirement that every finding reflect a consensus within the intelligence community. The NIE states with “high confidence” that Iran halted its nuclear-weapons program in 2003 and with “moderate confidence” that as of this past summer—presumably the most recent time period about which the intelligence agencies have information—the program had not been restarted. The halt suggests that Iran “is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005” and “more vulnerable to influence on the issue” from the international community “than we judged previously.” At the same time, the NIE affirms that the intelligence agencies continue to believe (with “low confidence”) that “Iran has imported at least some weapons-usable fissile material” and (with “moderate-to-high confidence”) that Iran doesn’t yet have enough of this material to build a bomb (see Page 6). As in the earlier assessment, the report concludes that, from a technical standpoint, Iran might conceivably be able to build a nuclear weapon before the end of this decade. This possibility, however, is judged “highly unlikely.” A more likely time period, the NIE states with “moderate confidence,” is somewhere between 2010 and 2015 (see Page 9).

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