It seems flabbergastingly improbable that President George W. Bush learned of the National Intelligence Estimate concerning Iranian nuclear ambitions only a few days before the rest of us did, but the haplessness of his demeanor suggested that he might, in fact, have been telling the truth. After all, had the administration known for any appreciable length of time that the mullahs had hit the pause button on their program in late 2003, it would have been in a position to make a claim that is quite probably true, namely, that our overthrow of Saddam Hussein had impressed the Iranians in much the same way as it impressed the Libyans and made them at least reconsider their willingness to continue flouting the Non-Proliferation Treaty. (Given that the examination of the immense Libyan stockpile also disclosed the fingerprints that led back to the exposure of the A.Q. Khan nuke-mart in Pakistan, the removal of Saddam from the chessboard has had more effect in curbing the outlaw WMD business than it is normally given credit for.)
Nobody seems entirely sure what caused our intelligence agencies to reverse their opinion, but it seems rather likely that the defection and/or abduction of Brig. Gen. Ali Reza Asgari, Iran’s former deputy minister of defense, in February of this year, has something to do with it. Asgari’s ostensibly principal job had been that of liaison with Hezbollah in Lebanon, but his debriefing could also have helped confirm pre-existing surmises about Iran’s reining-in of its nuclear ambitions.
Which is the most that can be said about those ambitions. It is completely false for anybody to claim, on the basis of this admitted “estimate,” that Iran has ceased to be a candidate member of the fatuously named nuclear “club.” It has the desire to acquire the weaponry, it retains the means to do so, and it has been caught lying and cheating about the process. If it suspended some overtly military elements of the project out of a justifiable apprehension in 2003, it has energetically persisted in the implicit aspects—most notably the installation of gas centrifuges at the plant in Natanz and the building of a heavy water reactor at Arak. All that the estimate has done is to define weaponry down and to suggest a distinction without much difference between a “civilian” and a “military” dimension of the same program. The acquisition of enriched uranium and of plutonium, for any purpose, is identical with the acquisition of a thermonuclear weapons capacity. Iran continues to strive to produce both, neither of which, as it happens, are required for its ostensible civilian energy needs.
The briefing that I was given by the British Embassy in Tehran in 2005, showing the howlingly glaring discrepancy between what Iran claims and what Iran does, is not in the least challenged by the most recent conclusions. To say that Iran has “stopped” rather than paused its program is to offer an opinion, not to present a finding. (For more on this, see the excellent article by Valerie Lincy and Gary Milhollin in the Dec. 6 New York Times, and also Jonathan Schell’s Dec. 9 piece on the Guardian’s Web site.) The mullahs are steadily amassing the uranium and plutonium ingredients of a weapon and will indeed soon be able to pause, along with other countries, like Japan, at the point where only a brief interlude and a swift spurt of effort would put them in full possession of the bomb.
Why, then, have our intelligence agencies helped to give the lying Iranian theocracy the appearance of a clean bill, while simultaneously and publicly (and with barely concealed relish) embarrassing the president and crippling his policy? It is not just a hypothetical strike on Iran that is rendered near-impossible by this estimate, but also the likelihood of any concerted diplomatic or economic pressure, as well. The policy of getting the United Nations to adopt sanctions on the regime, which was about to garner the crucial votes, can now be regarded as clinically dead. A fine day’s work by those who claim to guard us while we sleep.
One explanation is that, like Mark Twain’s cat, which having sat on a hot stove would never afterward sit on a cold one, the CIA has adopted a policy of caution to make up for its “slam-dunk” embarrassment over Iraq. This is a superficially plausible hypothesis, which ignores the fact that for most of the duration of the Iraq debate, the CIA was all but openly hostile to any argument for regime-change in Baghdad. This hostility extended all the way from a frenzied attempt to discredit Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress, to the Plame/Wilson imbroglio, and the agency’s “referral” of Robert Novak’s disclosure to the Department of Justice. Interagency hostility in Washington, D.C., between the CIA and the Department of Defense has never been so damaging to any administration, let alone to any administration in time of war, as it has been to this one.
And now we have further confirmation of the astonishing culture of lawlessness and insubordination that continues to prevail at the highest levels in Langley. At a time when Congress and the courts are conducting important hearings on the critical question of extreme interrogation, and at a time when accusations of outright torture are helping to besmirch and discredit the United States all around the world, a senior official of the CIA takes the unilateral decision to destroy the crucial evidence. This deserves to be described as what it is: mutiny and treason. Despite a string of exposures going back all the way to the Church Commission, the CIA cannot rid itself of the impression that it has the right to subvert the democratic process both abroad and at home. Its criminality and arrogance could perhaps have been partially excused if it had ever got anything right, but, from predicting the indefinite survival of the Soviet Union to denying that Saddam Hussein was going to invade Kuwait, our spymasters have a Clouseau-like record, one that they have earned yet again with their exculpation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It was after the grotesque estimate of continued Soviet health and prosperity that the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued that the CIA should be abolished. It is high time for his proposal to be revived. The system is worse than useless—it’s a positive menace. We need to shut the whole thing down and start again.