How real is the nuclear threat?
lah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Iranis heavily invested in nuclear technology,and has a power plant ready to go on linein the port city of Bushehr, with a secondin the planning stage. In the past four years, it has tripled the number of centri-fuges in operation at its main enrichmentfacility at Natanz, which is buried deepunderground. On the other hand, theIranian enrichment program is beingmonitored by the International AtomicEnergy Agency, and Natanz and allIran’s major declared nuclear installationsare under extensive video surveillance.I.A.E.A. inspectors have expressed frus-tration with Iran’s level of coöperationand cited an increase in production of uranium, but they have been unable toﬁnd any evidence that enriched uraniumhas been diverted to an illicit weaponsprogram.National Intelligence Estimates, whose preparation is the responsibility of the Director of National Intelligence,Lieutenant General James Clapper, of the Air Force, are especially sensitive,because the analysts who prepare themhave access to top-secret communica-tions intercepts as well as the testimony of foreign scientists and intelligenceoﬃcials, among others, who have beenenlisted by the C.I.A. and its military counterpart, the Defense IntelligenceAgency. In mid-February, Clapper’soﬃce provided the House and Senateintelligence committees with an updateto the N.I.E. on the Iranian nuclear- weapons program. The previous assess-ment, issued in 2007, created consterna-tion and anger inside the Bush Admin-istration and in Congress by concluding,“with high conﬁdence,” that Iran hadhalted a nascent nuclear-weapons pro-gram in 2003. That estimate added,“We do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.” The Bush White House had insistedthat a summary of the 2007 N.I.E.be made public––an unprecedentedmove––but then President Bush andVice-President Dick Cheney quickly questioned its conclusions. Peter Hoek-stra, a Republican from Michigan whohad been chairman of the House Intel-ligence Committee, characterized theN.I.E. as “a piece of trash.” The public dispute over the 2007N.I.E. led to bitter inﬁghting within theObama Administration and the intelli-gence community over this year’s N.I.E.update—a discrepancy between theavailable intelligence and what many in the White House and Congress be-lieved to be true. Much of the debate, which delayed the issuing of the N.I.E.for more than four months, centered onthe Defense Intelligence Agency’s as-tonishing assessment that Iran’s earliernuclear-weapons research had beentargeted at its old regional enemy, Iraq,and not at Israel, the United States, or Western Europe. One retired seniorintelligence oﬃcial told me that theD.I.A. analysts had determined thatIran “does not have an ongoing weap-ons program, and all of the availableintelligence shows that the program, when it did exist, was aimed at Iraq. TheIranians thought Iraq was developing abomb.” The Iranian nuclear-weaponsprogram evidently came to an end fol-lowing the American-led invasion of Iraq, in early 2003, and the futile huntfor the Iraqi W.M.D. arsenal. IsraeliPrime Minister Benjamin Netanyahuinsists that Iran, like Libya, halted itsnuclear program in 2003 because itfeared military action. “The more Iranbelieves that all options are on the table,the less the chance of confrontation,”Netanyahu told a joint session of Con-gress last week. The D.I.A. analysts understood thatthe 2011 assessment would be politi-cally explosive. “If Iran is not a nuclearthreat, then the Israelis have no reasonto threaten imminent military action,”the retired senior intelligence oﬃcialsaid. “The guys working on this aregood analysts, and their bosses are back-ing them up.”
The internal debate over the Iran as-sessment was alluded to last fall by W. Pat-
rick Lang, a retired Army intelligenceoﬃcer who served for years as the rankingD.I.A. analyst on the Middle East andcontributed to many N.I.E.s. “Do you allknow what an N.I.E. is?” Lang said to an
s Iran actively trying to develop nu-clear weapons? Members of theObama Administration often talk as if this were a foregone conclusion, as didtheir predecessors under George W.Bush. There is a large body of evidence,however, including some of America’smost highly classiﬁed intelligence as-sessments, suggesting that the UnitedStates could be in danger of repeating amistake similar to the one made withSaddam Hussein’s Iraq eight yearsago––allowing anxieties about the poli-cies of a tyrannical regime to distort ourestimations of the state’s military ca-pacities and intentions. The two mostrecent National Intelligence Estimates(N.I.E.s) on Iranian nuclear progress,representing the best judgment of thesenior oﬃcers from all the major Amer-ican intelligence agencies, have statedthat there is no conclusive evidence thatIran has made any eﬀort to build thebomb since 2003.
Despite years of covert operationsinside Iran, extensive satellite imagery,and the recruitment of many Iranianintelligence assets, the United Statesand its allies, including Israel, havebeen unable to ﬁnd irrefutable evidenceof an ongoing hidden nuclear-weaponsprogram in Iran, according to intelli-gence and diplomatic oﬃcials here andabroad. One American defense consul-tant told me that as yet there is “nosmoking calutron,” although, like many Western government oﬃcials, he isconvinced that Iran is intent on be-coming a nuclear state sometime in thefuture.
The general anxiety about the Iranianregime is ﬁrmly grounded. PresidentMahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly questioned the Holocaust and expresseda desire to see the state of Israel elimi-nated, and he has deﬁed the 2006 UnitedNations resolution calling on Iran to sus-pend its nuclear-enrichment program. Tehran is also active in arming Hezbol-