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Revisiting the 2007 NIE in Light of a Nuclear Deal

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By William Tucker
Chief Correspondent for In Homeland Security

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took to Twitter on Monday to declare that a deal with the P5+1 over Iran’s nuclear program was finally reached – only to delete that particular tweet in short order. By Monday evening in Vienna it was clear that a deal would not be reached on Monday, but after continued talks a deal was finally reached Tuesday. Regardless, the parties involved want to craft a deal and one was crafted; however the usefulness of the ensuing agreement is another story.

Iran-nuclear-decision-July-2015The Middle East is undergoing a violent shift in political order and boundaries thus making this deal about more than a future nuclear Iran. Diplomacy, even with Iran, under such auspices had to be expected. There is simply too much at stake for so many players in the region. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are understandably concerned about this impending deal and are watching developments closely. The Israelis haven’t deviated from their objection to any deal with Iran. In other venues, Riyadh has been battling Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq, but most visibly in Yemen. With such an investment its easy to gauge the Saudis concern over any deal thus making it entirely possible that several Middle Eastern states will pursue their own ends for securing their regional interests without U.S. leadership. How this deal will ultimately impact U.S.-Iranian relations is very much up in the air, but the opposition posed by Washington’s allies in the region is palpable.

The Middle East is a complicated place – more so than usual – but there has been a continuing effort by successive administrations in Washington to dissuade Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. Diplomacy has been attempted in the past by several different players only to be stymied, yet they never seem to achieve the definitive abandonment of a weapons program. This occurred with the Turkey-Brazil-Iran deal nearly six years ago. Iran once again came to the table with world powers to hash out something, anything, really that could give them some sanctions relief. As Iran takes on a greater role in financing militias in the wake of the disintegration of the Syrian and Iraqi states, Tehran needs access to international markets to make up for the increased expenses.

This new deal will eventually give them access to substantial amounts of frozen funds, but only if inspections take place without disruption. Washington, on the other hand, doesn’t want to get bogged down in another Mid East conflict over decades old rivalries. Thus, the parties came to some sort of understanding. Oddly enough, an indirect approach was pursued in 2007 by way of clumsy declassification of a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate. This NIE paved the way for the deal that was reached today, though the reasons for negotiating have changed because the region has deepened it’s defacto commitment to chaos.

On December 3, 2007, the National Intelligence Council released a National Intelligence Estimate regarding the nuclear intentions and capabilities of Iran. This NIE states that Iran suspended their nuclear weapon program in 2003 and did so in response to international pressure. The NIE further stated that the Iranians abandoned the program because the costs outweighed the benefits. Keep in mind that this was an unclassified version containing only 2 pages of actual information while the actual document was 150 pages in length. What’s more, the unclassified findings didn’t mesh with what the authors of the document intended – they didn’t know the Bush administration was going to release unclassified findings. This matters because the wording of the unclassified findings made it sound as if the Iranians abandoned their nuclear weapons pursuit entirely, rather the authors stated in testimony to congress in April of 2008 that, “When we published our NIE, we had not planned to make unclassified key judgments available to the public; therefore we wrote our estimate for a very sophisticated audience believing or understanding that they understood that in the program, it’s basically three large pieces: There is pursuit of fissile material; there is a delivery system – ballistic missiles or some other; and then there is weapons design. The only thing that the Iranians halted that we had awareness of was design of the warhead. They continue with ballistic missiles and they continue with fissile material pursuit. It was a secret program that they halted.” Iran halted their warhead design program because they had problems with their planned missile delivery system. It doesn’t make sense to design a warhead for a missile that doesn’t work, hence they stopped work.

That said, according to the IAEA in 2009, Iran worked on developing a chamber inside a ballistic missile capable of housing a warhead payload “that is quite likely to be nuclear, engaged in “probable testing” of explosives commonly used to detonate a nuclear warhead — a method known as a “full-scale hemispherical explosively driven shock system, and asked that Iran worked on developing a system “for initiating a hemispherical high explosive charge” of the kind used to help spark a nuclear blast. All these claims by the IAEA run counter to the U.S. NIE issued in 2007. Why the discrepancy?

At the time the escalation over rhetoric was heating up claiming the U.S. was preparing to strike Iranian nuclear facilities. At one point the U.S. permanently stationed two aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf as warning, but not necessarily over the nuclear program. Iran’s involvement in Iraq during the U.S. occupation was causing havoc in reaching a political accord among Iraq’s different sects. Iran wanted influence in Iraq and the U.S. wanted some sort of political stability so that it could depart. Essentially the two adversaries need a political solution and an NIE that removed some of the threat posed by Iran’s slow march to a nuclear capability. This could explain why the unclassified findings of the NIE were released without the authors knowledge. It was only after this happened that talks with Iran over its nuclear program started occurring with some regularity ultimately culminating in today’s deal. That said, the reasons for negotiating have changed for the U.S. and Iran. Other parties wanted some sort of deal to take place for their own national interests, but the real parties to watch during the negotiations were Washington and Tehran. Both nations needed to talk, but for different reasons.

As the U.S. withdrew from Iraq, Syria was in a full blown revolt. Naturally, Iran interceded covertly at first, but increased its commitment first in Syria and then in Iraq. This worried several Sunni nations so much that they started funding groups opposed to Iranian influence causing the Middle East to devolve into further violence rather rapidly. Washington wasn’t about to get involved militarily, but was under pressure to do something. This led to a renewed effort to strike a deal.

Not everyone is pleased. Saudi Arabia and Israel are naturally upset, but Assad in Syria may see an increase in funding now that Iran has some frozen funds freed up. We’ll have to see how that goes, but the region has indeed fallen along sectarian lines. This deal is new, however much of the content has been known for some time. Truth be told it is just a document and thus no guarantee of peace, though it may slow down the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. The conventional military engagements occurring across the Middle East, on the other hand, are likely to get bloodier.

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