Jewish leaders this week feared a collapse of the international consensus for sanctions against Iran after the release Monday of a National Intelligence Estimate concluding Iran had shut its nuclear weapons program down in 2003.
Disarray was evident as Jewish groups struggled to assimilate the new report and adjust their tactics in response.
“It will have an enormous impact because people will use it as an excuse to do nothing,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project, a group that has made Iran a top priority.
Mizrahi argued that the threat of Iran has not changed, but that it will be harder to convince an already-doubtful world of its reality in the wake of the intelligence bombshell.
“I’m sure it was
like ‘Ambien’ for Ahmadinejad,” she said, referring to the popular sleep medication. “It helps him sleep better at night because it is much harder for the world to say serious action has to be taken in Iran when U.S. intelligence officials are saying there is no Iranian nuclear weapons program.”
Jewish groups have pushed for a tough international response to Iran’s nuclear weapons program for the last several years. Now, the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) has concluded that Iran has not had one for four years.
The report’s stunning conclusions, a U-turn from previous intelligence estimates, prompted anxiety in Jerusalem about a possible shift in U.S. policy and sent Bush administration officials scrambling to shore up the international coalition opposing Iran’s nuclear quest.
“We’ve gone from saying Iran is engaged in an active nuclear weapons program to saying such a program hasn’t existed since 2003,” said Martin Raffel, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). “Obviously, this is a fundamental shift in the landscape; there’s no way around that.”
Added Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League,
“Nobody at this stage has been talking about anything but diplomatic and economic approaches to Iran. Those approaches were validated by this report. The idea of letting up on the pressure makes no sense in light of the report’s conclusions.”
But Hordes said the report will “create problems” in ongoing U.S. efforts to tighten international sanctions on Iran.
Still Enriching Uranium
The report, he said, makes it clear that Iran is moving ahead on nuclear enrichment — the hardest part of developing nuclear weapons.
“There have been some who have argued all along that the smart thing for Ian to do would be to hold off on weaponization, while continuing to produce fissile material,” he said.
So even if Iran suspended the weapons development program in 2003, its continuing quest for highly enriched uranium could eventually provide the materials for quickly assembling a working bomb, he said.
The furor quickly took on political overtones, with some Democratic leaders charging that the White House knew of the skeptical analysis but suppressed the information even as President Bush was warning that the Iranian program could lead to World War III.
In public, Jewish leaders argued that the report just confirmed that the approach favored by most Jewish groups – increasing diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran – has worked, and that it needs to continue until leaders in Tehran comply fully with international rules on nuclear development.
But in private, many say the dramatic turnabout will inevitably undercut efforts to reinforce an already porous international coalition and make it harder to maintain vigilance against a nation that has threatened to wipe Israel off the map.
The declassified intelligence report also effectively ends the possibility of U.S. military action against Iran for the immediate future and adds huge new complications to any Israeli attack.
The NIE “takes war off the table for now,” said Geoffrey Kemp, director of regional strategic programs at the Nixon Center, at a Tuesday program sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The report produced an angry response from some Israeli leaders, who say their own intelligence confirms that Iran is still developing nuclear weapons.
“This conclusion is in total contradiction to what we know; the text itself is contradictory,” said Knesset member Ephraim Sneh, a leading Israeli voice warning about the Israeli threat.
“What’s grave about this report is that it will be used by those who want an appeasement policy toward Iran while the facts are totally different,” he said in a meeting with reporters with New York. “For years I’ve warned that at the end of the day Israel will have to face this threat alone; this report makes me more confident I was right.”
Speaking to Israel Army Radio, Defense Minister Ehud Barak disputed the report’s core conclusions.
“It is apparently true that in 2003 Iran stopped pursuing its military nuclear program for a certain period of time,” he said. “But in our estimation, since then it is apparently continuing with its program to produce a nuclear weapon.”
Yuval Steinitz, a Likud Knesset member and member of the defense and foreign affairs committee, said called the report “odd” and “inconsistent with everything I knew so far and I still know. To tell you the truth, I think there are logical fallacies in it. It seems inconsistent that the Iranians are still developing their enrichment project and on the other hand, they stopped their effort to build nuclear weapons… Once you have enough nuclear material you are two steps to a weapon.”
The aggressive Iranian missile program is also a tip-off that Iran plans to acquire nuclear weapons, he said.
But the Washington Post reported on Wednesday that the dramatic shift came after greatly stepped up clandestine intelligence gathering and increased coordination among agencies in response to the intelligence community’s mistakes on Iraq.
The report, contradicting previous U.S. intelligence estimates, concluded that Iran gave up its nuclear weapons program in 2003 “primarily in response to international pressure.”
That, the intelligence officials concluded, means “Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously.”
The report notes that “Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so,” including its civilian uranium enrichment program, and that “since fall 2003, Iran has been conducting research and development projects with commercial and conventional military applications — some of which would also be of limited use for nuclear weapons.”
But it also concludes “with moderate confidence” that “Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.”
Buying Time For Sanctions
That was hardly sufficient to calm Israeli fears, but it clearly changed the political landscape for those groups seeking to increase the pressure on Iran.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), chair of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on terrorism, said “it doesn’t matter much whether Iran has made progress in bomb making. If they get highly enriched uranium, they’re going to get the bomb.”
But he said the new assessment buys time for tightened sanctions to work — “if we don’t squander the time.”
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby group that led the charge for Iran sanctions, reacted cautiously.
The report is a “clarion call for additional and continued efforts to pressure Iran, economically and politically, to end its illicit nuclear programs,” said AIPAC spokesman Josh Block “The NIE… raises the possibility that Iran could manufacture enough (highly enriched uranium” for a weapon as soon as 2009, underscoring the urgency of further diplomatic action today in order to stop Iran before it is too late.”
At a Tuesday press conference President Bush seemed to agree, saying that the report does not let Iran off the hook.
“Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous, and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon,” he said. “The NIE says that Iran had a hidden — a covert nuclear weapons program. That’s what it said. What’s to say they couldn’t start another covert nuclear weapons program?”
He also said the report does not preclude U.S. military action.
“The best diplomacy, effective diplomacy, is one in which all options are on the table,” Bush said.
But there was a broad consensus among Jewish leaders that the report all but eliminates the possibility of a U.S. military strike before Bush leaves office in 2009 — and make any Israeli military action far more problematic.
The report makes an Israeli military strike “more difficult, at least in the short term,” said Robert Lieber, a professor of government at Georgetown University. Any Israeli attack would require significant U.S. cooperation; this week’s report could make such cooperation politically awkward for Washington.
Most Jewish analysts said that while they disagreed with aspects of the report, they did not regard it as tainted by politics.
Shoshana Bryen, special projects director for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), raised the possibility Iran might not be actively pursuing nuclear weapons in a Jewish Week story earlier this year. Asked about the accuracy of this week’s report she said it “is generally considered a reflection of the real views of the assortment of intelligence agencies.”
But she added “they have been wrong in the past.”
Accurately assessing the nuclear aspirations of a country like Iran is especially hard, she said, because of limited on-the-ground intelligence — and because leaders often exaggerate their progress in weapons development for political reasons. n