The findings of the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) which state "with high confidence" that Iran halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003 clearly represent a major set-back to those arguing for military intervention against Iran in the coming months. However, if unchallenged, it is possible that the report might strengthen the case for military action against Iran in the coming years. By recognising that Iran has no current nuclear weapons programme the findings undermine the central argument of those arguing for tougher sanctions and precipitant military strikes. But the claim that Iran had a nuclear weapons programme in the past not only allows that Iran has breached its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but also that it could restart its weaponisation programme at any moment. To welcome this intelligence as wholly accurate is to concede the much disputed question of whether Iran has ever had a nuclear weapons programme.
Whilst the culminative findings of 16 intelligence agencies cannot be ignored, it is difficult to treat the findings with full confidence after the failings of these same agencies that preceded the invasion of Iraq. The report is also compromised by the fact that the 2005 NIE found "with high confidence" that Iran was intent on developing nuclear weapons. A more reliable source of intelligence would surely be the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), the only international authority qualified to study Iran’s nuclear dossier. The IAEA were accurate in their assessment of Iraq’s WDM capacity in 2003 and they are continuing to conduct exhaustive inspections on all of Iran’s nuclear enrichment sites. Despite nearly 3,000 person-hours of inspections, the IAEA have found no evidence, past or present, that Iran has diverted its nuclear programme to military purposes.
Whilst we should be glad that this intelligence on the absence of WMDs in Iran has surfaced now rather than being discovering it in the aftermath of a military attack as was the case with Iraq, we should not think that this alone will stall those intent on military intervention against Iran. Although weakened, the neo-Conservative case for military strikes on Iran is not dependent on the existence of a nuclear weapons programme. The concept that Iran might develop weapons at some point in the future, combined with accusations that Tehran is supporting terrorists in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and has threatened Israel could yet be used to establish a causis belli.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has recently been put on the US list of "terrorist organisations" and Iran has been accused repeatedly of supplying weapons and intelligence to terrorists in Iran. Despite these accusations, no evidence has been produced to demonstrate a definite link between the Iranian government and insurgent or terrorist groups. Indeed General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted at a Pentagon news conference this year that he had no evidence of the Iranian government sending any military equipment into Iraq and US commanders in Iraq suggest Iran is now limiting the flow of weapons to Shia militias.
The claim that Iran has threatened “to wipe Israel off the face of the map” has been repeated so often that it has almost become received wisdom. However the much mistranslated Farsi phrase used by President Amadinejad was “Imam ghoft een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad.” This translates directly as “The Imam said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time. This statement is very wise”. Whatever the interpretation of this translation, “a regime vanishing from the page of time” is very different from a threat to wipe a nation off the map.
Much of the debate is now centring on how long it might take for Iran to produce a nuclear weapon should she be intent to do so. The NIE suggests if she were to ‘restart’ her weaponisation programme, Iran might be able to produce warheads by 2010 or 2015. There is little dispute that Iran’s current low-level uranium enrichment is barely adequate for reactor fuel, let alone the highly enriched uranium necessary for a nuclear weapon. It is also agreed that Iran’s 3,000 centrifuges are running far below capacity and there are problems with contaminated feedstock. But arguments about the possible timeline for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapons capacity become academic if we ensure the continued Iranian cooperation with the IAEA and their inspections regime. Novembers’ report by the IAEA states that all of the enriched uranium produced to date "remains under Agency containment and surveillance" and there is no suggestion of a covert weaponisation programme.
Whilst the NIE report does not fit neatly into the Bush/Cheney plan for building a case for military intervention against Iran, it might still be used to their advantage. A consensus of opinion that Iran had a secret nuclear weaponisation programme in the past which could be restarted at any time, combined with predictions that Iran could manufacture a nuclear warhead within the space of 2 years could be used to justify attacks. The NIE reports suggestions that Iran had a nuclear weapons programme should be treated with a degree of scepticism and debates around hypothetical timelines should not be allowed to distract us from the important task of diffusing this dangerous standoff between those intent on military intervention and an Iranian government determined not to back down from its legitimate enrichment activities.
Founded in London in 2006 the Westminster Committee on Iran is an independent cross-party committee which aims to increase dialogue and understanding between Tehran and British parliamentarians and with a view to preventing military intervention against Iran.
Chair, Westminster Committee on Iran