The U.S. intelligence community has an abysmal track record when it comes to predicting and analyzing events in the Middle East. And it’s not just the Middle East where the intel is repeatedly faulty, just look at how the analysts miscalculated how long it would take the Taliban to overrun Afghanistan and Russia to overpower Ukraine. The problem is not only the inaccuracy of the intelligence but its politicization, which is no more apparent than in the case of Iran.
The latest example is the 2022 edition of the Annual Threat Assessment, which devotes all of three paragraphs to “nuclear issues.” The first statement in italics is astounding: “We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device.”
It goes on to contradict itself:
Iran continues to increase the size and enrichment level of its uranium stockpile beyond JCPOA limits. Iran continues to ignore restrictions on advanced centrifuge research and development and continues uranium enrichment operations at the deeply buried Fordow facility. Iran has been enriching uranium hexafluoride (UF6) up to 60 percent U-235 since April 2021, and continues to accumulate UF6 enriched up to 20 percent. The IAEA has verified that Iran is conducting uranium metal research and development, including producing laboratory-scale quantities of uranium metal-enriched up to 20 percent U-235.
In addition to its own intelligence, the administration has access to reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which have also historically been inadequate because of the agency’s inability to verify Iranian activities they are supposed to monitor, to discover secret programs (such as those Israel uncovered) or to gain Iranian cooperation to fulfill its mandate to document the history of Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA and U.S. intelligence (but, for example, not German intelligence) have also failed to document Iran’s global pursuit of nuclear technology.
Despite its failings, even the IAEA disclosed more about Iran’s progress towards developing a bomb than the NIE. According to the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) analysis of the latest IAEA report (March 3), Iran has enough enriched uranium to make four nuclear weapons and that “breakout timelines have become dangerously short.” Iran can now produce enough weapons-grade uranium for two bombs in two to three weeks after breakout. “In essence,” ISIS noted, “Iran is effectively breaking out slowly by producing 60 percent enriched uranium and continuing to accumulate it.”
The ISIS report concluded: “The IAEA has a significantly reduced ability to monitor Iran’s complex and growing nuclear program, which notably has unresolved nuclear weapons dimensions. The IAEA’s ability to detect diversion of nuclear materials, equipment and other capabilities to undeclared facilities remains greatly diminished” (ISIS, March 4).
It is also disturbing that U.S. President Joe Biden is hell-bent on easing sanctions on Iran even as the assessment says Iran is targeting the United States:
Iran also remains committed to developing networks inside the United States—an objective it has pursued for more than a decade. Iranian-supported proxies will launch attacks against U.S. forces and persons in Iraq and Syria, and perhaps on other countries and regions. Iran has threatened to retaliate against former and current U.S. officials for the killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) Commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, and has previously attempted to conduct lethal operations in the United States (emphasis in the original).
To prove the point, Iran launched a missile attack on March 13, just a few weeks after the NIE was released. By failing to retaliate, Biden reinforced his image in the region as a weak leader who cannot be trusted to protect either American interests or those of its allies.
Without the vast resources of the intelligence community, I could have written the NIE’s conclusions that:
Iran remains a threat to Israel, both directly through its missile forces and indirectly through its support of Lebanese Hizballah and other terrorist groups.
Iran will remain a problematic actor across the region with its backing of Iraqi Shia militias, which is the primary threat to U.S. personnel in Iraq. Iran’s economically and militarily propping up of a rogue Syrian regime, and spreading instability across Yemen through its support to the Huthis—including a range of advanced military systems—also pose a threat to U.S. partners and interests, including Saudi Arabia (emphasis in the original).
The 2022 NIE is not the first time the intelligence community downplayed Iran’s pursuit of a bomb. The 2017 NIE also concluded Iran “remains an enduring threat to U.S. national interests.” It stated that the nuclear deal “extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about a year.” What former President Barack Obama and other supporters of the deal have avoided explaining is why this was necessary if they didn’t believe Iran wanted to build a bomb. That NIE acknowledged Iran was developing ballistic missiles, which Obama left out of the agreement (as Biden is doing), even though “Iran’s ballistic missiles are inherently capable of delivering WMD” and “Tehran’s desire to deter the United States might drive it to field an intercontinental ballistic missile,” which the intelligence community already knew was an Iranian goal.
Ten years earlier, the 2007 NIE was portrayed in the media as an indication that the Bush administration was falsely and hysterically whipping up opposition against a non-existent Iranian nuclear-weapons program to impose draconian sanctions on Iran and possibly justify military intervention. The finding that received the most publicity was that Iran halted its nuclear-weapons program in 2003 and America’s spy agencies believed the program was frozen. The report also said Iran was not expected to have the capability to build a weapon until the middle of the next decade. Other nations immediately expressed skepticism of the NIE. The leaders of Great Britain, France and Germany voiced their concerns based on their own independent evaluations of Iranian capabilities and intentions. French Foreign Minister Hervé Morin, for example, stated, “Coordinated information from a number of intelligence services leads us to believe that Iran has not given up its wish to pursue its (nuclear) program,” and is “continuing to develop [it]” (Agence France-Presse, Feb. 1, 2008).
Obama’s advisers subsequently repudiated the 2007 conclusions. CIA Director Leo Panetta said the United States suspected Iran had enough low-enriched uranium for two weapons in June 2010. Panetta also said Iran had “problems with regards to their ability to develop enrichment.” Elana DeLozier noted, however, that when talks began with Europe in 2003, “Iran was enriching uranium to under 5 %, but by the time the JCPOA talks rolled around in 2015, that figure had increased to 19.75%.” Today, they are enriching at 60% and are believed to have the capability to reach the 90% purity needed for a bomb.
Biden is taking a page out of the Obama playbook and circumventing Congress to make a deal he knows would be rejected if it was submitted—as it should be—as a treaty.
Iran is playing Biden for a fool as they did Obama, knowing he needs a deal and is willing to capitulate to Iranian demands to get it. As it did with Obama, Iran expects to get sanctions relief by making promises it has no intention of keeping. Biden can’t worry about that because he needs Iranian oil back on the market to bring down gas prices before they tank (forgive the pun) the economy, his party and his presidency.
I wrote as recently as 2018 that the Iranians must be disabused of the notion that time is on their side, and that can only be done through diplomatic, economic and military action. Trump failed to do what was necessary and left Iran at the nuclear threshold. Biden is prepared to allow Iran to remain there. Nevertheless, he will declare victory and, in the next NIE, his intelligence officials will inevitably echo Obama’s false claim that the deal cut off every path to a nuclear bomb.
Meanwhile, Iran will continue its pursuit of a bomb.
Politicians whose careers will last beyond 2024 will do well to remember the Middle East adage: “A man who gains his revenge after 40 years is acting in haste.”
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including “The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews” and “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”