Intelligence Chief Reshapes Iran NIE

This week's Annual Threat Assessment appearance on Capitol Hill by Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, seemed to stand in contrast to two months ago, when the public version of a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran blew up a policy storm with its conclusion—in spite of heated rhetoric to the contrary—that Iran had halted its work on how to design and build a nuclear warhead way back in 2003. It was as though the lyrics were much the same as in the recent past, but the tone of the music had darkened noticeably.

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This week's Annual Threat Assessment appearance on Capitol Hill by Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, seemed to stand in contrast to two months ago, when the public version of a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran blew up a policy storm with its conclusion—in spite of heated rhetoric to the contrary—that Iran had halted its work on how to design and build a nuclear warhead way back in 2003.

It was as though the lyrics were much the same as in the recent past, but the tone of the music had darkened noticeably.

The initial release of the NIE created a huge political and diplomatic problem for the Bush administration just as it was attempting to galvanize international support for an additional round of U.N. economic sanctions against Iran. In Washington, it was pilloried by hard-liners—some in and some outside the administration—and slammed by a variety of former nonproliferation and intelligence officials as misleading and badly constructed.

So last week, when McConnell got to the Iran file, the NIE's findings seemed to be repackaged in a way that emphasized a sense of undiminished threat and suspicion of Iran's long-term nuclear ambitions. McConnell stressed what many critics said the December NIE should have—that Iran, albeit under international monitoring, continues to move forward on the single most important part of attaining a nuclear-weapons capability: learning how to enrich uranium. The intel chief also focused on Tehran's efforts to perfect and deploy ballistic missiles that would be able to reach North Africa and Europe.

McConnell suggested that Iran "is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons." And for those who—to the administration's dismay—found solace in the NIE's conclusion on Iran's halt to weaponization efforts, he offered this warning: "In our judgment, only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons—and such a decision is inherently reversible."

Whoever thought the NIE was the final word on the subject appears to have been wrong.

—Thomas Omestad