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Capitol Hill tries to fathom Iran intelligence

What didn’t come through in Tuesday's headlines was that there was plenty in the new intelligence estimate that indicated Iran could sooner or later build nuclear weapons.
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Members of Congress tried to figure out Tuesday how to respond to the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released Monday which said that “Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program” in 2003.

The previous NIE, in 2005, said Iran was “determined to develop nuclear weapons.”

On one level, the congressional reaction was hurt feelings and puzzlement that the Bush administration hadn’t given a heads-up to key players in Congress.

Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., indicated by their comments that they felt crossed-up.

“I was on a show Sunday on CNN and made some comments about Iran which I believed were true and basically are true, but I would have made them more conditional, more qualified had I known there was change coming,” Levin told reporters.

If the spy agencies had known last month that a change was coming, they should have alerted him and other chairmen, Levin said.

Graham he was “perplexed" and "a lot confused” by the NIE change since 2005. “It makes no sense to me that (after) what I’ve been saying about my view of the Iranian nuclear program, no one said, ‘whoa, time out, wait a minute.’”

What will the next NIE say?
Just as this week’s NIE reversed the previous one, the next one could be a change from this one.

Levin said, “They [the Iranians] could change their intention, as assessed by the NIE, at any time.”

In other words, six months from now, the Tehran regime could decide to restart its nuclear weapons program.

What didn’t come through in the headlines was that there was plenty in the new NIE that said Iran could sooner or later build nuclear weapons.

And “later” could mean during the next president’s term.

According to the intelligence agencies:

  • "Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons."
  • "We do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons."
  • "Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU (highly enriched uranium) for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame."
  • "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…."
  • "We do not have sufficient intelligence to judge confidently whether Tehran is willing to maintain the halt of its nuclear weapons program indefinitely…."

Democratic presidential contender Sen. Barack Obama mocked President Bush after the president said at his press conference Tuesday morning that “Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous, and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.”

”This administration and President Bush continue to not let facts get in the way of his ideology,” Obama said.

But Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., Chairwoman of the Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Intelligence, who read the full classified version of the NIE Tuesday, used wording not different from Bush when she said, “Iran remains a very dangerous place. It has a very advanced missile capability…. We have to be very watchful.”

Harman, like other Democrats, would still like U.S. envoys to be talking to the Iranian government.

Harman supports Sen. Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination.

Out in Iowa, at an NPR debate, Clinton’s rivals Obama, John Edwards, and Sen. Chris Dodd picked up the nearest convenient weapon as a stick with which to beat Clinton.

The stick was the Kyl-Lieberman resolution that she and 28 other Senate Democrats voted for in September, which had to do not with Iran’s nuclear intentions, but with the role of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard inside Iraq in abetting attacks on American soldiers.

Siding with Bush was damning in itself, according to Clinton's rivals, despite the fact that most Senate Democrats had agreed with Clinton on the Iran vote, not with Obama, Edwards, and Dodd.

"The Iranians were supplying weapons that killed Americans," Clinton said in the NPR debate.

She said in an Oct. 30 debate, "Iran is seeking nuclear weapons and the Iran Revolutionary Guard is in the forefront of that, as they are in the sponsorship of terrorism."

Is the NIE politicized?
A question raised at Bush’s White House press conference Tuesday was if the Bush administration has politicized intelligence all along, why should Monday’s estimate be any more reliable?

ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz put it this way in her query to Bush: “Why should you trust this intelligence if it's different than 2005? Why should we trust it any more?”

Having read the complete classified version of the NIE, Harman had this answer: The new estimate is “much more professional and thorough a job than most prior NIE’s.” There has been a “dramatic improvement in quality… in terms of what their sourcing is.”

Finally, even if one believed that the president had no credibility on this matter, Obama had agreed with him as recently as March that Iran was dangerous.

So the NIE wrong-footed Obama, too — that is, if anyone cared to remember what Obama had said back in March.

“The world must work to stop Iran’s uranium enrichment program and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It is far too dangerous to have nuclear weapons in the hands of a radical theocracy,” he argued.

“And while we should take no option, including military action, off the table, sustained and aggressive diplomacy combined with tough sanctions should be our primary means to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.”

Forty-three years ago, another regime — seen at the time as wild-eyed and revolutionary, as Iran's Ahmadinejad is today — was about to test a nuclear bomb.

Flanked by two nuclear-armed powers, as Iran is today, China decided to test its own nuclear bomb in October 1964.

A problem with pre-emptive attack
State Department officials had considered a preemptive attack on China in the spring of 1964, but said one, “the United States cannot have full assurance that its action will have eliminated the ChiCom capability… We have no certainty, even now, that we have identified all nuclear production facilities.”

And, wrote State Department planner Robert Johnson, “Even with complete destruction, the Chinese could, assuming they mastered the nuclear art, reconstruct their nuclear capability in say, four or five years.”

This was written on June 1, 1964 but could have been written last year or last month.

Due to Iraq and the new more benign NIE, the preemptive option seems now more remote than it was in 1964.