The Cable is hearing from multiple congressional sources, diplomats, and former officials that the Obama administration is getting ready to finalize a new National Intelligence Estimate that is expected to walk back the conclusions of the 2007 report on Iran's nuclear program.
The new NIE has been expected for a while, but now seems to be close to release, perhaps within two weeks or so, according to the pervasive chatter in national-security circles this week. In addition to the expectation that the new estimate will declare that Iran is on a path toward weaponization of nuclear material, multiple sources said they are being told there will be no declassified version and only those cleared to read the full 2007 NIE (pdf) will be able to see the new version.
The Obama administration finds itself in tough situation as it pursues new sanctions against Iran both at the United Nations and using domestic levers. Many feel the administration needs to correct the record by somehow disavowing the intelligence community's controversial 2007 conclusion: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program."
The new estimate might not directly contradict that judgment, but could say that while the intelligence community has not determined that Iran has made the strategic decision to build a nuclear weapon, it is seen to be working on the components of a device -- a parsing that some would see as too clever by half.
"It's like saying that you're not building a car, but you are building the engine, the chassis, the upholstery," said one Middle East hand who had no direct knowledge about the estimate's contents. "It's a distinction without a difference."
Multiple Hill aides said they expect only a classified version with no public document; the 2007 estimate included an unclassified version. They see that move as an effort by the Obama administration not to have the new estimate unnecessarily complicate the ongoing negotiations to seek new sanctions against Iran at the U.N.
David Albright, a nuclear-weapons expert and president of the Institute of Science and International Security, said that the administration might want to avoid a lengthy and complicated public debate about the new estimate's conclusions, seeking to prevent the fractious debate that followed the release of the older estimate.
He said the nature of the estimate, which seeks to find consensus between all of the various intelligence agencies, makes it tough to give out enough information to make it bulletproof. Regardless, he lamented that the administration might not provide some of the information in a public way.
"They owe it to us to provide clarification of their position publicly," he said. "Speaking just as a citizen, I want my government to be transparent about something that could potentially involve military strikes."
Any clarification would bring the U.S. position more in line with that of with key allies like France and Germany, who have been long arguing for a stronger public position on Iran's nuclear program, according to Albright. A clarification would also help square the U.S. conclusions with the recent IAEA report on Iran that went further than previous reports in expressing concerns about weaponization, he added.
"The 2007 NIE really hurt things politically for getting sanctions and building momentum and they had to relook at this," Albright said. "Who knows if was really a mistake? It may be what they honestly believed at the time."
Any walking back of the 2007 estimate is likely to give Republicans comfort that their longstanding criticism of that report was justified.
A spokesperson for Senate Intelligence Committee ranking Republican Kit Bond, R-MO, told The Cable Bond has long argued the 2007 NIE went too far in suggesting that Iran did not intend to develop weapons.
"They may intend to, they may not, but the bottom line is that we just don't know," the spokesperson said. "Unfortunately, the NIE gave people a false security by making them think the Intelligence Community assessed there was no intent."
The NIE is compiled by the National Intelligence Council, but rollout and classification decisions are ultimately made by Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence. Blair's office declined to comment.
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John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.