I’ve been writing all week about the 2007 NIE that alleges Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. I see it as a mostly problematic document that throws up a great deal of fog on a very important question, though there are at least two positive aspects to it. Namely, if the Iranians really did halt the weapons side of their nuclear program, that’s good and a reflection that the use of force in Iraq won us two additional victories against rogue states in Libya and Iran. Second, we may have penetrated the upper echelons of Iran’s nuclear program. We’ve hinted as much, which may have some benefits.

That said, the NIE itself has spawned deeply negative reaction from John Bolton, a mind I trust on matters like these, and Alan Dershowitz, who I usually find annoying but who does tend to get national security questions right more often than wrong.

The recent national intelligence estimate that concluded that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 is just about the stupidest intelligence assessment I have ever read. It falls hook, line and sinker for a transparent bait and switch tactic employed not only by Iran, but by several other nuclear powers in the past.

The tactic is obvious and well-known to all intelligence officials with an IQ above room temperature. It goes like this: There are two tracks to making nuclear weapons: One is to conduct research and develop technology directly related to military use. That is what the United States did when it developed the atomic bomb during the Manhattan Project. The second track is to develop nuclear technology for civilian use and then to use the civilian technology for military purposes.

What every intelligence agency knows is that the most difficult part of developing weapons corresponds precisely to the second track, namely civilian use. In other words, it is relatively simple to move from track 2 to track 1 in a short period of time.

To me that argument carries a Captain Obvious quality about it, but it’s evidently not so obvious that any liberal other than Dershowitz has made it. They would rather accuse President Bush of lying, when the simple fact of the matter is that even when the president first learned of the new information that formed this NIE, he couldn’t publicly alter his rhetoric on the issue without inviting immediate scrutiny. The new information wasn’t verified yet. It would have been irresponsible to change course until the information had been verified, and until the NIE had been put together. And in any regard, the NIE itself only says with “high confidence” that the Iranians suspended their weapons program in 2003. Whether the program remains suspended gets the “moderate confidence” tag, which is pretty much a coin flip. And in addition to that, Iran is still running 3,000 centrifuges, it’s still building a heavy reactor at Arak and it is still enriching uranium all in the name of civilian energy, a curious use of funds for a state that rests on a massive reserve of oil. And Iran continues to threaten to wipe Israel off the map, an act that would presumably require nuclear weapons to pull off. The NIE doesn’t say that all of that isn’t a threat.

Returning to Dershowitz:

Whatever the agenda and whatever the motive this report may well go down in history as one of the most dangerous, misguided and counterproductive intelligence assessments in history. It may well encourage the Iranians to move even more quickly in developing nuclear weapons. If the report is correct in arguing that the only way of discouraging Iran from developing nuclear weapons is to maintain international pressure, then the authors of the report must surely know that they have single-handedly reduced any incentive by the international community to keep the pressure up.

I think that’s right and will be the effect of releasing this NIE. It has historically been very difficult to get other states to go along with us in putting a collar on rogues like Iran. We bark like the watchdog that we are and the rest of the world just wants to go back to sleep. This NIE probably won’t move the EU-3 much, but it does give the Chinese and particularly the Russians the excuse they may have been looking for to back away from sanctioning Iran. This is particularly useful for the Russians, as they have been selling nuclear technology to Iran for years.

Update (AP): The public’s not impressed with the NIE either, something the GOP must realize or else they wouldn’t be out on a limb pushing for a second look at the intel. Adm. Mullen’s going to Israel this weekend to see what they’ve got on the shelf.