US intel chief says no Iran nukes possible before 2013

A declassified memo from a briefing US intelligence chief Dennis Blair gave in February sheds light on how the US views Iran, Al Qaeda, and Afghanistan.

Iran will probably not have the technical ability to produce enough fuel to make a nuclear bomb before 2013, US Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told a senate intelligence committee earlier this year.

He also said that he's seen no evidence Iran is seeking to make fuel for a bomb, and that international scrutiny appears to be deterring such efforts.

The American intelligence community's views on Iran's nuclear program, progress in Afghanistan, and the extent of Al Qaeda's operational abilities were all addressed in a 40- page series of answers that Mr. Blair delivered to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on February 12.

But only now has it become public.

The document was released to Steven Aftergood, who runs the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists following a Freedom of Information Act request. (A PDF to the full document can be found at this link.)

On Iran's nuclear program, Blair relied on the assessment of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) to say that Iran does not yet have the technical ability to produce the highly enriched uranium (HEU) it would need for a bomb.

"INR continues to assess it is unlikely that Iran will have the technical capability to produce HEU before 2013,'' the memo reads.
Blair said that if Iran decides to make highly enriched uranium that it would probably use "military-run covert facilities, rather than declared nuclear sites" and that "outfitting a covert enrichment infrastructure could take years. The (intelligence community) has no evidence that Iran has yet made the decision to produce highly enriched uranium, and INR assesses that Iran is unlikely to make such a decision for at least as long as international scrutiny and pressure persist."

Why Iran backs the Taliban

Blair says in the report that Iran's "policy calculation in Afghanistan currently emphasizes lethal support to the Taliban, even though revelation of this activity could threaten its future relationship with the Afghan government and its historic allies within Afghanistan."

Iran is a Shiite theocracy and the Taliban is militant Sunni movement which views Shiites as apostates that should be executed. Blair says Iran has made uneasy common cause with them because "Iran is primarily concerned with preserving its national security and undermining Western influence in Afghanistan."

Similarly, Blair says that Iran has been a provider of "training, weapons, and money to Hamas since the 2006 Palestinian elections." Hamas is the Islamist (Sunni) Palestinian movement that now controls the Gaza strip.

Here's a summary from other bits the memo that caught my eye.

Al Qaeda's 20-year plan

Blair said, not surprisingly, that Al Qaeda "remains intent on attacking the US." He said the FBI was investigating people presumably in the US who have "ties to militants in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a region that Al Qa'ida, the Taliban and other militant groups have been able to exploit as a safe haven and use as a training ground."

He said that Al Qaeda will seek to attack US interests for the next 20 years, though he adds that "sustained pressure against al-Qa'ida central in (Pakistan's tribal areas), however, will diminish the group's safe haven and thereby its ability to plan external operations."

He said that while Al Qaeda would like to acquire a chemical, biological, or nuclear weapon, that a "conventional explosive is the most probably al-Qa'ida attack scenario."

Afghanistan's growing insurgency

Blair's memo says of Afghanistan that "the insurgency has steadily grown since the Taliban's ouster in late-2001." He hints that a draw-down of US forces is far off, pointing out that Afghan's army and police "remain heavily dependent on Coalition support and international funding. Recruitment, retention, and equipment shortages negatively affect efforts to sustain growth."

He reports "widespread corruption" in the national police and "the limited ability of the Afghan government to provide good governance contributes to the insurgency goals of discrediting the legitimacy of the government."

The 11 percent solution?

The memo highlights the reliance of the Afghan government on foreign aid. In an annual budget of $7.6 billion only $870 million, or 11 percent, is generated by Afghanistan. The remainder is foreign aid. But that aid burden could grow if the insurgency is to be defeated, he implies. At the time of his report, Afghanistan had 83,000 soldiers in its Army. The military's counterinsurgency strategy needs 325,000 to win the war, he notes, which would require a quadrupling of Afghanistan's defense expenditure.

Not much help from Pakistan

As for help from Pakistan, he indicates that it's been difficult getting the country's leaders on the same page with the US and its NATO allies.

"Al-Qaida and associated groups continue to thrive in the (tribal areas) in spite of government counterinsurgency efforts in 2008. Pakistan's leaders seem intent on maintaining support for counterterrorism and counterinsurgency goals, but within the confines of Pakistan's national interests. Pakistan's actions indicate Islamabad conitnues to prioritize defending against perceived threats from India over the increasing threat emanating from the tribal areas."

His memo expresses some frustration with Pakistan operations against militants in its tribal areas. "Military operations in 2008 were on a larger scale than in previous years, but have had the same mixed results – short-term disruptions to militant activities ultimately ending in peace agreements which seem to benefit militants more than government interests."

Blair seems to indicate that while the US intelligence community is worried about Pakistani stability, that it does not think a collapse is imminent. "The military, primarily the Army, serves as the instrument of last resort in managing unrest and would intervene to help restore order in the event that social upheaval threatened to exceed the ability of local police and security forces to control."

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