Earlier this week, Israeli media headlined that "'Mossad, CIA agree Iran has yet to decide to build nuclear weapon." The story went on to say that "New York Times report quotes senior American officials who believe there is little disagreement between Israeli and U.S. intelligence over Iran's nuclear program, despite calls for a strike by Israeli officials."
For some time we have known that Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad intelligence agency, has taken the unusual step for someone with his access, information, and prestige, to speak publicly and forcefully about his opposition to a preemptive Israeli strike against Iran. Among his comments: "the stupidest idea you've ever heard." He has also said that there is a lot of time left to try other things.
Dagan has not shocked Israelis. We have been exposed to debate in the media, among commentators and politicians familiar with security and intelligence, as well as by individuals who used to hold senior positions in the military and other security services.
Perhaps we have been jaded by discussions going on for a decade or more.
Dagan is not alone in opposing a strike in the near term, but it is not possible to say that his posture is dominant. And there certainly is not enough information available to us commoners--or perhaps to those who know everything there is to know--to conclude who is right about what the Iranians are doing, and what should be done by Israel and/or the United States.
The New York Times article which sparked this latest uptick in the continuing Israeli discussion, is itself an epic example of uncertainty.
Its headline expresses the message of the article, "U.S. Faces a Tricky Task in Assessment of Data on Iran." It describes a variety of technologies available to the United States, reports changing assessments of Iranian intentions over the last decade, and admits to a profound lack of reliable human intelligence. That is, no spies on the ground whose reports are useful, or defectors and Iranian opposition figures who American officials feel are trustworthy. The article reports about American intelligence personnel who express
"confidence in the spy agencies' assertions (that the Iranians have not yet decided to build a bomb). Still, some acknowledge significant intelligence gaps in understanding the intentions of Iran's leaders and whether they would approve the crucial steps toward engineering a bomb. . . . officials caution that they cannot offer certainty. 'I'd say that I have about 75 percent confidence in the assessment that they haven't restarted the program,' said one former senior intelligence official."
The article's report about the Mossad's agreement is not detailed, and relies on the statements of American personnel who express their view of what is thought by Mossad personnel.
So where are we?
Who knows where we are?
The New York Times article that has sparked this latest flurry of commentary says more about American intelligence operations than intelligence about Iran, and perhaps even more about the New York Times.
Is a 75 percent assessment of reliability good enough when the folks who may be putting together the ingredients of a bomb already have missiles that can reach where I'm sitting?
Last month another New York Times item indicated that American intelligence analysts were reporting that there is "no hard evidence that Iran has decided to build a nuclear bomb." By some media reports, analysts were talking about "absolute certainty" as a standard for concluding that Iran is intent on nuclear weapons.
Well, what is it? 75 percent reliability, "hard evidence," or "absolute certainty?" To me, there seems to be enough fuzziness in the analyses to allow the preferences of politicians (e.g., Barack Obama) to affect what the analysts announce, or how the individuals who make the important decisions interpret their reports.
Also troubling is how intelligence analysts take account, if they do, that the individuals at the peak of the Iranian government deny the Holocaust? This question doesn't concern Jewish sensitivities about the Holocaust as much as it concerns the mental processes of Iranian leaders. Are the messages perceived from authorities who deny history as reliable as messages perceived from ordinary individuals?
And what is meant by not deciding to produce a weapon? This is a crucial difference between Benyamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama. Does it mean deciding to create all the ingredients but not yet deciding about actually doing the work that may take a month, a week, or more or less for the final assembly? Does it mean a more complete decision about not constructing a weapon or its components? Or does it mean that American and Israeli officials do not know for sure whether or not such decisions have been made?
Even more recent than reports described above is an article given prominence in the New York Times web site, and in Israeli media.
"A classified war simulation held this month to assess the repercussions of an Israeli attack on Iran forecasts that the strike would lead to a wider regional war, which could draw in the United States and leave hundreds of Americans dead, according to American officials. . . . Their analysis, however, also includes the broad caveat that it is impossible to know the internal thinking of the senior Iranian leadership, and is informed by the awareness that even the most detailed war games cannot predict how nations and their leaders will react in the heat of conflict."
I doubt that anyone making key decisions in Israel or the United States wants to start a war prematurely, with who knows what human costs and implications for the world economy. But at what point does premature turn into too late?
Nothing I have seen allows me to define that point, or gives me great confidence that intelligence communities, the New York Times, Israeli media personalities, or reigning politicians know just where that point is, or how close or distant are key decision-makers in Iran from that point..