What Do We Know About Iran and When Do We Know It?

Posted January 14th, 2011 at 6:37 pm (UTC+0)
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Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense under former President George W. Bush, once had a lot of people in Washington scratching their heads in puzzlement when he described how the U.S. sizes up a potential military adversary:

“As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know,” Rumsfeld said on Feb. 1, 2002

What the former defense secretary was saying – in his convoluted and inimitable way – is that there is vast uncertainty in sizing up a potential adversary.  And although he was talking about Iraq at the time, his words apply equally to the murky state of knowledge about Iran and its nuclear intentions.

U.S. intelligence officials believe Iran has not yet decided to move ahead with making nuclear weapons, and that there is intense, ongoing debate inside the Iranian leadership on the issue.  A senior U.S. official – who asked not to be identified in order to discuss sensitive matters – says that “even if they have the items in the pantry, they haven’t yet decided to put them together.”

But Israeli officials, who have been sounding the alarm about Iranian nuclear efforts, still contend that, contrary to the U.S. judgment, Iran is moving full steam ahead in nuclear weapons work.

The idea that Iran has not yet decided to make nukes is not a new one.  It was in the controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which reflects the collective judgment of the U.S. intelligence community.  Proponents of military action against Iran derided the estimate as flawed, whereas opponents saw it as a reasoned judgment.  The latest estimates stick to that earlier call.

That there has been a slowdown in Iranian nuclear work seems pretty certain in intelligence circles – a “known known,” by Mr. Rumsfeld’s definition.  But Iran is believe to still be some ways away from actually being able to construct nuclear weapons.  Even the outgoing chief of Mossad, Israel’s spy agency,  said recently Iran will not be able to build a bomb until 2015.  Some analysts attribute that to the effectiveness of international sanctions.  “Sanctions are having a real effect on Iran at the moment, and you’ve got to wonder if you’re an Iranian official if it’s really worth it over the long haul to proceed with a weapons program, ” said the U.S. official.  Other analysts say covert efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear efforts are also having an effect.

Nailing down whether the Iranian leadership is still hedging its bets on its nuclear ambitions is difficult.  Intentions are tougher to gauge than capabilities.  As anybody in the intelligence business will tell you, it’s much easier to tell if someone has a missile then to know what they plan to do with it.

If you’ve ever played poker, you know what going “all in” means – putting everything you have into one single hand of cards.  Whether Iran has decided to go all in or not, it is playing for very high stakes indeed.

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About this blog

Gary Thomas

Gary Thomas is VOA senior correspondent and news analyst. He has spent more than 30 years covering a wide range of stories on political developments, war, and civil unrest. From 1990 to 1994 he was VOA’s bureau chief in Islamabad, and has made numerous trips back to the region since then. He was also Southeast Asia bureau chief in Bangkok from 1996-2001. He is now based in Washington, providing background and analysis on issues of intelligence, security, and terrorism for VOA’s worldwide audience.

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