The Iranian Test of Probability

Israel is moderately confident that in the current circumstances President Bush has lost his ability to act with the necessary determination.

WASHINGTON - The United States National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) ranks its findings in descending order: "almost certainly," "very likely," "probably/likely," "even chance," "unlikely," "very unlikely" and "remote possibility." When the American intelligence community determines "with high confidence" that the Iranians have frozen their military nuclear plan, this is based, according to its own testimony, on "high-quality information." When it states, at the level of "moderate confidence" only, that the program has not been renewed, it is relying on information that is "plausible but not of sufficient quality."

Gaps like these in the quality of the information, as well as other cracks that can be found in the footnotes of the intelligence report published in the United States on Monday, are what will enable the continuation of the campaign against the Iranian nuclear program - at least this is what Israel, and its friends in Congress and the administration, are hoping.

Professionals who read the report immediately on publication identified the cracks at once. What, for example, can be learned from the possibility left open by American intelligence that the Iranians will be in possession of a nuclear weapon by the end of 2009? According to the report, this is a "very unlikely possibility," but just how unlikely?: Is there a 5 percent chance, 10 percent, 20 percent? In the report's world of vague terminology, it is hard to know exactly.

The American decision-maker learns from the report how to assess the level of risk and calculate accordingly the urgency of the need for action. The Israeli decision-maker has a different calculation, even if he accepts the basic assumptions of the report. The smaller the country at risk, the larger the margins of security it needs. The 10 percentage points that provides the American with a reason to relax will look like an insufferable risk to the Israeli.

President George W. Bush will not be the first U.S. chief executive to have become fed up with the Iranians' pranks but to have had difficulties in obtaining proof of their deeds. His predecessor Bill Clinton reached boiling point after the 1996 terror attack initiated by Iran against U.S. forces stationed in the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.

He wanted to put together a case that would justify a counterattack, but the Saudis made it difficult for him by refusing to hand over the hard intelligence information that would provide the necessary proof such an action would require. American intelligence bears quite a number of scars from the Iranian arena. At the end of the 1970s, Stansfield Turner, the Central Intelligence Agency head who had been parachuted in from outside, was blamed for the agency's failure to predict the fall of the shah and Ayatollah Khomeini's rise to power.

His guilt was apparently blown out of proportion, after he tried to clean out the organization's cellars, when Congress uncovered his partisan involvement in assassination attempts and the orchestration of coups. But the real failure was political. President Jimmy Carter's administration had fallen asleep on its watch and his predecessors, from Lyndon B. Johnson to Gerald Ford, had also neglected the Iranian arena.

The Bush administration is promising not to fail this test of political awareness - even in light of the felicitous and ostensibly reassuring gift presented by its agents. In a chilly response, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley stressed that the pressure on Iran must continue. President Bush, as is his nature, is not one to admire an assessment such as "only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons." He is one of those people who believes in preventive action, not passive waiting for the enemy to give in. Yet nevertheless, a year before the end of his term, he has lost a lot of his room to maneuver vis-a-vis Iran.

"We assess with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so," stated the gloomy American assessment. The Israeli report that has not been written would have phrased it thus: We assess with high confidence that American intelligence is again finding it difficult to distinguish between the important and the trivial. We assess with high confidence that the Iranians are playing tricks on it. We assess with moderate confidence that in the current circumstances President Bush has lost his ability to act with the necessary determination.