The National Intelligence Estimate released on Monday resounded with the authority of 16 American spy agencies in agreement that Iran halted its nuclear arms effort in 2003, a conclusion meant to “ensure that an accurate presentation is available.”

But strong contrary opinions on the accuracy of the assessment are emerging from two intertwined camps that have always viewed Iran’s nuclear claims with suspicion: American neoconservatives and the Israeli government.

Leading the way is Michael Ledeen, a conservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute with a long track record in the Iran policy area, from the Iran-contra affair in the Reagan administration to meetings with Iranian dissidents living abroad that surprised George Tenet, who was then the director of central intelligence, in 2002.

Mr. Ledeen’s first critique — published on his blog under the title “The Great Intelligence Scam” — dismissed the new intelligence estimate as “policy advocacy masquerading as serious intelligence.” The document is riddled with “blatant unprofessionalism,” he says, citing the intelligence community’s consensus answer to a very good question:

Why would the Iranians abandon a program that had been in the works ever since the late 1980s? The IC replies: Because the Iranians are rational, and they respond to international pressure. They shut down the program because the pressure was too great. They couldn’t take the risk of even more pain from the international community.

That was his deadpan way of saying, “yeah, right.”

“If this N.I.E. is true, the evidence would have to be awfully good,” he continued in another version of the argument, posted to the right-leaning National Review’s website. “And evidence of that quality has been in famously short supply.”

Similar doubts are voiced in the Weekly Standard, the conservative weekly, which is asking, “What has changed since 2005,” when the last assessment was published?

The answer comes in two parts from the McClatchy newspaper chain’s Washington bureau, which painted the broad picture:

Senior U.S. intelligence officials said the judgment that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in mid-2003 emerged four to six months ago as a result of fresh intelligence, some of it from open sources and some from a “very rigorous scrub” of 20 years of information, some of which informed the 2005 N.I.E.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the analysts who drafted the report also had applied lessons learned from an erroneous 2002 N.I.E. on Iraq.

The Washington Post mentions an interesting glimpse of what that “fresh intelligence” may have been:

Senior officials said the latest conclusions grew out of a stream of information, beginning with a set of Iranian drawings obtained in 2004 and ending with the intercepted calls between Iranian military commanders, that steadily chipped away at the earlier assessment.

In one intercept, a senior Iranian military official was specifically overheard complaining that the nuclear program had been shuttered years earlier, according to a source familiar with the intelligence. The intercept was one of more than 1,000 pieces of information cited in footnotes to the 150-page classified version of the document, an official said.

After top administration officials expressed doubts about the revised view of Iran’s nuclear weapons effort, the intelligence community “spent months examining whether the new information was part of a well-orchestrated ruse,” the Post article continued.

Whether doubts from the right are shared by Vice President Cheney and other like-minded senior administration officials remains to be seen.

But Israel’s prime minister and defense minister are openly questioning the assessment’s conclusions, according to a former Israeli intelligence officer interviewed by USA Today:

“This is a matter of interpretation of data. I do believe that the U.S. and Israel share the same data, but the dispute is about interpreting the data. … Only a blind man cannot see their efforts to put a hand on a nuclear weapon. They are threatening the world.”

The defense minister, Ehud Barak, offered his own take on Israeli Army Radio: he agreed with the banner-headline conclusion that Iran had stopped its nuclear program in 2003, but asserted that it had since been restarted. Mr. Barak, though, unlike Mr. Ledeen, was content with agreeing to disagree with the intelligence assessment. “Only time will tell who is right,” he said.


As I said this little game of chicken isn't over by a long shot. The Likudites in Israel and in the US may still get their Iranian War.