Do They Or Don't They? The NIE and Iran's Nuclear Program (extensively updated)

The New York Times has an article on what it asserts is the latest NIE report on Iran's nuclear program.  The lede is:

A new assessment by American intelligence agencies concludes that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that the program remains on hold, contradicting an assessment two years ago that Tehran was working inexorably toward building a bomb.

The conclusions of the new assessment are likely to be major factor in the tense international negotiations aimed at getting Iran to halt its nuclear energy program. Concerns about Iran were raised sharply after President Bush had suggested in October that a nuclear-armed Iran could lead to "World War III," and Vice President Dick Cheney promised "serious consequences" if the government in Tehran did not abandon its nuclear program.

The finding also come in the middle of a presidential campaign during which a possible military strike against Iran's nuclear program has been discussed. The assessment, a National Intelligence Estimate that represents the consensus view of all 16 American spy agencies, states that Tehran's ultimate intentions about gaining a nuclear weapon remain unclear, but that Iran's "decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs."  [emphases added]
Steve Gilbert asks:
Mind you, as the article thoughtfully points out, this is the same collection of intelligence analysts who assured us that Iraq did have nuclear weapons.

Moreover, it is the self-same group who only two years ago also assured us that Iran was actively pursuing nuclear weapons. Whereas now they are saying they had stopped their program two years prior to then.

So are they wrong now or were they wrong back then?

And, for that matter, is the New York Times accurately portraying this latest National Intelligence Estimate?

Lest we forget, this wouldn't be the first time The Times had purposefully misreported an NIE report for their own political ends.
AJ Strata explains NIE -speak, fisks the report and concludes:
The fact is this is not a slam-dunk assessment it is reported to be. The centrifuges are the key. With Russia's offer on the table to provide civil energy ready fuel the centrifuges are not needed for Iran's civil energy needs. But the NIE is confident this unnecessary effort is continuing? Folks, they just don't know for sure and that is the bottom line. They know it was stopped, but they don't know if it has been restarted under dual use cover.
Update: Douglas Hanson writes:

Both Steve Gilbert and AJ Strata are correct in the latest NIE PR stunt concerning Iran's nuclear weapons development.  First, it appears not much has changed since late 2004 when I first wrote about the web of deception constructed by the leakers in the intell community and the MSM.  Both are fond of setting the technological bar very high, and then explaining how difficult it would be for the Persians to achieve such a demanding set of engineering standards.  In 2004, the WaPo and the IC focused on the most technically sophisticated type of weapon called the implosion device.  All of this ignored the fact that by focusing on enriching uranium, the mullahs could build either an implosion weapon, or the far simpler gun type.  Left unstated in these analyses and the public version of the 2004 NIE is why the Iranians would opt for the most complex type of weapon to deliberately delay the manufacture of an atomic bomb?

And second, AJ Strata hits the nail on the head when he says that Iran's scientists don't need to enrich uranium when Russia will provide it for them.  But as usual, Russia's own TV broadcasts deceives the public as to the real benefit to any Iranian weapons program: the spent fuel can be processed to extract both uranium and plutonium (PUREX).  I would differ with AJ on one subtle point.  It may well be that the IC just doesn't know for sure about the Persians' weapons or enrichment programs, but the other possibility is that they continue to downplay the potential scientific and technical progress they have made, especially with the help of their nuclear partners to the north.

It seems that no one wants to have the responsibility of providing the administration with even one iota of evidence to initiate Dick Cheney's One Percent Doctrine, or the IC wants to perpetuate the myth that it is all knowing about world affairs, or produces estimates that relieves the leadership of making the tough decisions, or all of the above.  Whatever the reason, one would think that by now the IC would realize that their stock press releases can be ripped apart by knowledgeable analysts with even a cursory examination of the audit rail.  And that is not very intelligent at all.

Brett McCrae writes:

The Times cherry picked a report again. From my optic, the money paragraphs for The Times were/are:

"Rather than painting Iran as a rogue, irrational nation determined to join the club of nations with the bomb, the estimate states Iran's "decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs." The administration called new attention to the threat posed by Iran earlier this year when President Bush had suggested in October that a nuclear-armed Iran could lead to "World War III" and Vice President Dick Cheney promised "serious consequences" if the government in Tehran did not abandon its nuclear program.

"Yet at the same time officials were airing these dire warnings about the Iranian threat, analysts at the Central Intelligence Agency were secretly concluding that Iran's nuclear weapons work halted years ago and that international pressure on the Islamic regime in Tehran was working."
This clearly fits the template that diplomacy works and all this saber rattling is reckless and unnecessarily dangerous. What The Times did not publish or even allude to (for that matter) was the very next paragraph that followed:

"We assess with moderate confidence that convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult given the linkage many within the leadership probably see between nuclear weapons development and Iran's key national security and foreign policy objectives, and given Iran's considerable effort from at least the late 1980s to 2003 to develop such weapons. In our judgment, only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons-and such a decision is inherently reversible."
Now, given the recent incantations of the Iranian political leadership (A-Jad in particular) and the recent switch in nuclear negotiators from Ali Larijani to Sayeed Jalili, how can one conclude that there is a snowball's chance in hell the Iranian leadership has reached a political decision to abandon its nuclear program? These articles speak more clearly to the Iranian leadership position than the NIE does. Bottom line: they probably have not abandoned their program. They are doing what they can clandestinely or through the use of dual use technologies and waiting for the present storm to die down.

Norman Podhoretz expresses "dark suspicions" about the latest NIE at Commentary Magazine's blog:

It is that the intelligence community, which has for some years now been leaking material calculated to undermine George W. Bush, is doing it again. This time the purpose is to head off the possibility that the President may order air strikes on the Iranian nuclear installations. As the intelligence community must know, if he were to do so, it would be as a last resort, only after it had become undeniable that neither negotiations nor sanctions could prevent Iran from getting the bomb, and only after being convinced that it was very close to succeeding. How better, then, to stop Bush in his tracks than by telling him and the world that such pressures have already been effective and that keeping them up could well bring about "a halt to Iran's entire nuclear weapons program"-especially if the negotiations and sanctions were combined with a goodly dose of appeasement or, in the NIE's own euphemistic formulation, "with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways."
Clarice Feldman notes Michael Ledeen, who's been a close watcher of the mullahs, who reviews the NIE report;s conclusions on Iran's nuclear program and concludes:

We went from zero to bomb in four years leading up to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at a time when nobody even knew if the thing was doable. On the IC's account, the Iranians have been at this since "at least the late 1980's." (I actually think it didn't get into gear until 1991, but let's not quibble.) During that time, almost everything was for sale (and Iran has lots of money), A.Q. Khan was running his bazaar, Soviet nuclear physicists were hired by Tehran, and the Iranians themselves are very smart. Is it likely, that Iran hasn't been able to build nukes in two decades? No way.

If this NIE is true, the evidence would have to be awfully good. And evidence of that quality has been in famously short supply. These are the same guys who have been telling us for years that Sunnis and Shiites can't work together, when they should have known that Iranian Revolutionary Guards (Shiites) were trained in the early 1970s by Yasser Arafat's al Fatah (Sunnis).

Color me an unbeliever.