U.S. efforts to contain Iran and prevent it from attaining
nuclear weapons have been set back by the release of part of the
most recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear
program. "Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities," the
unclassified summary of the key judgments of the NIE,
contained a stunning bombshell: the conclusion that Iran
halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003.
What prompted this reversal of intelligence analysis is not
known. The controversial report released on December 3, 2007,
contained only a summary of key judgments and excluded the evidence
on which the judgments were made. However, many experts on
intelligence, nuclear proliferation, and the Middle East have
charged that the NIE is critically flawed.
This paper distills many of the criticisms against the Iran NIE
and provides a list of articles for further reading on this
The NIE's key judgments on Iran's
nuclear weapons program are more categorical than even those of the
normally cautious International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The headline finding, included in the first half of the first
sentence of the NIE's "Key Judgments," proclaims that "We judge
with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear
weapons program." The report reveals in a footnote that this
sweeping conclusion was reached in part by defining "nuclear
weapons program" to exclude "Iran's declared civil work related to
uranium conversion and enrichment," a definition that has been
denounced by prominent nuclear experts as "ludicrously
Even IAEA officials, who have long treated Iran with kid gloves
and accorded it the benefit of the doubt, have been critical of the
controversial NIE. One unnamed senior IAEA official quoted in
The New York Times carped: "To be frank, we are more
skeptical. We don't buy the American analysis 100 percent. We are
not that generous with Iran."
It is troubling that the IAEA, an agency that greatly
underestimated the Iraqi nuclear weapons program before the 1991
Gulf War and missed much of the Iranian nuclear weapons program
before 2002 revelations by an Iranian opposition group put it in
the spotlight, would question the "generous" analysis of the
NIE. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who has been highly
critical of the NIE, complained: "By stating a conclusion in such
categorical terms--considered excessive even by the International
Atomic Energy Agency--the Key Judgments blur the line between
estimates and conjecture." Ambassador John Bolton, who
acquired extensive knowledge of Iran's nuclear program as the
State Department's Under Secretary for Arms Control and
International Security, lamented: "When the IAEA is tougher than
our analysts, you can bet the farm that someone is pursuing a
The NIE engages in policy formulation
rather than adhering strictly to intelligence analysis.
The NIE suggests that vaguely defined "threats of intensified
international scrutiny and pressures" combined with diplomatic
incentives might induce Iran to halt its nuclear weapons
Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in
response to international pressure indicates [that] Tehran's
decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a
rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and
military costs. This, in turn, suggests that some combination
of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures,
along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security,
prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might--if
perceived by Iran's leaders as credible--prompt Tehran to extend
the current halt to its nuclear weapons program. It is difficult to
specify what such a combination might be.
The threat of U.S. military force is downplayed and not even
mentioned in the discussion of what might have led Tehran to
suspend its military program in 2003. In fact, the NIE
concluded that the only plausible way to stop Iran from building a
nuclear weapon, if it chooses to do so, is to convince Iran not to
This finding, in effect, takes the military option off the table
and raises questions about the value of current international
efforts to deny Iran dangerous technologies. Evaluating the costs,
benefits, and risks of pursuing a diplomatic strategy are policy
calculations, not intelligence assessments.
Ambassador Bolton has noted that several of the officials
involved in writing the NIE were not intelligence
professionals, but former State Department officials who were
attached to the growing bureaucracy of the Director of
These officials had relatively benign views of Iran's nuclear
intentions five and six years ago; now they are writing those views
as if they were received wisdom from on high. In fact, these are
precisely the policy biases they had before, recycled as
The NIE mistakenly assumes that
weaponization of the warhead is the key aspect of Iran's nuclear
program that constitutes a potential threat.
The NIE buries in a footnote its extremely narrow definition of
"nuclear weapons program," which it defines as "Iran's nuclear
weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium
conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work." The NIE
lightly dismisses Iran's accelerating uranium enrichment efforts at
Natanz, which once was a covert facility, because these efforts now
are overt. Iran claims that the uranium enrichment activities are
needed for its civilian nuclear power program even though it has
only one nuclear power reactor under construction and Russia has
agreed to provide all the enriched uranium that the reactor will
By defining away the proliferation threat posed by "civilian"
uranium enrichment, the NIE puts a premium on unspecified "weapons
design and weaponization work," which apparently stopped in 2003.
Yet nuclear weapons are an old technology with weapon designs that
date back to the 1940s. Blueprints for a nuclear weapon can be
downloaded from the Internet.
During World War II, American nuclear scientists were so
sure of their bomb design that they never tested it operationally
before detonating the bomb over Hiroshima. The real difficulty was
obtaining enough weapons-grade fissile material to arm a bomb.
Nuclear experts generally agree that "The hard part is obtaining
the fissionable materials--plutonium or highly enriched
uranium. Once that's done, any nation--or even a sophisticated
terrorist group--can do the rest."
Iran is also known to have received help from the sophisticated
nuclear smuggling network headed by Pakistani nuclear scientist A.
Q. Khan as early as 1985. Khan's network provided Tehran with
instructions on machining highly enriched uranium into hemispheres
to form the core of a nuclear weapon and is suspected of providing
other assistance in nuclear weapons design.
Iran probably made so much progress in weaponization during
its almost two decades of clandestine work that an easily
reversible halt of some programs in 2003 will have little practical
effect in restricting its ability to build a nuclear weapon.
Indeed, both the most recent NIE and the 2005 NIE give similar
estimates of when Iran will have enough highly enriched uranium to
build a nuclear weapon. The 2005 NIE projected that Iran could
acquire enough fissile material by "early-to-mid next decade,"
while the 2007 NIE estimated "sometime during the 2010-2015
timeframe," but perhaps as early as late 2009.
The bottom line is that Tehran may have temporarily frozen
its weaponization efforts because it already has a suitable weapon
design and may simply be trying to master the most difficult
part of the bomb building process--uranium enrichment-- before
taking the final step of weaponization.
The NIE understates the importance of
Iran's "civilian" uranium enrichment efforts to the development of
The chief bottleneck in Iranian efforts to attain a nuclear
weapon probably is not the weaponization work but the acquisition
of enough weapons-grade fissile material to arm a bomb. This makes
Iran's accelerating work on uranium enrichment a pressing
concern. Approximately 3,000 centrifuges are operating at its
Natanz facility, and a total of 54,000 are scheduled to be
installed over the next few years.
Iran claims that its uranium enrichment program is dedicated
exclusively to producing fuel for its civilian nuclear power
program, but Iran has only one power reactor at Bushehr under
construction, and its fuel is to be supplied by Russia for its
entire operational lifetime. In fact, after Russia delivered the
first shipment of enriched uranium for the Bushehr reactor, Russian
Defense Minister Sergei Lavrov proclaimed, "We believe that Iran
has no economic need to proceed with its program of uranium
enrichment." Other planned reactors will not need
enriched uranium fuel for at least a decade.
This raises serious questions about why the Ahmadinejad regime
is ramping up its Natanz operations despite two rounds of U.N.
Security Council sanctions and the prospect of more to come. The
costs would seem to outweigh the benefits unless Iran is planning
to use the enriched uranium for military purposes.
It is therefore a dangerous mistake to downplay Iran's
intensifying efforts to enrich uranium in continued defiance
of U.N. Security Council resolutions. The NIE explicitly
excludes "Iran's declared civil work related to uranium conversion
and enrichment" from its definition of a nuclear weapons
program and fails to mention that Iran hid such work for many
years, "declaring" the work only after it had been exposed.
Iran would not need to hide a civilian program, so Iran's
deceptive behavior and dealings with Khan's network (which
specialized in technologies useful for building nuclear weapons)
strongly suggest that it was not meant for civilian purposes.
It is therefore unclear why the NIE would accept Iran's claim that
its enrichment program is meant for purely civilian purposes when
Iran has developed it covertly, lied about it in the past, built
elaborate underground facilities fortified to withstand attacks,
and protected parts of it with anti-aircraft missiles.
The line between civilian and military nuclear programs can
easily be blurred, especially by a ruthless regime that has
repeatedly been caught lying about its activities and still refuses
to admit that it ever had a nuclear weapons program. While enriched
uranium is used to fuel nuclear reactors, it can also be enriched
to higher levels to fuel nuclear weapons.
Drawing a distinction between Iran's "declared civil work" on
uranium enrichment and military programs is risky because, once
Tehran has perfected enrichment techniques, it can quickly
cross the line into military uses with relative ease. James
Schlesinger, the respected former CIA Director, Secretary of
Defense, and Secretary of Energy, succinctly criticized the
We have long understood that the production of fissile
material, whether overt or covert, remains "the long pole in the
tent" in the development of a nuclear capability. Thus the NIE
defines away what has been the main element stirring international
alarm regarding Iran's nuclear activity.
John Bolton has noted: "Indeed, it has always been Iran's
civilian program that posed the main risk of a nuclear breakout."
China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, and South Africa all
masked their military nuclear programs to various degrees behind
civilian nuclear power programs. This is one reason why the
International Atomic Energy Agency focuses so much on civilian
nuclear programs. It also explains why Iran's decision to
restart its uranium enrichment activities in 2005, after halting
them in 2004, was so alarming.
Yet a discussion of Iran's reversal of its freeze on uranium
enrichment is missing from the unclassified summary of key
judgments. It would not be surprising to discover that Iran also
restarted its weaponization efforts after temporarily suspending
them in 2003.
The NIE also does not adequately take into account the huge
investment that Iran has made in a nuclear infrastructure that it
does not need for a civilian power program. In addition to
expanding the massive uranium enrichment complex at Natanz, Iran
plans to build a heavy-water-moderated reactor at Arak that is
"worryingly too big for research, too small for electricity
generation and ideally suited to produce plutonium," which can also
be used in a nuclear weapon. Given the high financial
and opportunity costs of creating this expensive nuclear
infrastructure, it seems highly unlikely that the Iranian regime
would refrain from using this infrastructure to develop nuclear
weapons, which could significantly advance core Iranian security
and foreign policy goals.
The possible use of Iranian
disinformation may undercut the NIE's conclusions.
Given Iran's long history of lying about its nuclear program,
there is always the danger that the new information included in the
NIE is disinformation, although the NIE seems to rule this out
by attributing "high confidence" to the judgment that the work has
actually halted. But some friendly foreign intelligence
A senior British official anonymously revealed that British
intelligence analysts suspect that Iranian officials, knowing their
phones were tapped, deliberately deceived U.S. intelligence
monitors with false information:
We are skeptical. We want to know what the basis of it is, where
did it come from? Was it on the basis of the defector? Was it on
the basis of intercept material? They say things on the phone
because they know we are up on the phones. They say black is white.
They will say anything to throw us off.
Israeli intelligence officials also are highly skeptical of
the NIE findings. One Israeli analyst pointed out that "The Syrians
were working on their nuclear project for seven years, and we
discovered it only recently. The Americans didn't know about it at
all. So how can they be so sure about Iran?"
This skepticism is reportedly shared by some CIA analysts.
According to one unnamed U.S. intelligence source, "Many
middle-ranking CIA veterans believe Iran is still committed to
producing nuclear weapons and are concerned that the agency lost a
number of its best sources in Iran in 2004."
Other commentators have focused on reports that the NIE was
heavily influenced by a defector from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary
Guard Corps, who could be a double agent who "defected" as part of
an Iranian counterintelligence operation. Defense expert James
Zumwalt has warned:
Worrisome is the weight given to what may well be a
counter-intelligence effort by Tehran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard
Corps (IRGC). The humint [human intelligence] relied upon is a
claim by senior IRGC official Ali Rez Asgari who defected during a
February trip to Turkey. Mr. Asgari told a foreign
intelligence agency [that] all activity on Iran's nuclear weapons
program stopped four years ago. His claim purportedly was
supported by intercepted communications among Iranian
Such information needs to be carefully scrutinized as we
have learned some lessons from the Cold War. We now know
"critically timed" defections as well as intercepted
communications within a targeted country could conceivably be
a counter-intelligence initiative. The Iranians are well aware
of Moscow's successful use in the past of double agents-- Soviet
spies who defected to the West only to further U.S.S.R. objectives
in obfuscating Moscow's sinister intent.
The NIE does not address related
military developments, such as Iran's ballistic missile
programs, some of which make little sense unless the missiles will
be armed with nuclear warheads.
The NIE's key judgments do not address Iran's extensive
ballistic missile program and its efforts to develop
nuclear-capable missile cones. Iran's Shahab-3 missile, which
is a derivative of the North Korean Nodong missile, has an
estimated range of 1,300 kilometers. Iran also has purchased the
Musudan, a missile with a range of 3,000 kilometers, from
Given the relative inaccuracy of Iran's ballistic missiles at
such great distances, it makes little military sense to invest
so heavily in such missile programs unless the warheads are
armed with nuclear weapons. "Historically," one defense expert has
noted, "every state that has developed missiles of this range or
greater has sought to arm them with nuclear warheads."
The NIE's key judgments also omit any reference to Iran's
reported efforts to design nuclear-capable warheads for its
missiles. In 2004, an Iranian defector provided a laptop
computer that contained designs for a nuclear warhead and documents
related to the "Green Salt Project," a secret Iranian program that
involved uranium enrichment. The IAEA still has not received
adequate Iranian explanations of these revelations. Iran also
has continued its efforts to purchase dual-use and nuclear
weapons technologies since 2003.
The NIE blandly attributes Iran's
decision to halt its military nuclear program to "international
pressure" and discounts the influence of the potential U.S.
In 2003, little serious international pressure was exerted on
Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program. In fact, the U.N.
Security Council still has not imposed strong and effective
sanctions on Iran and is unlikely to do so in the future, given the
diplomatic foot-dragging of Russia and China. Although the
EU-3 (Britain, France, and Germany) began a stillborn diplomatic
dialogue with Iran, the chief source of pressure on Iran in 2003
was the threat of American military action.
The chilling demonstration effect of the two U.S. military
interventions that displaced the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and
Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq undoubtedly had a salutary effect
on Tehran. This certainly was the case with Libya. Libyan
leader Muammar Qadhafi subsequently admitted to Italian Prime
Minister Silvio Berlusconi that his decision to halt Libya's
weapons of mass destruction programs was due to a fear that
the United States would take military action against Libya, as it
had in Iraq.
The release of the NIE eases
international pressure on Iran despite the fact that the NIE
itself maintains that such pressure is critical to stopping
the Iranian nuclear weapons program.
The NIE has significantly altered the international debate on
Iran's nuclear ambitions and has undermined the U.S. and
European strategy for escalating international sanctions against
Iran. Although Britain and France have remained steadfast in
their efforts to ratchet up diplomatic pressure on Tehran, the NIE
has given Russia, China, and other members of the U.N. Security
Council greater latitude to dilute any future U.N. sanctions. The
NIE also undercuts the prospects for diplomatic dissuasion of Iran
by essentially taking the military option off the table, thereby
reducing leverage over Tehran.
There is a distinct danger that misleading news coverage of the
NIE suggesting that the long-term threat posed by Iran's nuclear
ambitions has ebbed will undermine future international efforts to
dissuade Iran from continuing its long-running nuclear weapons
efforts. Regrettably, this will reduce pressure on Iran to halt its
nuclear weapons efforts permanently and could ultimately increase
the chances of war.
James Phillips is Research Fellow for
Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center
for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby
Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage
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