Gift Horse: NIE Says No Iranian Nukes

A recently-declassified version of a national intelligence estimate, a consensus report of U. S. intelligence agencies has arrived at two conclusions. First, that Iran has not had an active nuclear weapons development program since 2003 and, second, that Iran is keeping its options open on resuming its nuclear weapons development program.

WASHINGTON, Dec. 3 — 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 a 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 key judgments of the NIE are here. If you want to get to the meat of the key judgments skip to page 6. It makes rather interesting reading starting there.

The bottom line is that the consensus of U. S. intelligence agencies is that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapons development program and is unlikely to be able to develop a nuclear weapon either with home-enriched materials or weapons-grade materials already in hand before about 2010. If it bears out, it is unabashedly good news—good for the U. S., good for the world, and good, IMO for Iran. The NIE doesn’t go so far as to assess the nuclear development program of the Iranians as benign:

We do not have sufficient intelligence to judge confidently whether Tehran is willing to maintain the halt of its nuclear weapons program indefinitely while it weighs its options, or whether it will or already has set specific deadlines or criteria that will prompt it to restart the program.

and

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.

That’s somewhat less good news.

What does this mean politically and from a policy standpoint? I think it adds further weight to the argument I’ve been making for some time: that an attack of any kind on Iran would be imprudent and is highly unlikely between now and the end of 2008. I believe it also suggests we should make more robust efforts at finding a formula that’s acceptable to the Iranians and not completely unacceptable to us for maintaining the status quo with respect to Iran’s nuclear development program.

I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. I’ll accept good news where I can get it.

That having been said I do have a question. Why has Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA been so off again, on again since 2003? Assuming that the NIE is correct, I can only conjecture that Iran has wanted the rest of the world and, indeed, its own people to believe that they were developing nuclear weapons, presumably to improve their bargaining position.

10 comments… add one
  • Dave,

    Iran was, until recently, using cooperation with the IAEA as essentially a bargaining chip by threatening to limit cooperation if Iran found the IAEA conclusions unfavorable to the Iranian position. Additionally, they would signal displeasure with something by inhibiting some part of the IAEA’s work (for example, design verification of the reactor at Arak).

  • Dave, may I remind you that you and I came to much the same conclusion as the NIE after reading the last IAEA report in mid-November? It was discussed in comments to your post on the matter.

    Score another one for the IAEA. To date, only those outside its NPT remit (Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea) have successfully become nuclear weapon states.

    Regards, C

  • hass

    Why should we believe that Iran EVER had a nuclear weapons program at all?

    From IranAffairs.com:

    Iran NIE report: Are you lying now, or were you lying then?

    If the 2005 NIE report was wrong when it claimed with “high confidence” that Iran had a active nuclear weapons program, why should the 2007 NIE be any more credible when it claims that Iran had a nuclear weapons program until 2003? If Iran really had a nuclear weapons program until 2003 as the new report claims, then why has the IAEA found no evidence of it?

  • Wow, Hass, you have really been making the rounds round the blogosphere with your little Iranaffairs.com quote. It really makes one wonder if you aren’t an adjunct to the Iranian information ministry….

    Amir,

    1. We know the IAEA wasn’t aware of Iran’s clandestine program discovered in 2003. Part of the problem with the NPT is that the agency only has the authority to safeguard activities and material a nation declares. It has no authority to investigate or ferret-out hidden activities except when the additional protocol is in force – and even then there are still limits. In essence, the original design of the NPT really relies on the good will and intent of various nations – a problem the additional protocol was designed to address.

    2. A continuing problem the IAEA has addressed with respect to Iran is that the agency cannot determine, one way or another, the scope and intent of Iran’s activities prior to 2003. It’s why the agency is so insistent that Iran ratify and implement the additional protocol. The IAEA doesn’t have any definitive evidence of an Iranian nuclear program, but keep in mind that the IAEA is not an investigative agency and relies on Iran and others to provide it information. Such was the case in the 2003 revelations. An illustrative example is the military complex at Parchim, which the US believed was used for nuclear-related high-explosive R&D and testing. Iran refused the IAEA access for two years but finally did in 2005. The two-year delay highlights some problems – the IAEA cannot force a nation to grant it access and the two-year period left plenty of time for the site to be “cleaned up” if any nefarious activities did take place there. Now, in light of what happened at Parchim, the US is probably reluctant to share any information it has with the IAEA because Iran could just delay access until the site is cleaned-up.

    3. From the US perspective, the technical capability to make weapons-grade material through mastery of the enrichment cycle is a “crossing the Rubicon” event. At that point, Iran would have the technical capability to produce a nuclear weapon – so that is the red line the US (and many in the international community) have drawn. Iran is close to mastery at this point. What the US would ideally like to see is the dismantlement of Iran’s enrichment program with Iran obtaining nuclear fuel from abroad. Under such an arrangement, and future clandestine enrichment discovered in Iran would be prima facia evidence of a weapon’s program.

  • Thanks Andy for your response.

    1. You didn’t address my concern. I asked “how come IAEA isn’t aware of it?” and your responded as if I said “how come IAEA wasn’t aware of it?”.

    By the way, Iran agreed to and implemented (but never signed) the additional protocol for almost 2 years. This time frame should have been enough to find fingerprints of such claims. Right? Apparently, there are no fingerprints of any weapons program of any kind. Between Iran & IAEA, there were some outstanding issues most of which are resolved now, and the remaining two issues are being worked on. The “hidden activities” you are referring to are not mentioned in IAEA’s latest report or list of questions.

  • 2. You say that “the agency [IAEA] cannot determine … the scope and intent of Iran’s activities prior to 2003”.

    No. There is nothing special about the scope of Iran’s activities prior to 2003. The latest IAEA report about Iran reads (Paragraph 41):

    “There are two remaining major issues relevant to the scope and nature of Iran’s nuclear programme: Iran’s past and current centrifuge enrichment programme and the alleged studies.”

    None of the two outstanding issues are suspects of a past nuclear weapons program: centrifuges are still spinning and the “alleged studies” are solely “studies” (although “studies” can have military applications, but this is definitely not what NIE report suggests by a “nuclear weapons program that was abandoned in 2003”).

    As for the example you mentioned about Parchin military complex, you probably know that the issue is now resolved. Also, anyone with minimal knowledge of nuclear physics knows that lifetime of nuclear materials are of the order of thousand years, if not million years. (this is why Chernobyl will never be livable again). And that it is not possible to clean irradiated materials. Therefore, it is not possible to erase nuclear fingerprints by painting the walls, demolishing the building, or even removing the soil. Parchin was of interest because (I’ve heard) it was a defense research center. Anyway, IAEA has Okayed Parchin. Why shouldn’t the US?

    And I think that the US is reluctant to share information because past revealed information have been proven wrong.

  • 3. You and I both know that what the US likes to see (“dismantlement of Iran’s enrichment program with Iran obtaining nuclear fuel from abroad”) is never going to happen. Not because of Iran’s refusal to do so, but because of the United States’ systematic blockage of technology transfer to Iran. (US has blocked Iran’s procurement of laboratory equipments from 3rd countries, let alone nuclear reactors or nuclear fuel). Iran has no choice but to be self sufficient.

  • Hi all,
    Amir, with regards to the Additional Protocol, you are correct that Iran agreed to and implemented it for a little over two years (since dec 03) even though it was never formally ratified by the Iranian parliament. They decided to stop implementing it when the IAEA board of governors voted to refer their file to the UNSC (feb 06), which was a terrible thing for everybody, and I am putting most of the blame on the US for this strategic blunder.
    The Iranian nuclear dossier is full of tragedies and missed opportunities, from Ahmadinejad’s election in June of 05, to the resuming of uranium enrichment after an 18 month hiatus (due mostly to the incapability of the Europeans to offer any acceptable alternative) to the resignation of Ali Larijani last month.
    However, it is regrettable that Iran hasn’t reversed their decision and resumed implementing the AP in more than two years since and hasn’t shown a clear willingness to make progress on the outstanding issues (I think the IAEA called it “reactive cooperation” instead of the “proactive cooperation” they were hoping for). I know Iran is engaged with the US in a fight of principled stands to defend their national sovereignty, but ultimately their reluctance to move fast and alleviate the concerns of the west is helping no one…

  • Hi Hugo,

    “reactive cooperation” vs. “proactive cooperation”:

    I am responding to you because you commented. You do the same thing: You provide an answer whenever you are asked a questions, not when you are not asked a question. Why should Iran be an exception? Iran responded to IAEA’s concerns.

    ____________________
    I agree with you that Iran should act fast in resolving issues. And I think Iran is already doing so. In the latest report, IAEA mentioned that Iran allowed snap inspections, interview with officials and scientists, etc. . So, it seems that IAEA is using the extra tools provided by the Additional Protocol. But for the reasons you and I both know, both Iran and US pretend that the AP is not implemented:
    US wants to do it to ask other countries to put additional pressure on Iran;
    Iran wants to do so to encourage other countries to send Iran’s dossier in UNSC back to IAEA. (this also serves Ahmadinejad’s party with a winning card in the next presidential election that is coming up in early 2009)

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