What the NIE on Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Development Doesn’t Say

This morning former UN Ambassador John Bolton presented a number of objections to what the recently declassified portions of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear weapons development program said and the methods it used in arriving at its conclusions.

In all of the discussion of the NIE there’s been precious little commentary about what the document doesn’t say but in many ways it’s what it doesn’t say that’s most significant. All of the following quotes are from the “Key Judgments” section of the estimate.

First and foremost the NIE doesn’t say that Iran never had a nuclear weapons development program. Quite to the contrary the report says that it did:

We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program…

You cannot halt something you never had. That the program was halted means the program existed.

The NIE doesn’t say that Iran has dismantled its nuclear weapons development program or that it couldn’t resume the program:

Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so.

The NIE doesn’t say that Iran does not intend to develop nuclear weapons:

We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.

The NIE doesn’t say that the IAEA has been effective in ensuring that Iran’s nuclear development program remains peaceful, indeed, it says exactly the opposite, namely that the IAEA was ineffective at ensuring that Iran’s nuclear development program was peaceful (since the Iranians had a nuclear weapons development program prior to 2003 of which the IAEA was apparently ignorant).

The NIE doesn’t say that sanctions are useless in motivating the Iranians to end their nuclear weapons development program permanently. The NTI Chronology for Iran documents the ratcheting up of pressure on Iran in 2002 and 2003 by Western countries and the NIE implies that the increased pressure was instrumental in causing Iran to suspend their program. I can’t help but wonder if fear of discovery wasn’t another motivating factor.

The NIE doesn’t say that Iran’s protestations that its nuclear development program can now be trusted to remain entirely peaceful are to be believed. Indeed, the Iranians continued to deny vehemently that they had a nuclear weapons development program while the program was active (IRNA (Tehran), 10 February 2003; in FBIS document IAP20030210000068, 10 February 2003).

The NIE doesn’t say that, were the Iranians to resume their nuclear weapons development program, the construction of a nuclear weapon would still be 10-15 years off:

• We judge with moderate confidence that the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon is late 2009, but that this is very unlikely.

• We judge with moderate confidence Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame. (INR judges Iran is unlikely to achieve this capability before 2013 because of foreseeable technical and programmatic problems.) All agencies recognize the possibility that this capability may not be attained until after 2015.

Late 2009 is less than two years away; 2010 is a little more than two years away; 2015 is eight years away.

IMO the bottom line is that continuing reasonable concerns about Iran and its intentions with respect to its nuclear development program coupled with China’s agreement to a new sanctions regime against Iran actually strengthens the case for increased sanctions. I expect the Bush Administration to redouble its efforts in that direction. Indeed, that’s the direction the Administration seems to be taking:

WASHINGTON — President Bush worked the phones Tuesday to salvage his hard-line policy toward Iran, lobbying foreign leaders for tougher economic sanctions despite a new U.S. intelligence report that concluded that the Islamic republic halted its secret nuclear weapons program four years ago.

Several U.S. officials and experts, however, said that the new National Intelligence Estimate has upended Bush’s policy and erased any justification for threatening military strikes. The president will now find it difficult to persuade Russia and China — and even America’s European allies — to impose new sanctions on Iran, even though it refuses to heed United Nations demands to stop enriching uranium, they said.

“A new resolution is going to be very hard to get, if not impossible,” said a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Bush showed no sign of backing down.

“Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon,” Bush insisted a day after the release of the report, which contradicted a 2005 finding that Tehran had an active nuclear weapons program. “The policy remains the same.”

BTW the statement in the second paragraph above may not be true. In all likelihood China knows more about Iran’s nuclear development program than we do, in any case I doubt that its judgements about Iran are based solely on U. S. intelligence assessments, and on Saturday it agreed to new sanctions against Iran.

2 comments… add one
  • Dave,

    Reading the various blog “reporting” and new media on the NIE has given me a headache. I was about to write a post parsing what the NIE does and doesn’t say myself since so many are apparently (or perhaps willfully) confused. Thanks for saving me the effort.

    The 2009 time probably refers to the following scenario: Iran will probably have 3-4k centrifuges up and fully running in the next year. Additionally, Iran will receive a shipment of LEU for the Bushehr reactor. Iran could take that LEU and process it into weapons-grade in a matter of weeks with 3-4k centrifuges. Of course, if they tried, everyone would know and I suspect they’d be bombed as well.

    Additionally, there’s confusion over the definition of nuclear capability. Iran might have the capability to produce a simple gun-type weapon by 2010, but an advanced design deliverable by ballistic missile is a long-way off and will be very difficult regardless without testing.

    So I agree that we have time.

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