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The Latest US NIE Report on Iran

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Update from AIJAC

December 5, 2007
Number 12/07 #02

This Update is devoted to analysis of the latest US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) with respect to Iran, released Monday, which makes the surprising revelation that "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program...". The full text of this NIE (which is a declassified summary of the consensus among American intelligence agencies) is available as a pdf here, a news story on the report and its implications is here. The transcript of a press conference on the report with US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley is here.

This Update opens with some excellent analysis from Washington Institute Iran specialist Patrick Clawson, who notes that it is important to look beyond the headlines to what the surprise revelation actually means in the larger picture of the Iranian nuclear program, and what else the NIE report has to say. He points out in particular that "The estimate says little about whether Iran still aims to produce nuclear weapons or when it might do so," and is completely consistent with concluding that the Iranians have merely decided to concentrate on uranium enrichment, the hard part of bomb making, before working on warhead design and other issues of weaponisation. He has a great deal more to say that is penetrating and insightful, and to read it all, CLICK HERE. Agreeing with Clawson that the implications of the NIE must be looked at in the context of Iran's overall nuclear program and not simply immediate efforts at weaponisation is top American foreign policy expert Max Boot.

Next up, terrorism expert Thomas Joscelyn reviews some of the questions that need to be asked about the assessment and give cause for caution. These include: what sort of intelligence is this assessment based on, what has changed since the last NIE assessment on Iran in 2005 which came to very different conclusions, and how does the intelligence community know that covert programs have completely stopped and the supposed motivation for this move? For Jocelyn's exploration of these and other question that need to be asked in evaluating these revelations, CLICK HERE. Also full of questions about the new NIE is Middle East scholar Michael Rubin. Meanwhile, Seth Leibsohn points out that different media outlets are reporting completely different explanations for what the new intelligence is that led to the dramatically changed NIE on Iran from 2005 to 2007.

Finally, Israeli reporter Alex Fishman explores how the Israeli intelligence community, which has come to some different conclusions, has reacted to the NIE findings on Iran. Fishman reveals that the Israeli sources agree that the military program was stopped in 2003, they believe it was restarted in 2005, and were surprised by the NIE claims. He also points out, however, that the Israeli-American differences in evaluation are not as extensive as they first appear - they continue to basically be differences of a couple of years in how long it will take Iran to get nuclear weapons. For this full report, CLICK HERE. Other discussions of the differing Israeli and American assessments of intelligence on Iran comes from Yaakov Katz of the Jerusalem Post and Shmuel Rosner of Haaretz. The reaction from Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak is here.

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How Much Does Weaponization Matter?                                 

Judging Iran's Nuclear Program

By Patrick Clawson

PolicyWatch #1313       
Analysis of Near East policy from the scholars and associates of The Washington Institute   

December 4, 2007
The just-released National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), "Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities," is about weaponization, not the enrichment and fuel cycle issues that have been the focus of multiple UN Security Council and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board resolutions regarding Iran's nuclear program. The NIE only suggests that Tehran has changed its sequence -- something that does not slow the country's progress toward a nuclear weapon by a single day. Therefore, it is not clear how this report affects the current thrust of U.S. policy: to stem Iran's nuclear fuel cycle capabilities.
Is Iran Aiming to Make a Nuclear Weapon?
The NIE states, "We assess with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so." The key word in that sentence is "eventually," because the most vital question worrying Iran's neighbors and the international community is when Iran will be able to produce its first nuclear weapon. The estimate says nothing about how the reported halt of Iran's nuclear weapons program affects that date.
One estimate of how long it would take Iran to produce nuclear weapons once its openly acknowledged fuel-cycle facilities are completed is "a few months." That estimate -- from the Nobel Peace Prize-winning director of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei -- suggests that the existence of a weapons program is not important until Iran is close to producing fissile material. Making fissile material is difficult -- making a bomb is not necessarily as hard. Although constructing a nuclear warhead for a missile is tricky, making a bulky, heavy nuclear device that can fit into a ship container or a truck -- similar to the truck Iran's proxies used to bomb the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 -- is rather easy. That is why the forty-year effort to verify and enforce the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty has been based on controlling the production of fissile material.
The NIE states that Iran is making a headlong rush to produce enriched uranium -- an attitude that does not support Tehran's claims of a strictly peaceful nuclear program. Indeed, the NIE's information about Iran's enrichment program is inconsistent with any claim that the regime has abandoned its interest in nuclear weapons. In fact, the new report barely changes the 2005 estimate about when Iran might obtain sufficient fissile material for a bomb.
In that earlier report, the intelligence community concluded that the prospect of Iran making a nuclear weapon "is unlikely before early-to-mid next decade." In the current report, more details are provided, but the message is much the same: "We judge with moderate confidence Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame." The only caveat is from the State Department's intelligence arm, which "judges that Iran is unlikely to achieve this capability before 2013."
How Much Confidence Is in Order?
The U.S. intelligence community has a poor track record regarding nuclear weapons programs, making incorrect judgments on some of the most important proliferation cases. Most infamously, it badly misjudged not only what Iraq was doing, but also how confident the intelligence community could be about Baghdad's efforts on that front (e.g., former CIA director George Tenet's "slam dunk" remark). And although less noted, the intelligence community long underestimated the progress Libya and North Korea were making before it successfully caught both regimes red-handed -- a delay that brought scathing remarks from the Commission on WMD Proliferation. The intelligence community also failed to spot India's nuclear test preparations in 1998, and its confidence that South Africa was not working on nuclear weapons was proven wrong (though it should be noted that U.S. intelligence eventually decided the latter had produced a weapon, long before Pretoria acknowledged it).
There is a pattern here. A charitable interpretation would be that nuclear programs are difficult to assess. A less charitable interpretation would be that the United States has not figured out a fully accurate way to judge progress in such programs. Part of the problem is imperfect information, but there is also the inherent difficulty of interpreting intentions and future actions. No matter how good the data, it does not tell us the "why" or the "what next."
Indeed, the U.S. intelligence community's track record on Iran suggests that its knowledge has been imperfect. As the new NIE points out, the 2005 estimate assessed "with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons," whereas the new estimate is that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in fall 2003 -- well before the 2005 estimate came out. Since the intelligence community decided it was wrong in 2005, one might think that U.S. intelligence agencies would be more cautious about what they now know. It is possible that the new information is the last word on the subject, but it is vital to remember that deciding whether or not Iran is "determined" is a matter of interpretation, not just information.
The contrast between the NIE and the recent IAEA report is also sharp. In the latter report, the IAEA was extremely careful to highlight what it does not know. The concluding paragraph warned that the agency "is not in a position to provide credible assurances about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran."
Does Pressure on Iran Work?
The clear sense from the new NIE is that pressure on Iran works. In the estimate's words, "Our assessment that the [nuclear weapons] program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously." A longtime theme of The Washington Institute's work has been Iran's vulnerability to influence on the nuclear issue, so it would be comforting to think that the NIE is correct.
Yet, the NIE provides little reason to come to that conclusion. The alternative, more cynical interpretation of what it describes is that Iran understood that suspending its nuclear weapons program would have no effect on its progress toward nuclear weapons, yet would reduce the risk that IAEA inspectors would discover Iran's true intentions. The NIE provides no reason to favor its optimistic interpretation over this pessimistic view. In other words, the NIE displays undue confidence that the U.S. intelligence community knows not just what happened, but the reasons why.
The new estimate is sure to have considerable political impact. Before deciding on what the NIE means for policy, one should first be sure what it says. The reality is that the estimate says little about whether Iran still aims to produce nuclear weapons or when it might do so. The NIE's information supports the theory that Iran has simply changed the sequencing of its nuclear weapons effort -- not necessarily the theory that Iran is no longer pursuing nuclear weapons.

Patrick Clawson, The Washington Institute's deputy director for research, is the author of several books on Iran.


Five Questions Concerning the Latest NIE

Thomas Jocelyn, December 3, 2007 06:53 PM

The story dominating the news cycle right now is the public release of "Key Judgments" from an NIE on Iran’s nuclear program. In particular, the first sentence of the NIE is drawing the press’s intention: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program…" But, as they say, the devil is in the details. Given the poor performance of the U.S. Intelligence Community ("IC") in drafting previous NIE’s, we should review the IC’s work with a skeptical eye -- no matter what conclusions are drawn. Interestingly, the IC now concedes that it is certain Iran had a nuclear weapons program. But that isn't getting the headlines. And after having read the little that has been made public from this NIE, we are left with substantive questions.

First, what intelligence is this assessment based upon?

Any student, or even casual observer, of the U.S. intelligence community knows that it has done a remarkably poor job of recruiting spies inside unfriendly regimes. For example, we had no meaningful spies inside Saddam’s regime. That was at least part of the reason the U.S. intelligence community misjudged Saddam’s WMD programs so badly. (Whatever came of Saddam’s WMD, U.S. intelligence clearly did not know what was going on since the few sources it had were on the periphery of Saddam’s regime.)

Reading the latest NIE does not provide, of course, any clues as to how the IC came to these conclusions. If the IC does have good sources inside the Iranian regime and its putative nuclear program, then quite naturally it would want to protect them. And we wouldn’t expect to see any information about sources in a declassified "Key Judgments" such as this.

However, there are good reasons to suspect that the IC does not have good intelligence inside Iran. For example, both of the leading members (one Republican, one Democrat) of the House Intelligence Committee explained back in 2006 that we did not really know then what was going on inside Iran. And the Robb-Silberman Commission, which investigated what the IC knew about WMD programs around the world, found in 2005: "Across the board, the Intelligence Community knows disturbingly little about the nuclear programs of many of the world's most dangerous actors. In some cases, it knows less now than it did five or ten years ago." Understandably, the Commission refrained from discussing the specifics of the intelligence community’s infiltration, or lack thereof, of both the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs. But it is a safe bet that the statement cited above applied in both cases.

Thus, we should not be confident, at all, that the IC has the type of intelligence that would allow it to make a definitive assessment one way or another. This is true no matter what conclusions the IC publishes. Who or what are the sources cited by IC? How do we know they are telling the truth? If they are members of the Iranian regime, have their so-called bona fides been established? Are they in a position to know what they claim to know? Do they have any motives to lie, or distort the truth? We should be mindful of all of these questions and more.

Second, what has changed since 2005?

As this latest NIE notes, its conclusions are at odds with what the IC believed in 2005. The last page of the declassified Key Judgments notes significant differences between what the IC believed in 2005 and what it is saying now. In 2005, the IC noted: "[We] assess with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure, but we do not assess that Iran is immovable." Now the IC says, "…we do not know whether (Iran) currently intends to develop nuclear weapons." So, in 2005 the IC was sure that Iran was determined to build a nuclear weapon and now it is not sure at all. This is a profound change in opinion and, at a minimum, does not inspire confidence that the IC can get this story right. After all, if the IC’s judgments can change so drastically in two years time, why should we believe any of its pronouncements one way or the other?

What is the basis for this flip-flop? What has been learned in the meantime to warrant such an about-face?

Third, how did the IC draw its line between a "civilian" nuclear program and a military one?

In the very first footnote the authors of the NIE explain: "For the purposes of this Estimate, by ‘nuclear weapons program’ we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment."

So, is the IC then assuming that Iran’s "declared civil work" is necessarily benign? One of the key issues with respect to Iran’s "civilian" nuclear program is its capacity, with some tweaking here and there, to be used for military purposes. For example, according to the New York Times in early 2006, the IAEA concluded that there was evidence suggesting "links between Iran’s ostensibly peaceful nuclear program and its military work on high explosives and missiles." Indeed, the authors of the NIE explicitly recognize the possibility of the civilian program being diverted for military uses:
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. For example, Iran’s civilian uranium enrichment program is continuing. We also assess with high confidence that since fall 2003, Iran has been conducting research and development projects with commercial and conventional military applications--some of which would also be of limited use for nuclear weapons.
So, then, the NIE’s conclusions apply strictly to Iran’s alleged halt of its military and clandestine programs. As we know, however, uranium enrichment is the most important component of developing the bomb and Iran indisputably has the capacity. (Again, with some tweaking, Iran can use its declared enrichment facilities at some point to make weapons-grade material.) But, this leads us to ask another simple question.

Fourth, how does the IC know that Iran has stopped its clandestine activities with respect to developing nuclear weapons?

Returning to the first footnote of the NIE’s Key Judgments, the IC argues that, in 2003, Iran ceased its "nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work." How does the IC know that Iran did not continue working on "weapon design and weaponization" covertly? Does it think that its sources are so good that they can rule out that possibility? Remember that Iran carried out much of its work on its nuclear program clandestinely for the better part of two decades. And some of these clandestine activities involved dealings with the AQ Khan network, the scope of which was not fully appreciated until it had already been doing business for years. How can the IC be sure that Iran’s clandestine activities ceased in 2003?

Note that the IC argues that Iran supposedly gave up its covert uranium conversion and enrichment work. How does the IC know that? Are we to believe that the IC’s penetration of Iran’s intelligence services, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and other parties controlled by the mullahs is so iron-clad that it can know this with certainty? Furthermore, is it possible that Iran did not need to do said work covertly because it has been openly enriching uranium?

Fifth, how does the IC know what motivated Iran’s alleged change in behavior?

The NIE claims that "Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure." How does the IC know what motivated Iran’s alleged change in behavior? Did the Iranians tell someone? Is this coming from clandestine sources? Assuming for the moment that Iran really did halt its program, are we to believe that a substantial U.S.-led military presence in Afghanistan and in Iraq (or potential presence in Iraq, depending on when in 2003 this change supposedly occurred), had nothing to do with Iran’s supposed decision? That is, are we to believe that U.S. led forces on Iran’s eastern and western borders had nothing to do with Tehran’s decision-making process?

We are left with a number of important questions. And without knowing the answers to these questions, the IC’s opinions are best viewed with a skeptical eye.

Thomas Joscelyn is a terrorism researcher, writer and economist living in New York, and a frequent contributor to the Weekly Standard.


Alone in the battlefield

US report claiming Iran froze its nuke program may force Israel to face threat alone

Alex Fishman, 12.04.07,

They must be celebrating in Teheran. The American report claiming Iran froze its nuclear weapons development program in 2003 is a below-the-belt blow for the Israeli struggle on the international arena against Iranian nukes.
Officials in Israel were surprised on Tuesday. Not because of the report’s existence: The defense establishment is familiar with the thesis, developed by US intelligence bodies, regarding Iran being farther away from acquiring nuclear bombs than Israel estimates. This thesis emerges here and there during discussions held by Israeli and US intelligence agencies.

The Israeli surprise stems from the gaps in the information: Defense officials fail to understand where the Americans got the idea that Iran froze the nuclear weapons development process in 2003 and has not renewed it to this very day. The information available to Israeli and Western intelligence services shows that Iran, due to diplomatic pressures, indeed froze the process in 2003, but the same information shows that the efforts were renewed two years later and are continuing to this day.

Defense officials in Israel are making sure to refrain from openly disputing top US intelligence officials, but behind closed doors officials here are convinced that US intelligence bodies are simply getting it wrong with their assessments, both in terms of timetables as well as certain phases in the development of Iran’s military nuclear capabilities.

According to Western reports, the Iranians have faced various problems in the uranium enrichment process, and this indeed caused delays. Yet the Iranians were able to address some of the problems and moved forward. Israeli officials estimate that as early as 2009 Iran will possess military nuclear capabilities, assuming they face no other obstacles. The Americans think otherwise.
Officials here believe that the American report in fact takes into account quite a bit of data, including diplomatic pressures that lead to delays in the Iranian nuclear program. The report, Israeli officials say, is very cautious also because American intelligence agencies are still traumatized over the criticism leveled at them in the wake of the wrong assessment regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
‘Israel, US agree on fundamental question’
It is likely that some officials in the US State Department were also surprised: Up until Tuesday, the State Department thought that more aggressive pressure should be exerted on Iran to convince it to abandon its military nuclear project.

Israeli officials are concerned that the report may ease international pressure on Iran, because if we are talking about an Iranian bomb only in five to six years, and only on the assumption that the military project will be renewed, then there is no legitimacy for a military strike on Iran in the near future. So a military blow will be off the agenda.
Overall, Israel’s credibility when it comes to the anti-Iran campaign may be cracked. When we issue warnings in the future, we will be trusted less than before.

The defense establishment stresses that Israel will continue to stick to the truth and to the professional intelligence assessments it possesses. Even if there are gaps of information vis-à-vis the Americans, officials say, we agree on the fundamental question: The combination of the current  determination to acquire nuclear weapons constitutes a threat to world peace.
A gap of four to five years between us and the Americans is not fundamental, because the way a country prepares for such threats is measured in years, rather than weeks or months. Israel has no intention to stop or slow down these preparations – but now we may have to do this a bit more alone.