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Intelligence Reappraises the Iranian Nuclear Issue

American Intelligence Reappraises the Iranian Nuclear Issue


Ephraim Kam and Ephraim Asculai

At the beginning of December 2007, the National Intelligence Council, the supreme body of the American intelligence community, released a reappraisal of Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities. The document, a non-classified summary of a detailed and classified analysis on the subject, states that Iran halted its secret nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003 and has yet to restart it. The summary also comes to the conclusion that Iran is less intent on developing nuclear weapons than was previously thought. On the other hand, the new assessment also states that, in technical terms, the end of 2009 is the earliest possible date for Iran to produce enough weapons-grade enriched uranium, but that this scenario is not very likely. Technically speaking, Iran can probably enrich enough weapons-grade uranium for a weapon between 2010 and 2015.

The new intelligence assessment reflects the appraisal of the entire American intelligence community, apart from some marginal differences of opinion, and represents a significant shift as compared with the previous intelligence assessment released in December 2005. Two changes in particular stand out:

  • The new intelligence assessment states for the first time that Iran froze a secret military nuclear program that sought to produce and enrich uranium and attempted to turn fissile material into weapons. The 2005 assessment invoked reliable information that Iran was running a secret nuclear program, though nothing connected that activity directly to a nuclear weapons program.
  • The latest assessment expresses doubts regarding Iran’s intentions and determination to develop nuclear weapons, in contrast to the 2005 assessment which stated that Iran was firmly bent on attaining such weapons. It also estimates that Iran is more subject to pressures and influences on the nuclear issue than was previously thought to be the case.

By contrast, there has been no change in the estimated time-frame -– between 2010 and 2015 -- within which Iran will acquire the technical capability to build a nuclear weapon.

The new intelligence document does not make clear whether it was newly received information or a reexamination of existing information that produced the changed assessment. On the basis of the unclassified document, it is therefore difficult to appreciate whether the reappraisal is on firmer ground than the previous assessment. It is fair to assume that the American intelligence community has been affected by its serious failure in Iraq and perhaps also by the fact that senior members of the American defense establishment have expressed reservations about military action against Iran. However, it is also fair to assume that this is a professional assessment. It should be remembered that by releasing this appraisal, the American intelligence community is admitting that it failed when it presented its earlier assessment, and intelligence communities are normally reluctant to admit previous failure.

At the same time, it is important to stress that the new assessment does not negate the possibility that Iran will continue to seek nuclear weapons. On the contrary, the new assessment clearly states that:

  • Iran retains the option to develop nuclear weapons;
  • Iran is accelerating its civilian uranium enrichment program (which, under certain conditions, can also lead to the production of weapons-grade fissile materials);
  • Iran is liable to return to a secret program, which would be the preferred method to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons;
  • it will be difficult to convince Iran to abjure the development of nuclear weapons;
  • Iran has the technological infrastructure needed to develop nuclear weapons should it choose to do so.

Moreover, despite the document’s quasi-moderate conclusions, it stresses the severe dangers inherent in Iran’s nuclear program:

  • Iran’s potential capacity to produce weapons-grade material is the most significant issue of the day. Iran can attain fissile materials through its civilian program should it decide to reject inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Because it is difficult to assess intentions, which are subject to change without warning, this is a threat that needs to be confronted.
  • Given the current state of the uranium enrichment program, Iran can probably not produce weapons-grade fissile material before the end of 2009. However, Iran has successfully overcome technical difficulties in the past and could expand enrichment capabilities within that time frame. At any rate, it does not make a significant difference in terms of evaluating the comprehensive picture of the nuclear program if the target date is somewhat sooner. It is important to examine the issue of a nuclear Iran as a threat, and not as an exercise in assessing time-frames.
  • Iran has a lot of experience in hiding facilities and operations, so the statement that the nuclear weapons program was frozen has only limited value. It is impossible to state whether the freeze is total or partial, whether it is temporary or permanent, and whether activities were simply transferred to different sites and can be renewed at a later date.
  • It is customary to assume that the stage of turning fissile material into nuclear weapons is much shorter than that of producing the fissile material itself. Therefore, there is no guarantee that freezing this stage will impact the general time-frame of the nuclear program.

However, the bottom line that emerges from the reassessment is that the Iranian nuclear threat is not as serious or urgent as previously thought. This assessment therefore reopens the debate over Iran’s determination to develop nuclear weapons that had somewhat subsided in recent years. This conclusion has two immediate ramifications:

  • The rug has been pulled out from under the possibility of any American military action against Iranian nuclear facilities in the near future. As long as the assessment is seen as valid, any American administration will find it difficult to take the kind of action which has, in any case, been extremely problematic. This assessment will also make it more difficult for Israel to justify a military move.
  • The reassessment will also make it difficult to intensify the economic sanctions against Iran, despite their unambiguous success. Even now, some countries – led by Russia and China – are opposed to intensifying the sanctions. The reassessment of the intelligence community will play into the hands of these countries, who will claim that, in light of the document, there is no justification for intensifying the sanctions. The assessment will also support the approach of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has been criticized for being conciliatory to the Iranian nuclear program. Iran has just been handed an unexpected gift and is now claiming that the sanctions already in place ought to be lifted, and it might be able to convince other countries of its position. The Iranian regime will also benefit from increased internal support and can actually accelerate its nuclear program because it will be less pressured diplomatically and less concerned about a military action attack on its nuclear facilities.

Much will depend on the actions taken by the United States and Israel in the near future. At this stage, both countries maintain that the new intelligence assessment will not affect their understanding of the Iranian nuclear threat or the avenues of actions open to them. However, it is clear that the freedom of action of both countries has been curtailed and that both will have to develop new responses to the situation that has been created. Israel will also try to argue that the assessment is not well founded. This will not be easy, because it is safe to assume that the data base available to the American and Israeli intelligence communities is similar and that the difference lies in interpretation. However, it is also necessary to remember that intelligence assessments can be wrong and can change course again.

Finally, if the new intelligence assessment turns out to be correct – and only time will tell – this is good news even though it not does make the Iranian nuclear threat entirely a thing of the past. The problem is that if the assessment is wrong, it will be harder than ever to confront the Iranian threat.

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