Dispatch December 2007

The NIE in Doubt?

Well-placed sources suggest that Iran may have in fact accelerated its weapons program
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Yesterday’s revelations about Iran’s nuclear weapons program turns the last four years of speculation and suspicion on its head.  What once seemed certain – that Iran was building nuclear weapons – is now in doubt.  But a close reading of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) summary and sources within the Iranian opposition in fact leaves little conviction that the NIE is correct.

There is much that the four-page document doesn’t say—most notably what kind of intelligence reporting led to the conclusion that Iran had ceased its drive toward nuclear weapons, or why Iran’s behavior indicates anything but a halt in its weapons program. One hopes that the full 150-page estimate, which is classified, addresses these questions. But one aspect of the story that we do know something about is the intelligence community’s assertion that “pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared work” was primarily responsible for the alleged halt.  The NIE fails to note where this initial exposure came from—not from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or U.S. intelligence agencies, but from an Iranian exile group known as the National Council of Resistance to Iran (NCRI). 

From the archives:

"The Point of No Return" (January/February 2006)
First Pakistan's A.Q. Khan showed that any country could have made a nuclear bomb. Then he showed—not once but three times—why the nuclear trade will never be shut down. By William Langewiesche

The NCRI has its own troubled story and suffers from what could safely be called a delusional aspiration to take over the leadership of Iran , but it has been consistently accurate in its revelations about Iran’s nuclear program, the first of which came in a press conference held in August 2002.  That day, the NCRI exposed two nuclear sites in Iran, one of which was called Natanz, and was the site of Iran’s uranium enrichment program. It was the first the world had heard of Iran’s having an actual enrichment facility, and in the following months and years, more disclosures would come to light with the help of the NCRI – plutonium facilities, a robust missile program capable of delivering nuclear warheads, and eventually, the international nuclear weapons network of AQ Khan. 

In response to yesterday’s news, NCRI’s representative in the U.S., Alireza Jaferzadeh, told me that his sources in Iran say that the country has not halted its weapons program; in fact, he says, the program has accelerated in recent years under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadenijad. According to Jaferzadeh’s sources in Iran (the same ones behind the initial revelations about Iran’s nuclear sites) Iran has slowly turned over responsibility for the program from Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and in doing so has moved more and more of the country’s nuclear weapons program underground and to military sites (which are traditionally off-limits to UN inspectors) and to universities controlled by the IRGC.  This is the same Revolutionary Guards organization that the Bush administration is now considering designating as a foreign terrorist organization.  Jaferzadeh worries that with the movement of programs and facilities from the civilian sector to the military, the intelligence community is missing the complete picture. While the NIE does note that “a growing amount of intelligence indicates Iran was engaged in covert uranium conversion and uranium enrichment activity,” it estimates that this underground activity was “probably” halted in fall 2003 with the rest of the program.  That “probably” should be cause for concern. 

“What are they [the NIE] referring to when why say that Iran has halted their program?” Jaferzadeh wonders. And he has a point. While Iran did suspend uranium enrichment for a time, it reversed this move in early 2006. Natanz went live later that year, and just last week, Iran started operating 3,000 of the estimated 60,000 centrifuges at Natanz, making good on its promise of industrial-scale uranium enrichment.  Since the alleged halt, Iran has continued to develop a ballistic missile program capable of delivering nuclear warheads and consistently obfuscated UN inspections.  Nowhere in the NIE is there discussion as to why Iran would resume this enrichment and continue to thwart the inspectors if it were giving in to international pressure and halting its program.  “Honestly speaking,” Jaferzadeh told me, “this  whole thing just looks like a successful disinformation campaign by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence.” The NIE also ignores another explanation for Iran’s alleged halt of weapons activities, according to Jon Wolfsthal, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC and longtime observer of Iran’s nuclear program.  “Maybe they thought they had a workable design [for a nuclear weapon] in 2003 and decided they could stop there,” Wolfstahl told me. “We are only getting a piece of the picture.”

The only way to know for sure that Iran had ceased its weapons program would be for  Iran to offer up that evidence itself.  If the leadership were to allow open IAEA inspections of its facilities and agree to the proposals on the table to cease its uranium enrichment program, we would have a public component to these whisperings.  But Iran seems to be headed in the opposite direction – they have just replaced their chief atomic negotiator with a close friend of Ahmadenijad’s, Saeed Jalili, who has already effectively derailed the negotiations.  Last Friday, Jalili announced that all proposals made in the past were off the table, and that any more discussion of freezing Iran’s enrichment program was “unnecessary.” Any further negotiations, he said, would take place solely with the IAEA, and not with European and Russian counterparts as had been customary in the past. “Now that the U.S. has said [that Iran halted its program], it puts Iran in a tremendously strong position,” [Wolfsthal] told me. “They can feel that they have been right all along.  They can omit the fact that the NIE says they had a secret weapons program.”  Wolfsthal believes that Iran clearly wants a nuclear capability – a civilian program that has the means to become a weapons program if Iran so desires. 

All this begs the question:  If Iran were really succumbing to international pressure in halting its weapons program, why would it not do so in a way that would benefit the country?  If it were to take the measures of ceasing enrichment and adopting transparency, the numerous sanctions and restrictions against it would be lifted.  A key moment would have been nine months ago, when the UN Security Council enacted tough new sanctions against the country for failing to cooperate with the IAEA. But Iran made no concessions. So what has it gained in all this by the logic of U.S. intelligence? The NIE essentially claims that Iran has created for itself a lose-lose situation, where it has stopped its nuclear weapons program without reaping any of the benefits.  Why would Iran have any interest in such a scenario?  It is a question the NIE summary fails to address, and one that should keep us wondering about Iran’s true intentions and capabilities. 

Terrence Henry is an Atlantic staff editor.
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Terrence Henry

Terrence Henry is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. More

Terrence Henry is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. In January 2009, he and his wife embarked on a food tour of Argentina, Spain, Italy, England, Canada, and the United States. Some 13 months later he settled in Austin, where he is now learning the art of Texas barbecue and writing about food and film.
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