Iran hasn’t a nuclear weapons programme

says US intelligence


On 3 December 2007, the US administration published declassified Key Judgments from a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) entitled Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities [1].  Its principal conclusion is that Iran halted its nuclear weapons programme in the autumn of 2003, and hasn’t restarted its programme since.


The US administration’s reaction to this has been to say that nothing has changed, that Iran may not have an active nuclear weapons programme any more, but it has the knowledge to make nuclear weapons, in particular, it knows how to enrich uranium.  However, try as he might, President Bush will have difficulty convincing the world that an Iran that halted a nuclear weapons programme four years ago is as threatening as an Iran with an active nuclear weapons programme – which was the previous story from US intelligence.


What the NIE said

NIEs are formal assessments on specific national security issues, expressing the consensus view of the 16 US intelligence agencies.  Nowadays, they are signed off by the Director of National Intelligence (currently Mike McConnell), a post created in 2005 at the suggestion of the 9/11 Commission.  NIEs are typically requested by senior civilian and military policymakers or by Congressional leaders.  This one, on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, was requested by Congress.


Its principal conclusion is that the US intelligence community


“Judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program. Judge with high confidence that the halt lasted at least several years. …. 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.”


Compare that with the conclusion of a May 2005 assessment, which stated that the intelligence community


“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.”


(See table setting out significant differences between the Key Judgments of this NIE and the May 2005 assessment.)


What the IAEA has found

It must be emphasised that the IAEA has found no evidence that Iran ever had a nuclear weapons programme.  The IAEA’s Director General, Dr Mohamed ElBaradei, was interviewed by Wolf Blitzer on CNN on 28 October 2007.  Blitzer asked:


“Do you believe there is a clandestine, secret nuclear weapons program right now under way in Iran?” [2]


ElBaradei replied:


“We haven’t seen any concrete evidence to that effect, Wolf. We haven’t received any information there is a parallel ongoing, active nuclear weapon program.”


Later in the interview he said:


“But have we seen Iran having the nuclear material that can readily be used into a weapon? No. Have we seen an active weaponization program? No.”


An IAEA statement on 4 December 2007 in response to the NIE said:


“IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei received with great interest the new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate about Iran’s nuclear program which concludes that there has been no on-going nuclear weapons program in Iran since the fall of 2003. He notes in particular that the Estimate tallies with the Agency´s consistent statements over the last few years that, although Iran still needs to clarify some important aspects of its past and present nuclear activities, the Agency has no concrete evidence of an ongoing nuclear weapons program or undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran.” [3]


It should be emphasised that the IAEA has found no evidence of an earlier programme either.


Of course, Iran has uranium conversion and enrichment facilities (at Isfahan and Natanz).  This is Iran’s right as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) so long as these facilities are for peaceful purposes and are under IAEA supervision.  Remember, Article IV(1) of the Treaty states:


“Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.”


These facilities could, in principle, be used to produce highly enriched uranium suitable for nuclear weapons.  But these, and other, nuclear facilities in Iran are subject to IAEA monitoring.  Central to this monitoring is the tracking of nuclear material through Iran’s nuclear facilities to make sure that none is diverted, possibly for military purposes.  Dr ElBaradei’s latest report [4] concluded:


“The Agency has been able to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran. Iran has provided the Agency with access to declared nuclear material, and has provided the required nuclear material accountancy reports in connection with declared nuclear material and activities.” (paragraph 39)


In other words, no nuclear material has gone missing in the course of processing through the nuclear facilities declared by Iran to the IAEA.


What is more, the highest enrichment level detected by the IAEA in the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz is about 4% (see paragraph 21 of Dr ElBaradei’s latest report), which is consistent with the relatively low level of enrichment required for reactor fuel.  An enrichment level of 90% or more is needed for weapons grade uranium.


Why was the NIE published?

So, the IAEA has yet to find any evidence that Iran has, or has ever had, a nuclear weapons programme.  However, it is now the considered opinion of the US intelligence community that, whereas Iran had an active nuclear weapons programme, it halted the programme in the autumn of 2003 and it hasn’t restarted the programme since.


For those in the US administration, including the President himself, who have been ratcheting up the threat due to Iran’s imminent possession of nuclear weapons, this must not have been entirely welcome news.


The question arises: why did the President allow the Key Judgments from this NIE to be made public?  NIEs are classified documents, which are seen by the senior figures in the administration and military and by a select few on the relevant committees in Congress.  It isn’t the usual practice to make even the Key Judgments public.


It seems that the “intelligence community” wanted the principal conclusions of this NIE published.  A statement issued by McConnell’s deputy, Donald Kerr, published along with the Key Judgments, stated:


“The Intelligence Community [IC] is on the record publicly with numerous statements based on our 2005 assessment on Iran. Since our understanding of Iran’s capabilities has changed, we felt it was important to release this information to ensure that an accurate presentation is available. While the decision to release the declassified Key Judgments was coordinated in discussion with senior policy makers, the IC took responsibility for what portions of the NIE Key Judgments were to be declassified.” [5]


That implies that the intelligence community took the initiative in seeking publication.  It certainly makes sense that they wanted their new, less threatening, view of Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities in the public domain.  Having been blamed for supplying flawed intelligence about Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” that was used by the Bush administration as an excuse to invade Iraq in 2003, one can understand that they didn’t want to be blamed for military action being taken against Iran, justified by an outdated assessment that exaggerated their current view of Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities.


But who took the decision to release the Key Judgments?  You might have thought that this was the President’s call, but strangely Kerr’s statement says that the decision to release “was coordinated in discussion with senior policy makers”.  In reality, the President had very little option but to sanction publication, because it was all but certain that the principal conclusion of the NIE – that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programme – would have become public knowledge.


Not only had the intelligence community an interest in getting this conclusion into the public domain, but so had senior figures in the US administration and military who are less than happy with taking military action against Iran in present circumstances.  All the more likely, therefore, that the principal conclusion would have leaked out, to the acute embarrassment of the administration, who would have been accused of suppressing information vital to policy making with regard to Iran.


Better, therefore, to publish the Key Judgments in full, and to play down the degree to which the intelligence judgment had actually changed – and the degree to which the US policy towards Iran needed to be changed as a consequence.  That is what has happened.


Bush prepared the ground

In fact, the President has been preparing the ground for the release of this new intelligence since August 2007, when he was told about it.  Since then, he has been careful not to say that Iran has an active nuclear weapons programme.  Instead, he has been saying that Iran is dangerous because it possesses the technical knowledge to make nuclear weapons – and he has cranked up the rhetoric about the threat from Iran to compensate for the lack of a programme.


For example, at a press conference on 12 July 2007, the President stated bluntly that Iran is “pursuing nuclear weapons” [6] (and is “threatening to wipe Israel off the map” and “providing sophisticated IEDs to extremists in Iraq who are using them to kill American soldiers”).


But, in a speech to the 89th Annual National Convention of the American Legion on 28 August 2007, after he had learnt of the new intelligence, his message had changed to the following:


Iran’s active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust.” [7]


Iran’s crime was reduced from “pursuing nuclear weapons” to the “pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons”.


And, the President’s World War III remark, at a press conference on 17 October 2007 [8], was ironically a product of the new intelligence.


He was given a very hard time about Iran by journalists at that press conference.  Vladimir Putin had visited Tehran with a vast retinue the previous day, the first time a Russian head of state had been there since Joseph Stalin invited himself in 1943.  The occasion was a summit of the five states bordering the Caspian Sea (Russia and Iran plus Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan).  Putin took the opportunity to warn the US not to use force against Iran [9].  It was put to the President that this summit in Tehran proved that Iran was not being isolated for its nuclear activities, on the contrary, “Russia and Iran are going to do business”.  Understandably, the President had difficulty with that.


Another journalist quoted Putin’s words at a press conference with French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, in Moscow a few days earlier on 10 October 2007.  Putin had said:


“We have no evidence that Iran is seeking to build nuclear weapons. We have no objective information to that effect.  … Our assumption, therefore, is that Iran does not have such plans. However, we share the desire of our partners that Iran should make all of its [nuclear] programs absolutely transparent.” (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty report [10])


This prompted the journalist to deliver a sucker punch by asking:


“But you definitively believe Iran wants to build a nuclear weapon?”


Because of the new intelligence judgment, the President could no longer give an unequivocal YES to that, nor could he agree with President Putin and say NO.  Instead, he had to avoid answering the question while continuing to portray Iran as the greatest threat to peace in the world.  Given the President’s verbal ability, it was no surprise that initially he gibbered, saying:


“I think so long -- until they suspend and/or make it clear that they -- that their statements aren’t real, yeah, I believe they want to have the capacity, the knowledge, in order to make a nuclear weapon. And I know it’s in the world’s interest to prevent them from doing so. I believe that the Iranian -- if Iran had a nuclear weapon, it would be a dangerous threat to world peace. But this --”


At that point, it occurred to him to conjure up the spectre of World War III in order to spice up the threat from Iran.  He continued:


“We got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel. So I’ve told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.”


(Vice-President Cheney has also given up saying that Iran has an active nuclear weapons programme.  In a speech on 21 October 2007 [11], he warned of “serious consequences” for Iran, but he merely accused it of “pursuing technology that could be used to develop nuclear weapons”).


Bush’s public reaction to the new intelligence followed the line he established in August 2007: Iran is a threat because it possesses the knowledge to make a nuclear weapon, even though the current intelligence is that it hasn’t got an active programme to do so.  At a press conference on 4 December 2007, he said:


“I think it is very important for the international community to recognize the fact that, if Iran were to develop the knowledge that they could transfer to a clandestine program, it would create a danger for the world. And so I view this report [the NIE] as a warning signal that they had the program, they halted the program. And the reason why it’s a warning signal is that they could restart it. And the thing that would make a restarted program effective and dangerous is the ability to enrich uranium, the knowledge of which could be passed on to a hidden program.” [12]


That is the line he had been taking since August 2007.  However, he will have difficulty convincing the world that an Iran that halted its nuclear weapons programme four years ago (allegedly) is as threatening as an Iran with an active nuclear weapons programme.


Covert weapons programme

The new NIE is very confident that Iran had an active nuclear weapons programme up to 2003.  It says:


“We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; … We assess with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons.” (Key Judgment A)


The compilers of the NIE make it clear that the “nuclear weapons programme” referred to here does not involve Iran’s declared uranium conversion and enrichment facilities at Istfahan and Natanz.  In a footnote, they say:


“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.”


In Key Judgment F, the NIE states:


“A growing amount of intelligence indicates Iran was engaged in covert uranium conversion and uranium enrichment activity, but we judge that these efforts probably were halted in response to the fall 2003 halt, and that these efforts probably had not been restarted through at least mid-2007.”


So, according to the NIE, up to the autumn of 2003, Iran was engaged in covert uranium conversion and enrichment activities that it didn’t declare to the IAEA – in addition to the declared uranium conversion and uranium enrichment facilities at Istfahan and Natanz.  In other words, the facilities at Istfahan and Natanz were not believed by US intelligence to be the means whereby Iran was going to manufacture highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.  Conversion and enrichment activity for this purpose was going on covertly elsewhere in Iran, as was other work relevant to a nuclear weapons programme.  The US intelligence community allegedly believed this until a few months ago.


If Iran had a nuclear weapons programme aiming to use highly enriched uranium as fissile material, it was always unlikely that its declared uranium conversion and enrichment facilities at Istfahan and Natanz were integral to the programme.  These declared facilities are under IAEA supervision and it is therefore next to impossible for Iran to enrich uranium to weapons grade at Natanz, or to divert uranium from Natanz to be enriched to weapons grade elsewhere, without detection by the IAEA.  If Iran had a weapons programme, the likelihood was that it had covert uranium conversion and enrichment facilities elsewhere – and apparently that’s what US intelligence believed.


It follows from this that halting Iran’s declared uranium conversion and enrichment activities would not have halted Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.  Yet, the US has led the way in demanding that Iran halt its declared uranium conversion and enrichment activity and has persuaded the Security Council to support this demand and to impose economic sanctions on Iran in order to persuade Iran to comply.  This makes no sense.


If the primary objective of Iran’s nuclear activity was weapons development, as the US has claimed, then the sensible thing for it to do was halt its declared conversion and enrichment activities – thereby lulling the outside world into a false sense of security – and continue with its covert activities geared to weapons development.


Halting background?

What was the background to Iran halting its nuclear weapons programme?  According to the NIE, it happened at the same time as Iran’s “announcement of its decision to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program” (Key Judgment A).  This was made in a joint statement [13] with the Foreign Ministers of the UK, France and Germany (the so-called E3) on 21 October 2003.  This statement signalled the beginning of negotiations between Iran and the E3 about Iran’s nuclear programme, which ended with Iran’s rejection of the E3 proposals of 5 August 2005 for a long-term agreement [14].


The joint statement, which set out the basis of the negotiations, accepted that “Iran has a right within the nuclear non-proliferation regime to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” and that its suspension of uranium conversion and enrichment activities was a voluntary act that wasn’t required by the NPT.


But the E3 proposals for a long-term agreement required Iran to abandon uranium conversion and enrichment for ever, which would have denied Iran its rights under the NPT.  So, any nuclear power generation in Iran would be dependent on a supply of fuel from abroad, which could be cut off at any time, even though Iran has a plentiful domestic supply of uranium ore.  It was hardly surprising that Iran rejected these proposals out of hand and subsequently resumed uranium enrichment in January 2006.


This was the trigger for the IAEA Board passing a resolution on 4 February 2006, reporting Iran to the Security Council [15].  It was reported to the Security Council, not because it refused to take measures required by the NPT, but because it refused to suspend uranium enrichment, which is its “inalienable right” under the NPT. 


On 6 June 2006, the 5 permanent members of the Security Council (the so-called P5) and Germany made new proposals to Iran, and undertook to enter into negotiations with Iran on the basis of these proposals, providing Iran met certain pre-conditions, chief amongst which is the familiar demand that Iran suspend uranium enrichment.  The new proposals, like the E3 proposals of a year earlier, seek to ban Iran from enriching uranium, but permit Iran to engage in other uranium processing activity [16].  Iran has not accepted these proposals as the basis for negotiations, but it hasn’t rejected them either – at the time of writing (14 December 2007), Javier Solana, the EU’s High Representative on Foreign and Security Policy, is still talking to Iran about them.


Meanwhile, the Security Council has passed three resolutions – the last two imposing economic sanctions – demanding that Iran suspend uranium enrichment, which it has refused to do.


Clean bill of health?

The publication of the new NIE has reduced the US administration’s ability to portray Iran as an imminent danger to the Middle East and the world as a possessor of nuclear weapons.  The President has been reduced to saying that Iran had a weapons programme in the past at undeclared sites, and could restart the programme if it wished. 


It is difficult for Iran to prove that it hasn’t got a weapons programme today, and even more difficult to prove that it hadn’t one in the past (assuming it hadn’t one).  However, the IAEA is currently engaged in a programme of work with Iran, which aims to answer the IAEA’s outstanding questions about Iran’s past nuclear activities.  Assuming that, when this work is complete, the IAEA is satisfied that none of Iran’s past nuclear activities was for military purposes, then any objective observer – if not the US President – would begin to question the new NIE’s confident assertion that Iran had a nuclear weapons programme up to 2003.


It is clear from Dr ElBaradei’s latest report on 15 November 2007 [4] that good progress has been made in answering the IAEA’s outstanding questions.  So, it is possible that the IAEA will soon be in a position to give Iran a clean bill of health – to say that


(a)     all outstanding questions about Iran’s past nuclear activites have been answered and there is no evidence that any of these activities were for military purposes, and

(b)     Iran is facilitating IAEA supervision of its current nuclear activities and the IAEA has found no diversion of nuclear material from them (for military or any other purpose).


Of course, we are talking here about nuclear activities that Iran has declared to the IAEA.  And, as Dr ElBaradei wrote in his latest report:


“Confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme requires that the Agency be able to provide assurances not only regarding declared nuclear material, but, equally importantly, regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran. Although the Agency has no concrete information, other than that addressed through the work plan, about possible current undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, the Agency is not in a position to provide credible assurances about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran without full implementation of the Additional Protocol.” (paragraph 43)


The Additional Protocol, which isn’t mandatory for a signatory to the NPT, is designed to allow the IAEA to get a full picture of a state’s nuclear activities by providing the agency with authority to visit any facility, declared or not, and to visit unannounced.


Iran signed an Additional Protocol in December 2003 and operated it until February 2006, even though it wasn’t ratified by the Iranian parliament.  Iran ceased operating it in February 2006, when it was referred to the Security Council.  It remains to be seen if Iran will resume operating it now.


Malloch-Brown makes a fool of himself

The British Government has refused to say whether it agrees with its closest ally that Iran hasn’t an active nuclear weapons programme.


Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, appeared on BBC Radio 4’s World at One on 4 December 2007, the day after the NIE Key Judgments were published.  But he might as well not have bothered.  As the transcript of the interview on the Foreign Office website shows [17], he repeatedly refused to give a straight answer when asked if the British Government agreed with the new US intelligence judgment.


The question also led to Miliband’s “eminence grise”, Foreign Office Minister, Lord Malloch-Brown, making a fool of himself in the House of Lords on 11 December 2007 [18].  Asked


“Whether [the British Government’s] assessment of recent developments in the Iranian nuclear programme is similar to that set out in the new United States National Intelligence Estimate.”


he replied:


“My Lords, I am told that it is not the practice of this Government or previous Governments to comment on intelligence matters.”


He replied in similar vein to three similar questions, before Lord Butler of Brockwell (who gave his name to the Butler report) rose to ask:


“My Lords, how does the Minister square his statement that it is not the custom of this Government or previous Governments to comment on intelligence with the decision of the previous Government to publish a dossier of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq leading up to the war and the statement of the previous Prime Minister that he now wishes he had published the whole JIC [Joint Intelligence Committee] assessment?”


to which Malloch-Brown replied:


“My Lords, this novice Minister was very much hoping that that particular noble Lord would not be in the House today. He will notice that I referred to the fact that I had been told that this was the practice. As someone who was out of the country at the time, I must say I scratch my head to reconcile this with the practice when the noble Lord was involved in these issues.”


You would have thought an “eminence grise” could do better than that.


US helps Iran’s nuclear programme

Dr ElBaradei’s latest report [4] contains interesting information about how the US/UK and other states helped Iran with its nuclear programme in the 1970s:


“According to Iran, in its early years, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) concluded a number of contracts with entities from France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States of America to enable it to acquire nuclear power and a wide range of related nuclear fuel cycle services, but after the 1979 revolution, these contracts with a total value of around $10 billion were not fulfilled. Iran noted that one of the contracts, signed in 1976, was for the development of a pilot plant for laser enrichment.” (paragraph 4)


As a footnote makes clear, this contract for a laser enrichment pilot plant was with a US company.


An article by Dafna Linzer in The Washington Post on 27 March 2005, entitled Past Arguments Don't Square With Current Iran Policy [19], describes US nuclear policy towards Iran in the 1970s, a policy that was very different to today’s.  Ironically, it was pursued by some of the individuals who held jobs in the present Bush administration.  Here’s a flavour of the article:


“Lacking direct evidence, Bush administration officials argue that Iran’s nuclear program must be a cover for bomb-making. Vice President Cheney recently said, ‘They’re already sitting on an awful lot of oil and gas. Nobody can figure why they need nuclear as well to generate energy’.


“Yet Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and outgoing Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz held key national security posts when the Ford administration made the opposite argument 30 years ago.


“Ford’s team endorsed Iranian plans to build a massive nuclear energy industry, but also worked hard to complete a multibillion-dollar deal that would have given Tehran control of large quantities of plutonium and enriched uranium – the two pathways to a nuclear bomb.


Iran, a US ally then, had deep pockets and close ties to Washington. US companies, including Westinghouse and General Electric, scrambled to do business there.


“‘I don’t think the issue of proliferation came up’, Henry A. Kissinger, who was Ford’s Secretary of State, said in an interview for this article. 


“After balking initially, President Gerald R. Ford signed a directive in 1976 offering Tehran the chance to buy and operate a US-built reprocessing facility for extracting plutonium from nuclear reactor fuel. The deal was for a complete ‘nuclear fuel cycle’ – reactors powered by and regenerating fissile materials on a self-sustaining basis.”


But, as Dafna Linzer says, Iran was an ally of the US then.


David Morrison

Labour & Trade Union Review

14 December 2007



















[17]  See