Iran hasn’t got an active nuclear weapons programme,

says US intelligence


by David Morrison







(1)  According to the US intelligence community




(2)  The US intelligence community set out this view in a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in November 2007.  It remains the view of the US intelligence community today.



(3)  The November 2011 IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear activities did not state that Iran has an active nuclear weapons programme, contrary to the impression given in much of the media commentary on it.



(4)  Iran has declared to the IAEA 15 nuclear facilities (including its uranium enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordow) and 9 other locations where nuclear material is customarily used.  These sites are all being monitored by the IAEA.  In its February 2012 report, the IAEA confirmed for the umpteenth time that there was no diversion of nuclear material from these facilities.



(5)  After the publication of the November 2007 NIE, US military action against Iran was off the agenda.  President George Bush wrote in his memoir Decision Points: “How could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?”



(6)  Today, President Barack Obama should be asking himself the same question, since the US intelligence community is still saying that Iran has no active nuclear weapons program.



Iran hasn’t got an active nuclear weapons programme,

says US intelligence


In 2007, President George Bush abandoned any thought of taking military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, despite the prompting of vice-President Cheney.  He did so because the US intelligence community had come to the conclusion that Iran hadn’t got an active nuclear weapons programme.


This assessment was contained in the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities, key judgments of which were made public.  These stated, inter alia:


“We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program … We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007 …” [1]


NIEs are formal assessments on specific national security issues, expressing the consensus view of the 16 US intelligence agencies, which are signed off by the Director of National Intelligence (currently James Clapper).  NIEs are typically requested by senior civilian and military policymakers or by Congressional leaders.  This one was requested by Congress.


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


“IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei received with great interest the new US 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.” [2]



President Bush’s hands tied

In his memoir, Decision Points, President Bush wrote that the NIE assessment on Iran’s nuclear programme “tied [his] hands on the military side”.  He asked:


“But after the NIE, how could I possible explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?”


One might have thought that the President would have welcomed intelligence that Iran wasn’t developing nuclear weapons.  After all, preventing Iran acquiring nuclear weapons was supposed to be a major objective of his policy towards Iran.  But he makes it clear in his memoir that, far from welcoming this intelligence, he was “angry” that the US intelligence community had come to this conclusion and, by so doing, “tied [his] hands on the military side”.


One could be forgiven for thinking that the President’s objective in respect of Iran went much further that preventing it acquiring nuclear weapons.



Clapper and Burgess say Iran has not made a decision

So, it was the judgement of the US intelligence community in 2007 that at that time Iran wasn’t actively trying to build nuclear weapons.  At the time of writing (1 March 2012), that is still the judgement of the US intelligence community – successive annual reports to Congress by the Director of the National Intelligence Agency on threats to the US have restated the judgement that Iran hasn’t got an active nuclear weapons programme.


On 16 February this year, the present Director, James Clapper, reported as follows to the Senate Armed Services Committee:


“We assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons … . We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.” [3]


That was in the Director’s prepared statement.  During the taking of oral evidence, the Chairman of the Committee, Senator Carl Levin, asked:


“Director Clapper, I understand then that what you have said … is that they have, that Iran has not yet decided to develop nuclear weapons.  Is that correct?  Is that still your assessment?” [4]


The Director replied unequivocally:


“That is the intelligence community’s assessment …”



Panetta says Iran has not made a decision

On the same day, 16 February 2012, US Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, gave the same assessment to another Congressional committee, saying that Iran has not made a decision on whether to proceed with development of an atomic bomb.  See Washington Post report headed Panetta says Iran enriching uranium but no decision yet on proceeding with a nuclear weapon [5].


A month earlier, on 8 January 2012, Panetta was asked about Iran’s nuclear programme on Face the Nation on CBS.  He replied:


“Are they [the Iranians] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No.” [6]



Clapper says Israeli intelligence “largely agree”

Do the Israeli intelligence services disagree with this assessment?  Not significantly, judging by other oral evidence given to the Committee by Director Clapper and by General Ronald Burgess, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who also appeared before the Committee.


Asked by Senator Richard Blumenthal


“whether there are differences from our threat assessments of Iran’s nuclear capability and the potential response to Israeli intervention there and the Israelis’ intelligence assessments?” [7]


Clapper replied:


“If your question is: do we and the Israelis largely agree then the answer’s yes”.


Senator Blumenthal asked General Burgess if he agreed.  The General’s reply was as follows:


“Sir, I do.  And we’ve been in these discussions for many years.  I personally have been involved in them in both my previous life and in this life and generally speaking our assessments track with one another, they comport.”



Reported Israeli intelligence views

Quotations from key Israeli intelligence service personnel published in the Israeli media, broadly speaking, confirm this view.


For example, Israel: Iran still mulling whether to build nuclear bomb was the headline on an article by Amos Harel in Haaretz on 18 January 2012, just before a visit to Israel by the head of the US military.  The article said:


Iran has not yet decided whether to make a nuclear bomb, according to the intelligence assessment Israeli officials will present later this week to General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.


“The Israeli view is that while Iran continues to improve its nuclear capabilities, it has not yet decided whether to translate these capabilities into a nuclear weapon – or, more specifically, a nuclear warhead mounted atop a missile. Nor is it clear when Iran might make such a decision.” [8]


This concurs with the view expressed in January 2011 by the head of Israeli military intelligence, Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi, just after his appointment to the post.


According to an Agence France Presse report, he told the Knesset foreign affairs and defence committee on 25 January 2011 that “Iran is not currently working on producing a nuclear weapon but could make one within ‘a year or two’ of taking such a decision” [9].  He added that Iran “would then need more time to develop an effective missile delivery system for it”.


He also said “it was unlikely that Iran which currently enriches uranium to 20 percent, would start enriching to the 90 percent level needed for a bomb, because it would be in open breach of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty exposing it to harsher sanctions or even a US or Israeli military strike”, adding that “at the moment, it's not in Iran's interest to move their programme ahead”.


Earlier in January 2011, Meir Dagan, who had just retired as head of Mossad, told the same Committee that he did not believe that Iran would be able to produce a nuclear weapon until 2015 (see Haaretz, 7 January 2011, [10]).  According to Haaretz, he said that “Iran was a long way from being able to produce nuclear weapons, following a series of failures that had set its program back by several years”.


(In May 2011, he described an Israeli air attack on Iranian nuclear facilities as "the stupidest thing I have ever heard" (see Haaretz, 7 May 2011, [11])).


So, whereas Israeli political leaders often assert that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is imminent, Israel’s intelligence services question whether Iran has made a decision to develop nuclear weapons.  In that, they appear to be at one with the US intelligence community.




November 2011 IAEA report

But surely the November 2011 IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear activities [12] presented evidence that Iran has an active nuclear weapons programme?  The answer is NO.


When the report was published, a White House spokesperson said:


“The IAEA does not assert that Iran has resumed a full scale nuclear weapons program … .”


See White House: IAEA Report Doesn't Change Assessment Of Iran's Nuclear Ambitions by Marc Ambinder, National Journal, 8 November 2011 [13].


On 10 November 2011, Professor Paul Pillar wrote of the IAEA report:


“Despite references in the surge of report commentary about new evidence on this or that aspect of the subject, the report told us nothing of importance to policy on Iran that was not already well known.” [14]


(Professor Pillar retired from the CIA in 2005 after 28 years service, his last post being National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia).


On 23 January 2012, Peter Jenkins, the UK’s ambassador to the IAEA from 2001 to 2006, wrote of the report’s findings in the Daily Telegraph:


“The IAEA says that prior to 2003 Iran researched some of the know-how needed for a weapon, and that further research may have taken place in the years since. The IAEA has not reported evidence of attempts to produce nuclear weapons, or of a decision to do so.” [15]


On 22 February 2012, Hans Blix, former head of the IAEA, wrote of the report’s findings in the New Statesman:


“The IAEA did not … conclude that Iran was making a weapon or had taken a decision to make one.” [16]



Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone

The international community, including the US and the EU, is committed to the creation of a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East.


Today, the only impediment to the achievement of this objective is Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons, which it can deliver by aircraft, ballistic missile and submarine to any target in the Middle East.  Some experts believe that Israel may have as many as 400 nuclear warheads [17].  Iran has none.


Yet, the US and the EU are applying ferocious economic sanctions against Iran, and threatening military action against it, but they are applying no sanctions whatsoever against Israel.  Iran could be forgiven for thinking that a double standard is being applied.


And there is more.  Iran’s nuclear facilities are open to IAEA inspection.  By contrast, Israel’s nuclear facilities are not (apart from a 5MW reactor supplied by the US in 1955, located at Nahal Soreq).  Strangely, unlike Iran’s, Israel’s nuclear facilities are never described as “secret”. 


The Security Council has demanded that Israel open its nuclear facilities to IAEA inspection.  On 19 June 1981, in resolution 487, it called


“upon Israel urgently to place its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards”. [18]


Israel has ignored the resolution for over 30 years – and, unlike Iran, it has not been sanctioned.



David Morrison

1 March 2012






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