The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear weapons program lives on in the imagination of some government officials. At the end of a lengthy piece by James Risen in the New York Times this past weekend an anonymous official claims: “That assessment holds up really well.”
No, it does not.
The authors of the 2007 NIE famously argued that the Iranians halted their nuclear weapons program in 2003 and had not restarted it since. The U.S. intelligence community defined “nuclear weapons program” as “Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work.” For no good reason, the NIE’s definition excluded “Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.”
The idea was that while Iran continued to install centrifuges and improve its long-range missile capability it did so as part of a declared and purportedly civilian program, so there was nothing to worry about. As was widely pointed out at the time, this was foolish because a “civilian” nuclear program today can quite easily become a military program tomorrow. This has happened time and again around the globe.
The 2007 NIE was also flat wrong about Iran’s covert work. In September 2009, President Obama announced that “Iran has been building a covert uranium enrichment facility near Qom for several years.” Obama noted that “the size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program.” Incredibly, the intelligence community was aware of the facility at Qom before it even published the 2007 NIE.
This should have been the end of the 2007 NIE. Covert uranium enrichment was explicitly included in the NIE’s definition of Iran’s “nuclear weapons program.” By continuing to build such a facility, the Iranians showed that they had not decided to end all work on the bomb. They were simply trying to hide it.
And that is one of the main flaws in both the 2007 NIE and the narrative offered by U.S. officials to Risen. The part about covert uranium enrichment efforts has been disproven, so American officials are hanging onto nuanced arguments about the most clandestine aspects of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, including weapon design, or “weaponization.” The potential for failure cannot be overstated.
To his credit, Risen does a good job reporting on the many holes in the U.S. intelligence community’s knowledge of Iran’s nuclear machinations. As Risen has reported on multiple occasions, America’s spy network inside Iran has been seriously compromised, if not outright eliminated. Consider that one former intelligence official cited by Risen says, “Iran is the hardest intelligence target there is. It is harder by far than North Korea.”
North Korea is perhaps the most closed society on the planet. U.S. intelligence has long been almost entirely blind inside the country. According to Risen’s source, the spooks’ window into Iran is even smaller. They don’t really know what is going on; they are making guesses.
The 2007 NIE zombie suffered a head shot in 2010, Risen tells readers, when U.S. intelligence officials “[i]ntercepted communications of Iranian officials discussing their nuclear program.” This “raised concerns that the country’s leaders had decided to revive efforts to develop a weapon,” but “in the end, they deemed the intercepts and other evidence unpersuasive, and they stuck to their longstanding conclusion.”
Of course, this was not such a “longstanding conclusion.”
In its 2005 NIE, the U.S. intelligence community came to exactly the opposite conclusion – Iran was forging ahead with its nuclear weapons program. It was just two years later, in late 2007, that they reversed their stance by carefully selecting their words to achieve a desired conclusion. But even that policy-driven definition of Iran’s nuclear weapons program proved problematic just two years later when, in 2009, President Obama went public with the intelligence about Qom.
By early 2010, the U.S. government seemed ready to abandon any pretense of accuracy with respect to the 2007 NIE’s conclusions. On January 3, 2010 the New York Timesreported:
Mr. Obama’s top advisers say they no longer believe the key finding of a much disputed National Intelligence Estimate about Iran, published a year before President George W. Bush left office, which said that Iranian scientists ended all work on designing a nuclear warhead in late 2003.
After reviewing new documents that have leaked out of Iran and debriefing defectors lured to the West, Mr. Obama’s advisers say they believe the work on weapons design is continuing on a smaller scale -- the same assessment reached by Britain, France, Germany and Israel.
Notice that Obama administration officials cited new leaked documents and defector debriefings as the reason for their change of heart. This is likely part of what Risen calls “other information.”
Indeed, on January 15, 2010, Newsweek’s Mark Hosenball reported that “U.S. intelligence agencies are quietly revising their widely disputed assertion that Iran has no active program to design or build a nuclear bomb.” Hosenball’s sources warned that the new estimate would likely be “Talmudic” in its “parsing,” because while the Iranians continued to “research” how to build a bomb, they were not in “development” – that is, “actually trying to build a bomb.”
Huh? Research is part of development, no? That’s why corporations around the world call it “research and development.”
In any event, the new intelligence mentioned by the Times and Hosenball was sufficient to move forward with a new NIE, or at least that is what was reported.
In February 2010, Josh Rogin reported at Foreign Policy that “the Obama administration is getting ready to finalize a new National Intelligence Estimate that is expected to walk back the conclusions of the 2007 report on Iran's nuclear program.” Then, in March 2010, Hosenball explained that the updated NIE “has been kicked down the road yet again,” but was still “expected to be more hawkish about Iran's nuclear intentions.” (More “realistic” is probably a better description, but I digress.)
Despite the delays, Rogin reported about one year later, in February 2011: “The U.S. intelligence community has completed and is circulating a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear weapons program that walks back the conclusion of the 2007 NIE, which stated that Iran had halted work on its covert nuclear weapons program.”
This conflicts with Risen’s reporting. Risen says that the “intelligence crisis that erupted in 2010” ended when U.S. intelligence officials “stuck” to the 2007 NIE’s conclusions.
By February 2011, the U.S. intelligence community had long been aware of the facility at Qom. They were also aware of intercepted communications, new leaked documents, and the testimony of Iranian defectors – all of which indicated they got it wrong in the 2007 NIE.
Taking the word of Risen’s sources at face value, however, we are to believe the 2007 NIE lived on. But in November 2011 a new protagonist tried to kill it: the IAEA.
“Since 2002,” the IAEA’s report reads, “the Agency has become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile, about which the Agency has regularly received new information.”
The IAEA’s stream of “new information” began the year before the 2007 NIE’s authors said Iran discontinued its nuclear weapons program and continued thereafter. Of particular concern to the IAEA is the work of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a key figure in Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It was Fakhrizadeh’s shop that was suddenly shuttered in 2003 and, the U.S. intelligence community assumed, stayed closed. But the IAEA documents in some detail how Fakhrizadeh has played a shell game, moving his operation from one venue to another. No matter where Fakhrizadeh houses his operation, the IAEA says, the Agency remains “concerned because some of the activities undertaken after 2003 would be highly relevant to a nuclear weapon programme.”
That work includes efforts towards what is, in all likelihood, weaponization.
The IAEA mentions work on a “multipoint initiation concept.” The IAEA adds that, prior to 2003, the “dimensions of the initiation system and the explosives used with it were consistent with the dimensions” for a new payload that were “given to the engineers who were studying how to integrate the new payload into the chamber of the Shahab 3 missile re-entry vehicle.” After 2003, Iran “engaged in experimental research involving a scaled down version” of this initiation concept.
Some have tried to claim that this work was related solely to the production of nanodiamonds. But this is highly doubtful as it was consistent with weapon design prior to 2003 and it continued under the auspices of Fakrizadeh’s post-2003 nuclear research.
If we are to infer just a bit, it appears that the “multipoint initiation concept,” or related work, is what Hosenball’s sources referred to as “research” as opposed to “development” when they mentioned the intelligence community’s “Talmudic” interpretation of the intelligence.
There are still more details in the IAEA’s report. In short, the intelligence indicates the Iranians did not stop all work on weaponization either.
The 2007 NIE’s authors began by arguing that Ayatollah Khameini issued a stop work order in 2003 and he had not rescinded it since. That was disproven by the facility at Qom and extensive other intelligence since then.
But in the minds of some U.S. officials the 2007 NIE lives on.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.