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The CIA's Curious Report on Iran's Nuclear Program

Ignoring more questions than it answers.

4:15 PM, Apr 1, 2010 • By MICHAEL ANTON
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WINPAC—the CIA’s clearinghouse for data on various weapons and delivery systems—sent a new report to Congress this week that amounts to one of the intelligence community’s few sustained public statements on Iran’s drive to acquire nuclear weapons since the widely noticed (and discredited) November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate.  This report is not to be confused with a new NIE, which is in the works and said to be ready for release sometime this month. This, rather, is a more routine document, required by law and mostly treated as pro forma.

The CIA's Curious Report on Iran's Nuclear Program

That partly explains why the report got so little attention.  But it is not without interest. 

Recall that the crux of the 2007 NIE was the assertion that, in 2003, Iran halted its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons and had not since restarted them.  That finding was based solely on the Intelligence Community’s judgment that Iran had stopped working on “weaponization,” i.e., designing bombs and acquiring and making their components.  A footnote clarified that this finding did not cover “Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.”  Since the same technology used to make reactor fuel can easily produce fissile material usable for a weapon, and since producing such material is by far the hardest part of making a nuclear weapon, the footnote essentially cut the guts out of the main text’s finding.  Even the NIE’s putative author, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, eventually admitted as much.  Testifying before Congress in February 2008, he said, “The only thing that they’ve halted was nuclear weapons design, which is probably the least significant part of the program. So if I’d had until now to think about it, I probably would have changed a thing or two.” 

The prior WINPAC report, which covered calendar year 2008 and was released in early 2009, repeated the 2007 NIE’s language almost word for word, despite the DNI’s disavowal of a year prior.  The latest one, which dropped on Tuesday of this week and covers 2009, makes no mention whatsoever of weaponization.  Were transcripts of McConnell’s remarks finally circulated to the drafters? 

Whatever the reason, the omission is curious.  If WINPAC now judges that the 2007 NIE was wrong (an inescapable conclusion, incidentally), why not just say so?  Wouldn’t it help restore some of the Intelligence Community’s lost credibility?  Allied intelligence services never believed the NIE and were embarrassed by it.  Wouldn’t a signal to them that we have regained our senses be useful? 

Even more curious: there was a significant piece of news late last year regarding weaponization.  Apparently, a still-secret report by the International Atomic Energy Agency found evidence that Iran was testing high-explosive lens for a two-point implosion warhead design.  This is significant because A) that is purely weapons technology; it has no other possible use; B) it’s a sophisticated design, well beyond the first generation bombs that so far every nuclear power has used as their initial step; and C) the purpose of two point implosion is to reduce a warhead’s weight and bulk, making it easier to put it on a missile. 

Clearly, this leak threw another swimming pool full of cold water on the 2007 NIE’s finding that Iran had halted “weaponization” in 2003.  Two-point implosion is weaponization pure and simple. 

But the new report doesn’t mention it.  Is that because we know the IAEA is wrong?  Because the leak was wrong and the IAEA finding was not as advertised?  We have no way of knowing and the WINPAC report sheds no light. 

Reading a little further, one finds the latest expression of a now-common argument as to why no one should be too worried quite yet about Iran’s intentions.  Because, after all, we don’t yet know what those intentions are: 

    We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons though we do not know whether Tehran eventually will decide to produce nuclear weapons.  Iran continues to develop a range of capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so. 

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