The Blog

About that 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran . . .

5:02 PM, Sep 25, 2009 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In November of 2007, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) drafted a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear program. In its publicly released "Key Judgments," the IC concluded: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program." A footnote at the end of that sentence made it clear just what the IC thought had been "halted" (emphasis added):

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.

As many noted at the time, the language and logic of the NIE were nonsensical. There were transparent flaws in its analysis, including the arbitrary decision to set aside concerns over Iran's overt uranium enrichment and ballistic missile development efforts -- both of which continued apace.

Now, with the Obama administration's revelation this morning that Iran has secretly built a covert uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom, we know just how flat wrong -- and potentially willfully misleading -- that 2007 NIE was.

This morning, standing alongside UK prime minister Gordon Brown and French president Nicolas Sarkozy, President Obama announced that the three nations had discovered a secret Iranian enrichment facility. Obama noted that "the size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program."

That is, Iran has built a covert uranium enrichment facility that was intended to produce fuel for nuclear weapons. It is this type of facility that the IC considered part of Iran's "nuclear weapons program" in November 2007. At the time, the IC said that the program had been halted. But clearly the Iranians had restarted it. The question is: When?

The answer is at least months prior to when the November 2007 NIE was finalized -- and probably further back in time than that.

In a background session with reporters this afternoon, senior administration officials briefed the press on this latest revelation. One official said that the U.S. and its allies "have been looking for" a secret underground enrichment facility for years. "And not surprisingly, we found one," the official said. This same official explained, "we have known for some time that Iran was building a second underground enrichment facility." (The first is the Natanz facility, which was found out in 2002.)

The official added:

"…we've been aware of this facility for several years; we've been watching the construction, we've been building up a case so that we were sure that we had very strong evidence, irrefutable evidence, that the intent of this facility was as an enrichment plant."

Later in the background session, an official reiterated, "as my colleagues have made clear, we've been aware of this facility now for several years."

Several years? That would suggest that the IC knew about this facility long before the November 2007 NIE was written. In fact, the senior administration official made it clear that construction on the facility began prior to March 2007 and probably well beforehand.

One of the senior administration officials explained that "in a modern safeguards agreement, which the IAEA has with all countries that have a comprehensive safeguards agreement, countries are obligated to report to the agency as soon as they make a decision, as soon as they begin construction of a nuclear facility." But in March 2007 "Iran unilaterally announced that it no longer considered itself obligated by that provision of its safeguards agreement, which obviously is -- sets off some alarm bells if you suspect that they may be trying to conceal nuclear activities."

The IAEA determined that the Iranians were wrong to think that they could unilaterally back out of the agreement, the administration official explained. Regardless, Iran began construction of the facility prior to March 2007. "Now, no matter what interpretation you put on this [the IAEA's safeguards agreement], Iran began construction of that facility at a time when they were legally bound to declare it," an administration official said.

An official made the same point again later in the session: "this construction began before they attempted to withdraw." That is, the construction began prior to March 2007, which, in turn, was months prior to the November 2007.