U.S. Updates Iran Assessment

Peter Crail

Iran is keeping open the option of developing nuclear weapons eventually, but it is not clear that Tehran will decide to do so, U.S. intelligence officials told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Feb. 16. The briefing, which was part of an annual intelligence community overview of threats to the United States, coincided with a long-delayed formal update of a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear program. Intelligence officials held briefings on the revised judgments with administration officials and members of Congress in February.

Unlike the 2007 NIE, in which the intelligence community prepared a public summary of “key judgments,” an unclassified summary of the updated assessment is not expected. Many of the key conclusions from the 2007 assessment were reiterated in a Feb. 16 written statement by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to the Senate panel.

Clapper said that Iran is keeping open the option of developing nuclear weapons through the pursuit of various nuclear capabilities but that the intelligence community did not know if Iran eventually would decide to build nuclear weapons.

He also said that the advancement of Iran’s nuclear capabilities strengthened the intelligence community’s assessment that Tehran has the capacity to produce nuclear weapons eventually, “making the central issue the political will to do so.”

Moreover, Iran’s decision-making on the nuclear issue “is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran,” Clapper said.

Among Iran’s nuclear capabilities, Clapper specifically cited Iran’s advances in uranium enrichment. Uranium can be enriched to low levels commonly used in nuclear power reactors or to high levels for potential use in nuclear weapons. Clapper said that the intelligence community judges that Iran “is technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium [HEU] for a weapon in the next few years, if it chooses to do so.”

The 2007 NIE said that Iran would be technically capable of producing HEU between 2010 and 2015, although it noted that the Department of State’s intelligence bureau judged that Iran was unlikely to do so before 2013 due to technical and programmatic hurdles.

One central judgment from the 2007 NIE that Clapper’s statement did not address was the intelligence community’s assessment of Iran’s nuclear warhead development and covert uranium-conversion and -enrichment activities. In 2007 the intelligence community judged “with high confidence” that Iran suspended such efforts in the fall of 2003 and concluded “with moderate confidence” that Iran maintained that halt through mid-2007. (See ACT, January/February 2008.)

Statements from senior intelligence officials over the past year have suggested that Iran has engaged in research on nuclear weapons designs at least since the 2007 NIE. “I think they continue to work on designs in that area,” CIA Director Leon Panetta told ABC’s This Week June 27.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has sought explanations from Iran regarding the agency’s “concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile,” according to a February 2010 IAEA report. (See ACT, March 2010.) Those concerns stem from intelligence information provided to the agency over the past several years, including digital documentation reportedly smuggled out of Iran. Tehran has rejected much of that information as forgeries and has not cooperated with the IAEA probe.

The public disclosure of a previously secret uranium-enrichment plant under construction near the city of Qom in September 2009 also raised questions about Iran’s renewed pursuit of covert enrichment facilities. U.S. intelligence officials said at that time that although the facility had been under construction since 2006, it was not until early 2009 that the intelligence community was able to determine that the site was a uranium-enrichment facility. (See ACT, October 2009.)

Although the new assessment is a more formal update of the previous intelligence judgment, policymakers have likely received revised intelligence assessments of Iran’s capabilities in various forms for some time. “I expect that numerous judgments have been flowing all along over the last couple of years from the intelligence agencies to the policymakers with regard to this topic,” Paul Pillar, former CIA national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, said at a Nov. 22 briefing hosted by the Arms Control Association.

Negotiations Hit Roadblock

The updated intelligence assessment followed an inconclusive Jan. 21-22 meeting between the “P5+1”—the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Germany—and Iran on Iran’s nuclear program. The parties did not arrive at any substantive agreement during the two-day meet in Istanbul, nor did they agree to further talks.

In a Jan. 22 statement, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, who represents the P5+1, expressed disappointment with the outcome. “We had hoped to embark on a discussion of practical ways forward,” she said, noting that the six countries went to Istanbul “with specific practical proposals which would build trust.”

Those proposals included an updated version of a nuclear fuel swap arrangement first put forward by the United States in 2009 and additional transparency measures to improve IAEA monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program. (See ACT, November 2009.)

P5+1 diplomats said that the updated fuel swap offer entailed removing a larger amount of low-enriched uranium (LEU) from Iran than the 1,200 kilograms initially proposed. Iran has produced about an additional 1,400 kilograms of 4 percent LEU since the original offer. The new proposal also would remove Iran’s smaller reserves of 20 percent-enriched uranium and halt any further enrichment at that level, which Iran initiated in February 2010.

Diplomats also indicated that the transparency measures proposed were consistent with those sought by the IAEA.

Ashton said that rather than discussing these proposals, Tehran established two preconditions for any progress: recognition of Iran’s claimed right to enrich uranium and the lifting of international sanctions.

With regard to enrichment, she reiterated the P5+1’s recognition of Iran’s right to civil nuclear energy, stressing that it was Iran’s responsibility to demonstrate that such a program is exclusively peaceful.

The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, of which Iran is a member, recognizes a state’s “inalienable right” to a peaceful nuclear energy program as long as non-nuclear-weapon state members abide by their commitment not to pursue nuclear weapons. The treaty does not reference specific nuclear activities such as enrichment.

Ashton noted that the conditions for lifting international sanctions are specified in the UN resolutions and that “those do not exist today.” She indicated in particular that the removal of sanctions would accompany the re-establishment of international confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear activities.

Although the P5+1 have rejected Iran’s preconditions, they stated their willingness to continue to engage in negotiations over the proposals they forwarded.

Iran also indicated that it was open to further talks. Iranian chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili told reporters Jan. 22, “We are still prepared for further negotiations with the P5+1, based on common issues.”

Jalili’s willingness to engage in further discussions appeared to contradict claims by other key Iranian officials that the Istanbul talks might present the final opportunity for negotiations. Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, told reporters in France Jan. 12 that “the Istanbul meeting might be the last chance for the West to return to talks,” because Iran would install its own fuel rods in the Tehran Research Reactor rather than import them as part of the proposed fuel swap.

However, Iran is not believed to be capable of safely producing fuel plates for the reactor in the near future. Former IAEA Deputy Director-General for Safeguards Olli Heinonen said during the Nov. 22 briefing that Iran still needed one to two years to manufacture the reactor fuel safely.