Iran hasn’t got a nuclear weapons programme
says US intelligence again
Since November 2007, US
intelligence has held the view that Iran hasn’t got an active nuclear
weapons programme, let alone a nuclear weapon.
In evidence to the US Senate Intelligence Committee on 12
March 2013, the US Director
of National Intelligence, James Clapper, confirmed that this remains the view of
intelligence today. He delivered the
same message to the Senate Armed Services Committee on 18 April 2013.
The Director also told the Committee that US intelligence judges that Iran could not
produce enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb, if it had a mind to do so,
without tripping alarm bells. Though he
didn’t say so specifically, he presumably meant that the IAEA would become
aware of any attempt to do so, since Iran’s enrichment plants at Natanz
and Fordow operate under IAEA supervision.
To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time US intelligence
has made its assessment on this issue public.
Most likely, this has been done in reaction to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s
speech at the UN General Assembly in September 2012 (the one he illustrated
with a crude cartoon of a bomb).
Needless to say, these important pieces of information on US
intelligence judgements didn’t make headlines in the mainstream media in Britain.
Clapper says Iran has not decided to build
US intelligence first made the
judgement that Iran
hasn’t an active nuclear weapons programme in its November 2007 National
Intelligence Estimate (NIE), Iran:
Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities . Key judgments of this NIE were made public,
including the following:
“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 …”
This view has been reiterated every year since in reports to
the US Congress by successive US
Directors of National Intelligence.
In his prepared statement for the Senate Intelligence
Committee this year ,
Director Clapper wrote:
“We assess Iran is developing
nuclear capabilities to enhance its security, prestige, and regional influence
and give it the ability to develop nuclear weapons, should a decision be made
to do so. We do not know if Iran
will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”
But, in the judgement of US
hasn’t yet decided to do so.
Clapper acknowledged that Iran had made “technical
advancements” from which “it could draw if it decided to build
missile-deliverable nuclear weapons”. He
said that these advancements “strengthen our assessment that Iran has the
scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear
weapons”, adding that “this makes the central issue its political will to do
In particular, the Director said:
“Iran has made progress during the
past year that better positions it to produce weapons-grade uranium (WGU) using
its declared facilities and uranium stockpiles, should it choose to do so”.
There he was referring to the second generation of
centrifuges that Iran
had begun to bring into operation in its enrichment plants. However, he added:
“Despite this progress, we assess Iran could not
divert safeguarded material and produce a weapon-worth of WGU before this
activity is discovered”.
Iran currently enriches to a maximum of
20%. Here, he is saying that US intelligence is of the opinion that Iran couldn’t produce
enough 90% enriched uranium for one bomb without this being detected by the
Clapper went on to express the view that Iranian “nuclear
decision making is guided by a cost-benefit approach”. In other words, Iran would not take a decision to
develop a nuclear weapon no matter what the likely cost. This comes close to saying that Iran is never
going to take such a decision – since it knows that the production of weapons-grade
uranium would be detected and would, most likely, cause the US to
take military action against its enrichment plants, and begin a military
confrontation that it cannot win. In
those circumstances, is Iran
going to take such a decision? It’s highly
Obama will prevent Iran getting
“the world’s worst weapons”
A week after Director Clapper reiterated that Iran had no nuclear weapons programme, President
Obama visited Israel
for the first time as president.
At a press conference on 20 March 2013, Prime Minister Netanyahu
relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons” as the “foremost” of “the wide range of
issues that are critical to both our countries” . The President reassured him, for the
umpteenth time, that it is US
policy “to prevent Iran
from acquiring a nuclear weapon”, saying:
“All options are on the table. We
will do what is necessary to prevent Iran from getting the world’s worst
Of which we in the US have nearly 8,000 and you have
perhaps as many as 400, he might have added, to put the matter in perspective.
Nowhere in his remarks did he point out that Iran is so
relentless in pursuit of nuclear weapons that, in the opinion of his
intelligence services, it halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003 and
hasn’t started it again since .
Not a lot of daylight between US and
Later, the President emphasised that “the consultation
between our militaries, our intelligence, is unprecedented, and there is not …
a lot of daylight between our countries’ assessments in terms of where Iran is right now” – which suggests that Israeli
intelligence is also of the opinion that Iran hasn’t got an active nuclear
This is not surprising since the Israeli Chief of Staff,
General Benny Gantz, said as much in an interview with Haaretz in April 2012 (see
IDF chief to Haaretz: I do not believe
Iran will decide to develop nuclear weapons, Haaretz, 25 April 2012 ).
A year or so
earlier, the head of Israeli military intelligence, Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi, told
a Knesset committee 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” (see Iran not working on
bomb: Israel intelligence head, AFP, 25 January 2011 ).
He added that
Iran “would then need more time to develop an effective missile delivery system
for it” and that “it was unlikely that Iran … would start enriching [uranium]
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”.
Despite this, between them, Prime Minister and President
painted a picture of Iran
“in relentless pursuit of a nuclear weapons” with a nuclear bomb just around
the corner. Before his visit, the
president told Israeli Channel 2:
“Right now, we think that it would
take over a year or so for Iran
to actually develop a nuclear weapon.” .
Neither of them added the essential rider that for this
prediction to become a reality Iran
would have to make a decision to develop nuclear weapons.
Panetta speaks the truth
During the past few years, President Obama has regularly
given this impression that Iran
is hellbent on developing nuclear weapons, while knowing that, in the opinion
of his intelligence services, this was simply untrue. And so has his former Secretary of State,
By contrast, his former Secretary of
Panetta (now replaced by Chuck Hagel) has regularly put forward the US intelligence view when asked about Iran’s nuclear
activities. On 3 February 2013, he
appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press. The presenter, Chuck Todd, acknowledged that
Panetta had said in the past that he did not believe the Iranians were pursuing
a nuclear weapon and asked “Are … you still confident they’re not pursuing a
nuclear weapon?” . Panetta replied:
“What I’ve said, and I will say today, is that the
intelligence we have is they have not made the decision to proceed with the
development of a nuclear weapon. They’re
developing and enriching uranium. They continue to do that.”
Todd pressed him again saying “you
do believe they’re probably pursuing a weapon”, to which Panetta responded:
“I can’t tell you they’re in fact pursuing a weapon because
that’s not what intelligence says … they’re doing right now.”
It’s a pity that this basic truth
was not injected into the press conference in Jerusalem by some journalist driven by a
determination to speak truth to power.
But that would be too much to hope for.
(Four days later on 7 February 2013,
at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the
president’s nominee to head the CIA, John Brennan, included the following in his
“And regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang remain bent on
pursuing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile delivery
This diverges markedly from
statements to Congress by successive Directors of National Intelligence about Iran’s nuclear
activities, including the one to the US Senate Intelligence Committee on 12
March 2013. By then, Brennan had been
confirmed as head of the CIA and sat beside Director Clapper as he reiterated
the message that Iran
had not restarted its nuclear programme.)
speaks to the UN General Assembly
Director Clapper also told the Committee that, in the
opinion of US intelligence, Iran could not produce enough enriched uranium for
one bomb, if it had a mind to do so, without being discovered (since its
enrichment plants operate under IAEA supervision). As I wrote above, most likely, this has been
done in reaction to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech at the UN General
Assembly on 27 September 2012 .
The Prime Minister’s performance on that occasion will be
remembered because twenty-five minutes into his speech he held up a crude
cartoon of a bomb. The purpose of the
cartoon was to illustrate, what he claimed to be, Iran’s inevitable progress towards
the production of a nuclear weapon, unless it was stopped by military action
before it produced enough weapons-grade uranium for one bomb.
Underlying Netanyahu’s message to the UN was the unqualified
assumption that Iran
is hellbent on producing a nuclear weapon and that the sole purpose of its
uranium enrichment programme is to achieve that objective.
Accepting for the sake of argument that this is correct,
Netanyahu’s argument was remarkably rational.
Its essence was that the best chance of preventing Iran achieving
that objective was to stop it enriching sufficient uranium to the 90% level
required to fuel a bomb. That was a
feasible proposition, he said, since, given the physical size of the facilities
required to carry out enrichment, it was difficult to hide them and therefore,
he implied, they could be destroyed by military action. By contrast, it would be next to impossible
to locate and destroy facilities where a trigger mechanism for a bomb was being
He told the UN that “the only way that you can credibly prevent
Iran from developing a
nuclear weapon”, if it has a mind to do so, “is to prevent Iran from
amassing enough enriched uranium for a bomb”.
That is obviously true.
Enough enriched uranium for bomb by
Prime Minister Netanyahu went on to predict that Iran would have
enough 90% enriched uranium for a single bomb by the spring/summer of 2013:
“By next spring, at most by next
summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium
enrichment [that is, enrichment to 20%] and move on to the final stage [that
is, enrichment to 90%]. From there, it's
only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium
for the first bomb.”
Here, he appeared to be saying that “at current enrichment
rates” by the summer of 2013 Iran
would have enough 20% enriched uranium (generally accepted to be 200-250kg)
which, if further enriched to 90%, would be sufficient to fuel one bomb.
This assertion was based, he said, on the publicly available
IAEA reports on Iran’s
nuclear activities, including at its enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow.
He then asserted that a “red line should be drawn … before Iran completes the second stage of nuclear
enrichment necessary to make a bomb”, that is, before Iran had enough
20% enriched uranium which, if further enriched to 90%, would be sufficient to
fuel one bomb.
He didn’t specifically threaten that Israel would take military action to destroy Iran’s enrichment facilities if Iran
crossed the red line he had drawn. No
doubt, he is hoping to persuade the US to do the job, if the situation
No military action unless red line is
This is a strange line for an Israeli Prime Minister to
First, generally speaking, it has been the practice of Israel and others, who are antagonistic to Iran, to give
the impression that its nuclear activities are shrouded in mystery, so that it is
easy to portray them as a major threat to the outside world. Now, an Israeli Prime Minister admits that,
because Iran’s nuclear activities are
under IAEA supervision (unlike Israel’s), they are to a great extent an open
book that the world can read online, which means that the threat can be judged
Secondly, thanks to IAEA reports, it is possible for the
world to see if Iran crosses
red line. Unless it does so, Netanyahu
implies, a military assault on Iran’s
enrichment facilities would not be justified (which seems to accept Iran’s
right to enrich uranium as long as it doesn’t enrich above 20%). This setting out in public of the
circumstances when military action would be justified is an odd thing for Israel to do, since it makes it difficult for Israel to
justify military action if the red line hasn’t been crossed. In other words, it limits Israel’s
Be that as it may, Netanyahu’s message to the UN was
remarkably rational: if Iran
doesn’t cross the red line he prescribed, then Israel
has no need to worry that Iran
is developing a nuclear weapon. So all
Israel has to do is keep an eye on the regular reports from the IAEA and, if
they don’t report that the red line has been crossed, then it won’t be
necessary to attempt to destroy Iran’s enrichment facilities in order to stop
it acquiring nuclear weapons.
Director Clapper has now made public the judgement of US intelligence that Iran could not cross Netanyahu’s
red line, if it had a mind to do so, without being discovered by the IAEA.
No diversion of nuclear material
Iran has declared to the IAEA 15 nuclear
facilities, including its enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordow, and 9 other
locations (LOFs) where nuclear material is customarily used. All these sites are subject to IAEA
inspection. IAEA reports set out in
great detail the quantities of nuclear material that have been processed at these
sites. They have never failed to confirm
that there has been no diversion of nuclear material from these facilities for
possible military use. For example, the
latest IAEA report on 21 February 2013 
“… the Agency continues to verify
the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at the nuclear facilities and
LOFs declared by Iran
under its Safeguards Agreement …” (Paragraph 53)
Each IAEA report gives an inventory of the amounts of
uranium enriched to 5% and 20% at Natanz and Fordow (see, for example, Section
D of its latest report). It should be
emphasised that the IAEA has never found evidence of enrichment above 20%.
20% stockpile fell from May to August
When he spoke to the UN, Netanyahu gave the impression that
the amount of uranium enriched to 20% by Iran, and therefore available for
further enrichment to weapons grade, was increasing at an alarming rate.
In fact, the latest IAEA reports available to him when he
spoke (dated 25 May 2012 
and 30 August 2012 )
give a contrary impression. They show
that between May and August the amount of 20% enriched uranium available for
further enrichment actually fell from 102.6 kgs to 91.4 kgs and that no uranium
was enriched above that level. That is
somewhat at odds with the picture painted by Netanyahu of Iran racing full
speed ahead to produce high enriched uranium for a bomb by mid 2013.
So, why has the amount of 20% enriched uranium available for
further enrichment decreased between May and August? To answer that, you need to know a rather
important fact that the Israeli Prime Minister omitted from his presentation to
the UN. It is that Iran’s stated purpose in enriching to 20% is to
provide fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) (which was supplied by the US in the 1960s
and is used to produce medical isotopes).
The IAEA has confirmed the conversion of 20% enriched uranium into fuel
for this reactor.
To be precise, these two IAEA reports show that, of the
189.4 kgs of 20% enriched uranium produced by August 2012, 98.0 kgs has been
converted into fuel for the TRR.
Specifically, between May and August, whereas 43.8 kgs of 20% enriched
uranium was produced, 55.0 kgs was converted into fuel for the TRR, which meant
that the amount of 20% enriched uranium available for enrichment to a higher
level actually fell in that period.
It is understandable that Netanyahu omitted to mention at
the UN that Iran
had a non-military use for 20% enriched uranium. To have done so would have spoiled the
straightforward narrative he wished to convey that Iran’s enrichment is solely for
weapons production. That between May and
August 2012 Iran was
prepared to reduce its stock of 20% enriched uranium that could be enriched to
weapons grade isn’t consistent with Iran going hell for leather to
produce a nuclear weapon.
1st May 2013