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 US 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 nuclear weapons


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 [1].  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 [2], 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 intelligence, Iran 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 so”.


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 IAEA.


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 unlikely.



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 described “Iran’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons” as the “foremost” of “the wide range of issues that are critical to both our countries” [3].  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 weapons.”


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 Israeli intelligence


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 weapons programme,


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 [4]).


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 [5]). 


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.” [6].


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, Hillary Clinton.


By contrast, his former Secretary of Defense, Leon 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?” [7].  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 prepared testimony:


“And regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang remain bent on pursuing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile delivery systems.” [8]


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.)



Netanyahu 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 [9].


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 put together.


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 summer 2013


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 arises.



No military action unless red line is crossed


This is a strange line for an Israeli Prime Minister to adopt.


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 fairly objectively.


Secondly, thanks to IAEA reports, it is possible for the world to see if Iran crosses Israel’s 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 military flexibility.


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 [10] states that


“… 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 2012


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 [11] and 30 August 2012 [12]) 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.



David Morrison

1st May 2013