An Assessment of Deception
[Fall 2009, Volume X, Issue I]
On December 3, 2007 the United States intelligence community made public certain key judgments of a classified national intelligence estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities. The estimate’s surprising conclusion—that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003—clashed with the prevailing consensus that Iran was determined to develop nuclear weapons. This paper seeks to shed light on the flaws in the NIE that led to its erroneous conclusion.
The NIE’s most significant flaw is its failure to characterize Iran’s ongoing “declared civil” uranium enrichment activities as proliferation-sensitive. All enrichment activities—whether declared or undeclared—present a proliferation threat because the processes and technology used to enrich uranium for civilian purposes are nearly identical to those used to enrich uranium for weapons purposes. In other words, by mastering the enrichment process at a “declared civil” facility, Iran will be capable of producing weapons-grade fissile material at that facility or at a similar facility elsewhere.
A second major defect in the NIE is its deceptive style of presentation. By opening with the bold proclamation that “in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program,” the NIE drafters ensured that the estimate’s subsequent conclusions would be largely ignored. Although the factual findings contained within the 2007 NIE do not differ significantly from those in prior assessments, the 2007 estimate’s sensational headline led to the widespread belief that Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities had changed dramatically.
A third failing of the NIE is its refusal to assess whether or not Iran ultimately intends to develop nuclear weapons. Iran’s long history of secret nuclear activity, its refusal to fully cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and its ongoing enrichment activities strongly suggest that Iran is determined to develop a nuclear arsenal. Moreover, Iran stands to benefit greatly from nuclear weapons. Nuclear status would make Iran the predominant state in its region, strengthen its national security and foreign policy interests, provide an optimal (if imperfect) deterrent, and validate Iran’s self-perception as a sophisticated global power.
The impact of the NIE within the United States was immediate and profound. As the New York Times noted, “Rarely if ever has a single intelligence estimate so completely, so suddenly and so surprisingly altered a foreign policy debate.” Publication of the NIE effectively precluded the Bush administration from using military force against Iran and reduced U.S. diplomatic leverage, making it more difficult to marshal international support for economic sanctions.
The NIE’s impact was felt equally in Tehran. Although Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hailed the report as a “victory against the great powers,” the subsequent reduction in tensions severely weakened his internal standing. The nuclear issue and the specter of war with the United States were popular rallying cries for the Iranian leader. When the saber-rattling quieted, Iranians began to focus more of their attention on Ahmadinejad’s domestic failings. More importantly, the cooling of tensions exposed a rift between the president and his former backer, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
The United States, in cooperation with the international community, must present Tehran a package of incentives and sanctions that convinces it to forego nuclear weapons development. Although the likelihood of diplomatic success at this point in time is small, failure is certain if the Obama administration does not adopt the following simple, but essential, policy recommendations. First, the Obama administration must work behind the scenes to convince the international community that the putative conclusion of the 2007 NIE is wrong and that Iran is continuing its drive to develop nuclear weapons. Second, the administration must persuade important world leaders that a nuclear Iran is not in their best interests. Finally, the Obama administration must refrain from using unnecessarily aggressive rhetoric toward Iran. The use of such language has only served to entrench the domestically unpopular arch-conservative regime in Tehran. If tensions between the United States and Iran—along with oil prices—remain at current low levels, it is likely that Ahmadinejad and his fellow hardliners will be replaced in the June 2009 national elections by reformists or pragmatic conservatives more willing to engage diplomatically on the nuclear issue.
THE 2007 NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE ESTIMATE DECONSTRUCTED
The Redefinition of “Nuclear Weapons Program”
The opening sentence of the NIE proclaims “with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” That judgment, however, is qualified by a complex footnote which restricts the definition of “nuclear weapons program” to include only “nuclear weapons design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion- related and uranium enrichment-related work.” The footnote explicitly excludes from the definition all “declared civil” enrichment activity—that is, all non-secret enrichment activity that Iran claims to be for non-weapons purposes. The NIE drafters were able to proclaim that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons production in 2003 not because Tehran actually suspended its drive for nuclear weapons, but because the NIE drafters fundamentally changed the definition of “nuclear weapons program.”
This artificially narrow definition of “nuclear weapons program” belies the fact that enriching uranium—whether declared or undeclared—is the most difficult step in the production of nuclear weapons. Weaponization—the actual construction of warheads and delivery systems—is a far simpler process. There is near unanimous agreement in the policy and scientific communities that uranium enrichment is the hardest part of building a nuclear weapon: for example, nuclear experts at the Council of Foreign Relations assert that “uranium enrichment capability…is the vital technology needed for the production of nuclear weapons”; Barry Posen, director of the Security Studies Program at MIT, states that highly enriched uranium [HEU] is the “key element” in the production of a nuclear weapon;8 Daniel Poneman, senior fellow at the Forum for International Policy, remarks that “bomb-making is easier than getting the HEU”; the International Institute for Strategic Studies states that “from a nuclear proliferation standpoint, the most significant aspect of Iran’s nuclear programme is its development of…uranium enrichment technology”; former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger explains that “heretofore, production of fissile material has been treated as by far the greatest danger”; and the New York Times argues that “perfecting the process of enriching uranium or making plutonium is far more difficult than designing warheads or building missiles to deliver the weapons.”
The NIE acknowledges that Iran continues to enrich uranium at “declared civil” facilities. Its refusal to include this “declared civil” enrichment activity in its definition of “nuclear weapons program,” however, erroneously suggests that such activity presents no proliferation threat. To appreciate the danger associated with Iran’s “declared civil” enrichment activities, it is necessary to understand the ease with which civilian enrichment can be diverted to the production of weapons-grade fissile material.
The technology used to enrich uranium is considered “dual-use” because it can be used to produce both civilian-grade nuclear fuel (low enriched uranium or LEU) and weapons- grade fissile material (highly enriched uranium or HEU).14 Iran insists that its enrichment activities are limited exclusively to the production of civilian-grade nuclear fuel. It is for this reason that the NIE declares “not to know whether [Iran] currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.”
Uranium enrichment is the process by which uranium-235 (U-235) and uranium-238 (U- 238) isotopes—both present in raw uranium ore—are separated from each other. After the raw uranium is converted into the intermediate product uranium hexafluoride, spinning rotors in centrifuge tubes segregate the heavier U-238 from the lighter U-235 isotopes. Magnets and thermal currents then expel the U-238 as byproduct while the remaining U-235 is carefully removed and combined with U-235 streams from other centrifuges linked together in a cascade. This process continues until the desired concentration of U-235 is reached. When the concentration of U-235 reaches three to five percent (LEU grade) the product is considered sufficiently enriched to be used as nuclear reactor fuel. When the concentration of U-235 surpasses approximately ninety percent (HEU grade) it can be used in a nuclear weapon.
The centrifuge technology required to produce HEU for nuclear weapons is essentially the same as that required to produce LEU for nuclear reactor fuel. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, no mechanical reconfiguration of Iran’s “declared civil” nuclear facilities would be necessary to transition from LEU production to HEU production—a process known as “nuclear breakout.” Iran could produce HEU simply by “recycling” the LEU product through the centrifuge cascade as feed. For a cascade configured to produce LEU from non-enriched uranium hexafluoride feed, only several additional cycles would be needed to yield HEU. Though this “rinse and repeat” process is not optimally efficient, experts estimate that failure to reconfigure would only add months to the breakout schedule. In other words, by mastering the LEU enrichment process technology at its “declared civil” plant, Iran will be capable of producing weapons-grade HEU at that facility or at a similar facility elsewhere.
As the discussion above underscores, the distinction drawn in the footnote to Key Judgment A between “covert” and “declared civil” nuclear activities is arbitrary and deceptive. In fact, the NIE explicitly acknowledges the breakout danger associated with Iran’s “declared civil” enrichment activity later in the report where it explains that “Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so. For example, Iran’s civilian uranium enrichment program is continuing.” The NIE also proclaims that “only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons.” It is difficult to reconcile these two statements with the headline finding that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. All uranium enrichment activities, including Iran’s “declared civil” enrichment, must be considered extremely proliferation-sensitive.
Weaponization entails the production of nuclear warheads and delivery devices. The NIE’s declaration that Tehran halted weaponization work in 2003 is inconsistent with the fact that Iran continues to develop dual-use military technology—that is, technology that can be used for either conventional or nuclear weapons. The NIE acknowledges this reality in Key Judgment D where it states that “Iran has been conducting research and development projects with commercial and conventional military applications—some of which would also be of limited use for nuclear weapons.”
Although the NIE reports that Iran halted development of missile delivery systems specifically designed to carry nuclear warheads, Iran continues to test sophisticated conventional missile systems. Iran possesses hundreds of Scud missiles and other short- range ballistic missiles, including the flight-tested Shahab-3, with a range of 1,300 kilometers. Iran tested its new Ashura missile in November of 2007—a 2000-kilometer- range weapon that could potentially reach U.S. allies in Southeastern Europe. In January 2008, Iran launched a research rocket into space, further demonstrating the advance of its missile technology. Modifying one of these conventional missiles to house a nuclear warhead would be substantially less difficult than enriching HEU or constructing an actual warhead.
Iran also possesses knowledge, acquired before the supposed halt in 2003, that would allow it to weaponize rapidly. Between 2001 and 2003, for example, Iran attempted to modify its Shahab-3 missile to house an unidentified “black box” whose specifications closely match those of a nuclear warhead. Prior to 2003, Iran admitted to having conducted experiments with the chemical agent Polonium-210—a rare synthesized element used to construct the neutron initiating core of a typical nuclear warhead. The NIE acknowledges the advanced state of Iranian weapons technology, “assess[ing] with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.” Furthermore, in March 2008, IAEA representatives declassified a “trove of evidence” gathered from Iran’s military laboratories that revealed extensive Iranian research and experimentation “not consistent with any application other than the development of a nuclear weapon.”
COMPARISON OF THE 2005 ASSESSMENT AND THE 2007 NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE ESTIMATE
The 2007 NIE was widely hailed as a repudiation of the intelligence community’s 2005 assessment of Iran’s nuclear program. The day after its release, for example, the New York Times led with a front-page article entitled, “How did a 2005 Estimate Go Awry?” while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed “victory against the great powers.” A close comparison of both assessments, however, leads to the conclusion that they are more similar than different.
The timelines contained within the 2005 and 2007 assessments, pertaining to both uranium enrichment and weapons production, are essentially identical. Key Judgment C of the 2007 NIE predicts that “the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon is late 2009, but this is very unlikely” and judges “with moderate confidence Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame.” Similarly, the 2005 assessment states with “moderate confidence” that Iran is unlikely to produce a nuclear weapon “before early-to-mid next decade.”
The 2007 NIE declares “not to know whether [Iran] currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.” Likewise, the 2005 estimate “expresses uncertainty about whether Iran’s ruling clerics have made a decision to build a nuclear arsenal.” The 2007 estimate clearly clashes with the Bush administration’s aggressive rhetoric and posture toward Iran. Similarly, the “carefully hedged  assessments…contrast with forceful public statements by the White House.” The 2007 NIE concludes that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, but admits to having only “moderate confidence” that the suspension is still in force. Though the 2005 assessment mentions “credible indicators that Iran is conducting clandestine work,” it hedges this finding by stating that “there is no information linking those projects directly to a nuclear weapons program.” In other words, the 2005 NIE did not affirmatively conclude that Iran was engaged in nuclear weapons activity—at least as such activity is defined in the 2007 NIE.
There are two substantive differences between the 2005 and 2007 assessments. First, the 2005 assessment, unlike the 2007 NIE, considers the enrichment of HEU to be “the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon.” Second, the 2005 assessment judges that “left to its own devices, Iran is determined to build nuclear weapons,” whereas the 2007 NIE asserts that “only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons.” In other words, the 2007 NIE states that Iran can, but might not, produce a nuclear weapon before 2015 whereas the 2005 assessment concludes that Iran can, and probably will, produce a nuclear weapon by that date. The real difference between the two assessments, therefore, “is not in the hard data but in the psychological assessment of the mullahs’ motives and objectives.”
DECEPTIVE PRESENTATION AND THE MIXING OF INTELLIGENCE WITH POLICYMAKING
The NIE’s factual findings do not support the sea-change in public opinion that resulted from its publication. By opening with the bold proclamation that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, the NIE drafters ensured that the estimate’s subsequent conclusions would be largely ignored.44 That the headline finding is immediately qualified by a footnote which excludes Iran’s most prolific uranium enrichment activities lends credence to this argument. Why, then, did the U.S. intelligence community present the NIE in such a misleading manner?
One possible explanation is that the intelligence community intended for the NIE to influence public opinion and U.S. policy toward Iran. Immediately following publication of the NIE, Deputy Director of National Intelligence Donald M. Kerr, admitted that the assessment was intended to do more than provide policymakers with raw intelligence. According to the New York Times, Kerr stated that “since the new estimate was at odds with the 2005 assessment—and thus at odds with public statements by top officials about Iran—‘we felt it was important to release this information to ensure that an accurate presentation is available.’” This advocacy approach to intelligence reporting helps explain why the 2007 NIE—based on much of the same intelligence as the 2005 assessment—was presented in a way that led the public to believe that the underlying facts had changed dramatically.
The NIE is also misleading because it conflates intelligence reporting with policymaking. For example, it asserts “with high confidence that the halt…was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.” From this judgment, the NIE infers that Tehran “is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005” and “may be more vulnerable to influence on the issues than we judged previously.” As Henry Kissinger notes, these statements “blur the line between estimates and conjecture.” Perhaps, suggests Kissinger, the geopolitical context and American involvement in the region from 2003-2005 provide better explanations for changes in Iranian behavior. Moreover, the NIE’s prediction that some combination of international pressure and diplomatic compromise “might…prompt Tehran to extend the current halt of the nuclear weapons program,” even if true, reads more like a policy prescription than an intelligence estimate.
Certain experts believe that the NIE was intended as a “preemptive strike” by the intelligence community on Bush administration officials pushing for military intervention in Iran. Iran expert Ray Takeyh, for example, views the NIE as part of a “larger narrative” in which “formal institutions of government determine[d] to resist the White House” in ways they did not during the run-up to the war in Iraq. Takeyh goes on to say that it was the intention of Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell to “undermine the president’s attempt to have a military option.” Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, goes even further, alleging that the NIE was drafted and approved by former State Department officials, recently transferred to the Directorate of National Intelligence, who held “relatively benign” views of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In Mr. Bolton’s opinion, these outsiders simply “recycled the policy biases they had before…as ‘intelligence judgments,’” presenting them as if they were “wisdom received from on high.”
It is not necessary to subscribe to Mr. Bolton’s theory to acknowledge that the 2007 NIE was intended to influence public opinion and government policy. In fact, “Mr. McConnell told Congress [in February 2008] that he now has regrets about how the intelligence estimate was presented, saying it had failed to emphasize that Iran is moving ahead with the hardest part of any bomb project: producing the fuel.” In a February 2008 radio interview, McConnell backpedaled even further stating bluntly that, “Our estimate is [that] they intend to have a nuclear weapon.”
The question that remains—and one that the 2007 NIE left explicitly unanswered—is whether Iran actually plans to develop nuclear weapons. An examination of how Iran would benefit from nuclear status leads to the conclusion that it does indeed intend to develop a nuclear arsenal.
HOW IRAN WOULD BENEFIT FROM NUCLEAR WEAPONS
Iran is a medium-sized, pragmatic, and opportunistic power seeking to become the predominant state in its region. The NIE implicitly acknowledges this reality, stating that “Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit analysis rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs.” Although a “cost-benefit analysis does not exclude a rush to weapons on a systematic basis,” it does suggest that Iran would be very unlikely to use nuclear weapons offensively.
It does not follow from this that the international community should ignore or excuse President Ahmadinejad’s assertions that Israel “be wiped off the map.” His aggressive rhetoric toward Israel combined with his disavowal of the Holocaust is a legitimate cause for concern in Tel Aviv and Washington. Moreover, Ahmadinejad is not the only Iranian politician to threaten the existence of Israel. In 2001, former President Rafsanjani remarked that it would only take one nuclear weapon to destroy the state of Israel whereas Iran could survive Israel’s retaliation. Even more disturbing is the fact that Rafsanjani is considered a top contender to succeed the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
Ahmadinejad’s belligerent rhetoric must, however, be understood in context. The nuclear issue and his opposition to the West serve to deflect attention from his dismal economic performance and unpopular social policies. His anti-Israeli rhetoric also helps win him acclaim on the Arab street at a time when many Arab leaders fear Persian ascendance. Despite Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric, Iran is highly unlikely to attack Israel. Israel possesses approximately two-hundred nuclear weapons, extensive second strike capability (including ballistic submarines), and intermediate-range missiles capable of reaching all of Iran’s major population centers.
More realistically, Iran seeks nuclear weapons because of the “linkage many within the leadership probably see between nuclear weapons development and Iran’s key national security and foreign policy objectives.” Ray Takeyh summarizes the largely consensus belief that “Ahmadinejad and his allies view the acquisition of nuclear weapons as critical to consolidating Iran’s position and helping the country eclipse U.S. influence in the region…a prize worth suffering pain and sanctions to achieve.” More moderate Iranian leaders also recognize the strategic benefits of nuclear status. It is interesting to note, however, that Iran already enjoys a superior position vis-à-vis its neighbors. If an Iranian bomb were to spur a regional arms race, the result may be strategic parity between Iran and its smaller, weaker neighbors.
Iran might also value nuclear weapons for their deterrent capacity, though it is unlikely that a small nuclear arsenal would immunize Iran from conventional military attack. Israel’s nuclear arsenal, for example, did not prevent it from being attacked conventionally in the Yom Kippur War or during the 2006 conflict with Lebanon. Furthermore, U.S Cold War military planning and present-day war plans for a potential conflict with China, suggest that even large nuclear retaliatory capacity is not a perfect deterrent against conventional attack. Still, there is an “inordinate sense of paranoia” among the leaders in Tehran and nuclear weapons provide a better deterrent than any other type of technology.
Nor should psychology be discounted in the nuclear calculus. Modern-day Iran is heir to the ancient Persian Empire—one of only three pre-colonial nations in the Middle East (along with Egypt and Turkey). The fact that Pakistan, a younger and—in the opinion of many Iranians—inferior country, possesses nuclear weapons is a mark of shame. Iran’s nuclear program is increasingly a matter of national pride, closely associated with the nation’s identity as a sophisticated global power.
PROOF OF IRAN’S INTENTION TO PRODUCE NUCLEAR WEAPONS
Before the release of the 2007 NIE, there was broad consensus in both the intelligence and academic communities that Iran’s nuclear program was not intended exclusively for peaceful purposes. Although the NIE called that conclusion into question, Iran’s long history of clandestine nuclear development, its record of forced and reactive diplomacy, and its refusal to halt enrichment activity in the face of Security Council sanctions suggest that it is determined to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran’s nuclear program began in the 1950s under the auspices of the U.S. Atoms for Peace Program and continued until the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Following the Revolution, many of the country’s nuclear scientists fled and Ayatollah Khomeini—who opposed nuclear development on religious grounds—showed little interest in reviving the program. Upon Khomeini’s death in 1989, the new Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, embarked on an ambitious nuclear program with civilian and military applications. During the 1990s, Iran purchased nuclear equipment and material from China and Russia and obtained “aid packages” from A.Q. Khan’s black market nuclear supply network. Throughout this period, Iran went to great lengths to conceal the military component of its nuclear program.
The election of the reform-minded President Khatami did little to alter the trajectory of Iran’s secret nuclear program, which remained under the close watch of Supreme Leader Khamenei. Iran began single-centrifuge enrichment experiments in the late 1990s and started constructing pilot and industrial-scale centrifuge installments soon after. During this period, Iran consistently informed the IAEA that it had no plans to develop an indigenous fuel cycle or enrich uranium domestically. At the same time, however, Iran “made no secret of its ambitions to build large rockets and warheads—with the explicit help of the North Koreans—that were ideally suited for delivering nuclear arms.”
After eighteen years of secret nuclear development, Iran’s program was exposed in 2002 by a dissident exile group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Shortly thereafter, President Khatami acknowledged the existence of several nuclear sites but claimed that the nuclear program aimed only to produce LEU for civilian purposes. The IAEA issued a statement criticizing Iran for failing “to report material facilities and activities as required by its safeguards obligations,” but stopped short of threatening or censuring Tehran.
Aware that it could not leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and still claim a legal right to enrich, Iran agreed to cooperate with the IAEA by allowing inspectors to visit certain nuclear facilities. Following these visits, the IAEA concluded that “Iran had failed to meet its obligation under its Safeguards Agreement.” Rather than strongly sanctioning Iran, as the United States advocated, the IAEA Board of Governors expressed concern over Iran’s failures, urged Iran to cooperate with IAEA inspectors, and encouraged Iran not to introduce fuel into the new enrichment cascades.
On the heels of the Board’s statement, IAEA inspectors discovered that Iran’s nuclear activities were far more extensive than Khatami had disclosed. Inspectors reported that Tehran began its centrifuge program as far back as the mid-1980s and had purchased extensive designs and hardware from A.Q. Khan’s underground nuclear network.82 As a result, the IAEA demanded that Iran take “essential and urgent” actions to “ensure verification of compliance with Iran’s safeguards agreement”—namely the suspension of “all further uranium enrichment-related activities.”
After threatening to withdraw from the NPT, Iran—faced with the prospect of a Security Council referral—partially relented. In a joint statement with the EU-3, Iran agreed to “engage in full cooperation with the IAEA…sign the IAEA Additional Protocol,” and “voluntarily to suspend all uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities as defined by the IAEA.” During this three-month voluntary suspension period, however, Iran’s centrifuge inventory actually increased by fifteen percent.
Still unsatisfied with Iran’s cooperation, the EU-3 implicitly threatened Security Council referral again in January 2004. In response, Iran agreed to halt centrifuge activity “to the furthest extent possible.” Although, this agreement averted a diplomatic meltdown, it did little to slow Iranian nuclear progress. Within three months, Iran had assembled an additional 285 centrifuge machines, enough to complete its pilot centrifuge plant at Natanz.
In September 2004, the IAEA Board of Governors adopted another consensus resolution “deplor[ing]…the fact that Iran’s cooperation has not been as full, timely, and proactive as it could have been.” Iran responded by notifying the IAEA of its intention to resume manufacturing, assembling, and testing centrifuge technology. The same back-and-forth continued into November 2004 when Iran, again fearing referral to the Security Council, agreed to suspend “all enrichment related and reprocessing activities” and allow IAEA inspectors to place seals on certain nuclear equipment. In a surprising twist, the United States announced support for the EU-3 negotiations with Iran, thereby increasing pressure on Tehran.
Shortly after the election of President Ahmadinejad in August 2005, Iran declared its intention to remove the seals on its nuclear equipment and resume the enrichment activity it had previously foresworn. Eight months later, President Ahmadinejad announced, and the IAEA confirmed, that Iran had successfully enriched uranium past the LEU threshold (to 3.5 percent).
After nearly four years of failed negotiations, the Security Council unanimously voted to sanction Iran, targeting the import and export of materials and technology used in uranium enrichment and weapons production.93 A second round of sanctions further restricting the import of nuclear-related products and freezing the financial assets of key Iranian officials was unanimously approved several months later.94 In March 2008, four months after the publication of the NIE, the Security Council voted to impose a third round of sanctions on Iran, authorizing the inspection of cargo suspected of containing nuclear equipment as well as travel bans and asset freezes on individuals and companies involved in Iran’s nuclear program.
The Security Council sanctions have not had a significant impact on Iran’s nuclear policy. In fact, the production of fissile material has accelerated rapidly since 2006.96 IAEA Director General Mohammed El-baredei reported in November 2007 that Iran was successfully operating a (three-thousand centrifuge) cascade capable of producing enough HEU for a nuclear weapon in twelve months. Iran began operating a new generation of advanced IR-2 centrifuges in February 2008 which enrich uranium at more than twice the speed of the original centrifuges. As of November 2008, Iran was successfully operating five thousand centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear plant and had produced enough LEU (630 kilograms) to make a nuclear weapon if enriched further.
In addition to Iran’s illicit nuclear history, there exist other indications of weapons intent. Iran has spent large sums of money to develop a domestic mining capacity even though “the depth of its ore deposits and the ore’s low uranium content, [mean that] the cost of yellowcake is likely to exceed current world market prices several times over.” Moreover, Iran’s indigenous uranium stores are sufficient to sustain a weapons program but inadequate to power even one civilian nuclear reactor. Amidst the uncertainty surrounding the future of its nuclear program after its revelation in 2002, Iran rushed to produce quantities of uranium hexafluoride grossly inadequate to power a fuel reactor but sufficient to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for six to eight simple implosion devices.102
The IAEA also possesses evidence which strongly suggests that Iran has experimented with nuclear weapons construction. At an emergency meeting convened by the United Nations nuclear inspector at IAEA headquarters in February 2008, the IAEA unveiled documents, sketches, and video of work conducted at Iranian laboratories that it said was “not consistent with any application other than the development of a nuclear weapon.” Characteristically, the Iranians dismissed the evidence as “baseless and fabricated.”
Lastly, it is revealing that the Ayatollah has blessed his country’s nuclear program by taking personal responsibility for its revival. Supreme Leader Khamenei associates Iran’s nuclear program with national pride and has asserted that when “the enemies wanted to take advantage of our temporary and voluntary suspension to undermine our nuclear program…I insisted that I would step in if they continued with their demand, and I did, and so our process began.”
IMPACT OF THE NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE ESTIMATE
The NIE’s headline finding had an immediate and profound impact within the United States. As the New York Times noted, “Rarely if ever has a single intelligence estimate so completely, so suddenly and so surprisingly altered a foreign policy debate.” The estimate thoroughly delegitimized the Bush administration’s hawkish posture toward Iran. In the days following publication of the NIE, it became clear that the use of military force was no longer a viable policy option. It would have been inconceivable for the United States to attack a country that its own intelligence services said did not have a nuclear weapons program.
The NIE also handicapped U.S. diplomatic efforts, making it more difficult to marshal international support for sanctions against Iran. Immediately after publication of the NIE, for example, China withdrew its approval for a third round of economic sanctions. Two weeks later, Russia delivered the first of eight batches of nuclear fuel for use in Iran’s Bushehr reactor. Although the Security Council eventually approved a third round of sanctions in March 2008, publication of the NIE significantly slowed diplomatic momentum on the nuclear issue.
The most interesting, and perhaps counterintuitive, consequence of the NIE was its impact within Iran. Although President Ahmadinejad hailed the NIE as a “victory against the great powers,” the ratcheting down of tensions actually served to weaken his internal standing. The nuclear issue and the specter of war with the United States were popular rallying cries for the Iranian leader. When the saber-rattling quieted in the NIE’s wake, Iranians began to focus more of their attention on Ahmadinejad’s glaring domestic failings.
Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005 promising to reinvigorate the economy and distribute oil revenues to Iran’s poor. Despite record oil prices in 2006 and 2007, however, his economic reforms resulted in failure. Annual inflation stands at thirty percent, one out of every four Iranians lives in poverty, and ninety percent of the population receives income from the state. Unemployment is also rampant; less than half of the one million young Iranians who enter the job market each year find work. These economic woes, combined with Ahmadinejad’s unpopular conservative social policies, have created widespread disaffection with his regime, especially among Iran’s young and relatively pro-Western population. The poor performance of Ahmadinejad’s party in the December 2006 Majlis elections and large-scale student protests throughout the country are signs of his declining popularity.
Publication of the NIE also exposed a growing rift between Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei, which suggests that the president no longer enjoys the same level of support from the Ayatollah that he received during his 2005 presidential run. The reduced threat of U.S. attack created the conditions necessary for these dormant political tensions to surface. In January 2008, National Security Council leader and close aide of the Ayatollah, Ali Larijani, was dispatched to Egypt—a country with which Iran does not have diplomatic relations—indicating that the Ayatollah is taking a more direct role in affairs usually reserved to the president. Four months later, Larijani—a political rival of Ahmadinejad—was elected Speaker of Parliament with the Ayatollah’s full backing.
These political schisms reflect a growing divide between members of the conservative “old right”—for whom Ahmadinejad is the standard bearer—and the “new right”— represented by conservative, yet pragmatic, figures such as Larijani. In the words of Ray Takeyh, the “new right” prizes “nationalism over Islamism, pragmatism over ideology.” One difference between these two factions is their position vis-à-vis the United States. Whereas diplomacy with Ahmadinejad has proven futile, it may be possible for the Obama administration to engage pragmatists like Larijani. In fact, Larijani—Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator—has stated that “it may be that the U.S. is the enemy, but working with the enemy is part of politics.”
Behind its sham democracy, absolute power in the Islamic Republic rests with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his Council of Guardians. Any diplomatic progress with Iran on the nuclear issue would require the Supreme Leader’s approval. Although the Ayatollah’s personal virulence toward the United States is no secret, he has stated that Iran’s current lack of contact with the U.S. “does not mean that we will not have relations indefinitely.” Khamenei has also asserted that he “would be the first to approve resuming ties with the United States the day it is to the benefit of the nation.”
POLICY PRESCRIPTION FOR THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION
The United States, in cooperation with the international community, must present Tehran a package of incentives and sanctions that convinces it to forego nuclear weapons development. The specific content of such a package is not discussed here. Rather, this paper is concerned with a more preliminary matter: creating the necessary preconditions for diplomatic progress. The proposal outlined below will in no way guarantee the success of any particular diplomatic strategy. In fact, at this late juncture, it is highly unlikely that any amount of diplomacy will succeed in persuading Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Refusal to adopt the following recommendations will, however, result in the certain failure of diplomacy.
First, the Obama administration must quietly convince the international community that the putative finding of the 2007 NIE is wrong, that Iran’s nuclear weapons program is ongoing, and that Tehran ultimately intends to produce nuclear weapons. Only if the international community believes that Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons will it rally behind an incentives-sanctions package that may convince Tehran to halt proliferation activities. There are promising indications that, despite the 2007 NIE, the international community still believes that Iran is driving forward with its nuclear weapons program. In March 2008, for instance, the IAEA presented compelling evidence that Iran remains engaged in activities “not consistent with any application other than the development of a nuclear weapon.” Shortly thereafter, the Security Council voted nearly unanimously to authorize a third round of sanctions against Iran (only Indonesia abstained).
Second, the Obama administration must convince the international community that Iran should not be permitted to develop nuclear weapons. Although it is unlikely that Iran would use a nuclear weapon offensively, a nuclear Iran would unfavorably alter the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East and increase instability in the region. To those countries—namely Russia and China—not particularly bothered by a geopolitical rearrangement in the Middle East, the Obama administration should emphasize that a nuclear Iran would represent the defeat of nonproliferation as a guiding norm of the international system. Iran’s successful production of a nuclear weapon might spur proliferation throughout the Middle East and beyond. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey, for example, would likely seek nuclear weapons to offset the Iranian threat (or demand broad U.S. security guarantees). Other states, including those not directly threatened by Iran, would draw the conclusion that the benefits of nuclear status outweigh the risks associated with disobeying international nonproliferation laws. Extensive proliferation, especially within developing nations in volatile parts of the world, would increase the risk of nuclear theft and black market sale, thereby raising the threat of nuclear terrorism.
Lastly, the Obama administration must refrain from using highly charged rhetoric when speaking publicly to Iran. The use of threatening language has proven counterproductive with leaders in Tehran. President Bush’s hawkish rhetoric on the nuclear issue, for example, has not succeeded in slowing Iranian nuclear progress and has even helped to entrench Ahmadinejad’s domestically unpopular arch-conservative regime. If the Obama administration can keep tensions between the United States and Iran at current levels (and low oil prices continue to damage the Iranian economy), it is likely that Ahmadinejad and his fellow hardliners will be replaced in the June 2009 national elections by reformists or pragmatic conservatives more willing to engage diplomatically on the nuclear issue.
This is not to suggest that the Obama administration should tolerate Iran’s extensive proliferation activities. Plans for counterproliferation air and missile strikes must be developed and the costs and benefits of the use of military force should be vigorously debated behind closed doors within the Obama administration. In public, however, the Obama administration should emphasize the president’s oft-stated willingness to engage Tehran, while downplaying the possibility of military action. Direct diplomacy with the Ayatollah and more pragmatic Iranian leaders is the last best chance to avoid disaster. If talks ultimately fail, President Obama and the United States Congress will be forced to choose between two potentially catastrophic alternatives: accept an Iranian bomb or use military force to prevent Iran from going nuclear.
Matthew Jacobs is a J.D. Candidate at the New York University School of Law and an M.P.A. Candidate at the Princeton University Woodrow Wilson School.