INSS Insight No. 98, March 19, 2009
In February 2009, the American intelligence community published the unclassified portion of the intelligence assessment regarding threats directed against the United States. The intelligence report, signed by Admiral Dennis Blair, the new Director of National Intelligence, includes a section on the Iranian nuclear issue. The new intelligence assessment does not differ in essence from the December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the Iranian issue, which sparked much criticism in Israel and the United States for downplaying the nuclear question. However, the emphases of the new report differ in part from those of the preceding one.
The new intelligence report is in part similar to the 2007 estimate:
1. The new assessment repeats the previous finding that in 2003 Iran froze its military nuclear program, which included attempts at converting fissile materials into weapons, clandestine uranium conversions, and other activities connected to the process of enriching uranium. The new report determines that this freeze lasted at least until the middle of 2007, and that there is no information indicating that the program was resumed. American intelligence does not have enough information to determine with certainty if Iran is prepared to continue the freeze on its military nuclear program.
The new assessment also allows a measure of doubt as to whether Iran has made a final decision on producing nuclear weapons. Thus, it determines that the American intelligence community does not know if Iran intends to produce nuclear weapons, and notes twice that "Iran could develop nuclear weapons" should it decide to do so.
Similar to the 2007 report, the new assessment also notes that Iran retains the option to develop nuclear weapons, and that it possesses the technological infrastructure that would allow it to develop nuclear weapons.
The timetable involved in Iran obtaining nuclear weapons has not changed. According to the assessment, Iran will be able to produce high quality enriched uranium in quantities sufficient for nuclear weapons between 2010 and 2015 (though according to assessment of the US State Department research units, not before 2013).
Nevertheless, the new report treats the risk of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons with greater gravity than the previous report in two ways:
The new assessment particularly emphasizes that Iran is making significant progress in at least two of the areas relevant to producing nuclear weapons: enriching uranium, which would allow the production of fissile material to produce nuclear weapons, and manufacturing and improving ballistic missiles as launching vehicles capable of carrying a nuclear payload. Whereas the 2007 report placed its emphasis on the freezing of the Iranian program, the new assessment focuses on the progress made in these two areas.
The new report estimates that Iran seems to have succeeded in importing some fissile material, though not in quantities sufficient to produce nuclear weapons. The report does not rule out the possibility that Iran has either already obtained or will at some future point obtain nuclear weapons or fissile material in sufficient quantities for nuclear weapons from abroad. However, according to the American intelligence assessment, Iran today does not have nuclear weapons, and to date has not obtained fissile material in quantities sufficient to produce nuclear weapons. In this sense, the assessment does not support the statement by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen, who at the end of February claimed that Iran has enough fissile material to produce a bomb.
The new intelligence assessment also refers to the possibility of stopping Iran before it attains nuclear weapons. According to the assessment, only a political decision on the part of Iran's leadership to renounce the goal of attaining nuclear weapons will stop Iran's quest for this type of weapon. However, convincing Iranian leaders to renounce this goal will be difficult because of the connection Iran sees between possessing nuclear weapons and its own national security and because of the efforts Iran has already invested in realizing this goal. The report adds that there is a possibility that a composite of threats and pressures, together with the creation of alternative ways for Iran to advance its national security, may motivate Iran to stop striving for nuclear weapons, but that it is very difficult to say what such a composite would be.
The message emerging from this estimate is not unequivocal. On the one hand, it points to Iran's significant progress towards nuclear weapons in at least two of the three areas contributing to their development – but not in all three. The conclusion regarding the third – converting fissile material into weapons – remains open. The estimate even raises the possibility that Iran might leap ahead in its pursuit of nuclear weapons should it manage to obtain fissile material in sufficient quantities to make a bomb from abroad, or might even obtain the bomb itself. On the other side, the estimate does not convey a sense of urgency, and more important, it casts doubt on Iran's having made the final decision to go ahead with the production of nuclear weapons, even though it continues to keep the option on the table and has the technological capability of fulfilling to do so.
Furthermore, the conclusion of the American intelligence community about stopping Iran before it obtains nuclear weapons is also equivocal. It feels that it may be possible to stop Iran by a combination of pressures and enticements. The fact that Iran froze its military nuclear program in 2003 supports that point, yet it would nonetheless be difficult to achieve because Iran views its nuclear program as a vital national project. It is also not clear what precise combination of pressures and enticements would be able to convince Iran to renounce the goal of obtaining nuclear weapons.
Essentially, the American intelligence community still clings to the basis of its December 2007 estimate, with a change of emphases and formulation. The previous estimate of the American intelligence community of February 2008 – written just two months after the December 2007 estimate and in light of the criticism leveled against that report – deleted the doubts about Iran's intention of developing nuclear weapons. In the new estimate of February 2009, these doubts are revived.
In the absence of information, it is hard to assess how the Obama administration will relate to the new intelligence assessment. In mid-March 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that in light of the failure of intelligence with regard to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, any American president would be "very, very careful" when it comes to relying on intelligence. In the meantime, after the publication of the estimate, President Obama characterized Iran as an extraordinary threat against the security of the United States, and extended American sanctions against Iran. However, if a dialogue of substance develops between the American administration and Iran, the intelligence estimate may serve to create a feeling within the administration that time is not of the essence, and that at this stage there is no need to limit the time period of the dialogue if it seems that this option can be productive.
 Dennis Blair, Annual Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Washington, D.C., February 12, 2009.
 Michael McConnell, Annual Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Washington, D.C., February 7. 2008.
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