What Do We Know About Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions?

Summary:  What do we know about Iran’s program to build atomic weapons?  For decades Americans have been subjected to saturation bombing by misinformation and outright lies about Iran.  The information from our intelligence agencies has painted a more accurate picture, if we choose to see it.  Sixth in a series; at the end are links to the other chapters.


The situation is clear, if we would only make the effort to see what our national eyes tells us.

  1. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate about Iran
  2. The new National Intelligence Estimate about Iran
  3. Another perspective on the new NIE
  4. Other posts in this series
  5. Other articles and resources about Iran’s nuclear program
  6. Other posts about Iran and US intelligence resources

(1)  The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate about Iran

National Intelligence Estimate Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities, November 2007  — Despite the hysterical criticism following its release, so far its conclusions have proven correct.

Key Judgments:

(A) We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons. We judge with high confidence that the halt, and Tehran’s announcement of its decision to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program and sign an Additional Protocol to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement, was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.

(B) We continue to assess with low confidence that Iran probably has imported at least some weapons-usable fissile material, but still judge with moderate-to-high confidence it has not obtained enough for a nuclear weapon. We cannot rule out that Iran has acquired from abroad — or will acquire in the future — a nuclear weapon or enough fissile material for a weapon. Barring such acquisitions, if Iran wants to have nuclear weapons it would need to produce sufficient amounts of fissile material indigenously — which we judge with high confidence it has not yet done.

(C) We assess centrifuge enrichment is how Iran probably could first produce enough fissile material for a weapon, if it decides to do so. Iran resumed its declared centrifuge enrichment activities in January 2006, despite the continued halt in the nuclear weapons program. Iran made significant progress in 2007 installing centrifuges at Natanz, but we judge with moderate confidence it still faces significant technical problems operating them.

(D) 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. We also assess with high confidence that since fall 2003, 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.

(E) We do not have sufficient intelligence to judge confidently whether Tehran is willing to maintain the halt of its nuclear weapons program indefinitely while it weighs its options, or whether it will or already has set specific deadlines or criteria that will prompt it to restart the program.

(F) We assess with moderate confidence that Iran probably would use covert facilities — rather than its declared nuclear sites — for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon. A growing amount of intelligence indicates Iran was engaged in covert uranium conversion and uranium enrichment activity, but we judge that these efforts probably were halted in response to the fall 2003 halt, and that these efforts probably had not been restarted through at least mid-2007.

(G) We judge with high confidence that Iran will not be technically capable of producing and reprocessing enough plutonium for a weapon before about 2015.

(H) We assess with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.

(2)  The new National Intelligence Estimate about Iran

Early in 2011 that DNI updated the 2007 NIE.  It’s content remain secret, although there has been an aggressive program of leaks — apparently designed to influence public opinion.  Of course there have been no announcements of efforts to identify and arrest the criminals responsible for these leaks.

(a)  The Director of National Intelligence tells the Senate about the new NIE

Here is a cautious and professional statement about the new conclusions by James R. Clapper (Director of National Intelligence) before the Senate Intelligence Committee on 16 February 2011 – From the DNI website; here is a transcript of the full hearing (with Q&A).  Here is the section discussing Iran.  Unlike the hot fantasies of the war hawks, his remarks suggest that the new NIE agrees with the 2007 NIE.

The Iranian regime continues to flout UN Security Council restrictions on its nuclear and missile programs.  There is a real risk that its nuclear program will prompt other countries in the Middle East to pursue nuclear options.

We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so.  We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.

One of the most important capabilities Iran is developing is uranium enrichment, which can be used for either civil or weapons purposes.  As reported by the IAEA, the number of centrifuges installed at Iran’s enrichment plant has grown significantly from about 3,000 centrifuges in late 2007 to over 8,000 currently installed.  At the same time, the number of operating centrifuges that are enriching uranium has grown at a much slower pace from about 3,000 centrifuges in 2007 to about 4,800 in late 2010.  Iran has used these centrifuges to produce more than 3,000 kilograms of low enriched uranium.

Iran’s technical advancement, particularly in uranium enrichment, strengthens our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons, making the central issue its political will to do so.  These advancements contribute to our judgement that Iran is technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon in the next few years, if it chooses to do so.

… We continue to judge Iran’s nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran.  Iranian leaders undoubtedly consider Iran’s security, prestige and influence, as well as the international political and security environment, when making decisions about its nuclear program.

(b)  The Secretary of Defense tells us about the new NIE (update)

SecDef Leon Panetta interviewed on “Face the Nation“, CBS, 8 January 2012 (red emphasis added):

I think the international strategy here, and this really has been an international strategy to apply sanctions, to apply diplomatic pressure on them, to try to convince Iran that if, you know, they want to do what’s right, they need to join the international family of nations and act in a responsible way. I think the pressure of the sanctions, I think the pressure of diplomatic pressures from everywhere — Europe, United States, elsewhere — is working to put pressure on them, to make them understand that they cannot continue to do what they’re doing. Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that’s what concerns us. And our red line to Iran is do not develop a nuclear weapon. That’s a red line for us.

…  the responsible thing to do right now is to keep putting diplomatic and economic pressure on them to force them to do the right thing. And to make sure that they do not make the decision to proceed with the development of a nuclear weapon.

(3)  Another perspective on the new NIE

Iran and the Bomb – How real is the nuclear threat?“, Seymour M. Hersh, The New Yorker, 6 June 2011 — Excerpt:

A government consultant who has read the highly classified 2011 N.I.E. update depicted the report as reinforcing the essential conclusion of the 2007 paper: Iran halted weaponization in 2003. “There’s more evidence to support that assessment,” the consultant told me.

… The N.I.E. makes it clear that U.S. intelligence has been unable to find decisive evidence that Iran has been moving enriched uranium to an underground weapon-making center. In the past six years, soldiers from the Joint Operations Force, working with Iranian intelligence assets, put in place cutting-edge surveillance techniques, according to two former intelligence sources. Street signs were surreptitiously removed in heavily populated areas of Tehran — say, near a university suspected of conducting nuclear enrichment — and replaced with similar-looking signs implanted with radiation sensors. American operatives, working undercover, also removed bricks from a building or two in central Tehran that they thought housed nuclear-enrichment activities and replaced them with bricks embedded with radiation-monitoring devices.

High-powered sensors disguised as stones were spread randomly along roadways in a mountainous area where a suspected underground weapon site was under construction. The stones were capable of transmitting electronic data on the weight of vehicles going in and out of the site; a truck going in light and coming out heavy could be hauling dirt — a crucial sign of excavation work. There is also constant satellite coverage of major suspect areas in Iran, and some American analysts were assigned the difficult task of examining footage in the hope for finding air vents — signs perhaps, of an underground facility in lightly populated areas.

(4)  Other posts in this series

  1. Is the War on Terror over (because there are no longer two sides)? Part 1, 3 September 2008 — Rumors of covert ops by us against Iran.
  2. Iran’s getting the bomb, or so we’re told. Can they fool us twice?, 16 January 2009
  3. Iran will have the bomb in 5 years (again), 2 January 2010
  4. About the escalating conflict with Iran (not *yet* open war), 4 January 2012
  5. Have Iran’s leaders vowed to destroy Israel?, 5 January 2012
  6. What do we know about Iran’s nuclear ambitions?, 6 January 2012
  7. What does the IAEA know about Iran’s nuclear program?, 9 January 2012
  8. What happens when a nation gets nukes?  Sixty years of history suggests an answer., 10 January 2012
  9. What happens if Iran gets nukes, 11 January 2012

(5) Other articles and resources about Iran’s nuclear program

  1. Archive of IAEA reports about Iran
  2. The Secrets of the Bomb“, Jeremy Bernstein, New York Review of Books, 25 May 2006 — About nuclear intelligence.
  3. Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities, National Intelligence Estimate, November 2007
  4. Iran’s New Nuclear Site: Much Ado About Nothing“, Jeremy R. Hammond, Foreign Policy Journal, 27 September 2009
  5. The Status of Iran’s Nuclear and Missile Programs“, Conference by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 22 November 2010 — Esp note the presentation by former National Intelligence Officer Paul Pillar.
  6. Important: “Iran not working on bomb: Israel intelligence head“, AFP, 2 January 2011 — “Iran is not currently working on producing a nuclear weapon but could make one within ‘a year or two’ of taking such a decision, Israel’s military intelligence chief said on Tuesday.”
  7. Important: “Outgoing Mossad chief: Iran won’t have nuclear capability before 2015“, HAARETZ, 7 January 2011 — “Meir Dagan tells Knesset committee that Iran’s nuclear program has been set back several years after a series of malfunctions.”
  8. Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran, IAEA, 8 November 2011

(6) Other resources about this topic on the FM website

(a) For links to all posts about this topic see these FM Reference Page:

(b) Posts about Iran’s nuke program:

  1. War with Iran, 9 November 2007 — Why Iran is not necessarily our enemy.
  2. Is Iran dangerous, or a paper tiger? , 13 November 2007
  3. The new NIE, another small step in the Decline of the State , 10 December 2007
  4. Iran’s getting the bomb, or so we’re told. Can they fool us twice?, 16 January 2009
  5. More about Iran, things you know that might not be so, 3 October 2009
  6. Jeremy Hammond explains why Iran’s New Nuclear Site is “Much Ado About Nothing”, 30 September 2009
  7. Follow-up on America’s latest wetting our pants episode: Iran’s secret atomic facility, 13 November 2009
  8. Iran will have the bomb in 5 years (again), 21 January 2010

2 Responses to "What Do We Know About Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions?"

  1. diatoo1   January 11, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    Always good to know the facts, even if it is politically almost useless. My guess for street of Hormus for 2012: Israel and Obama will join hands. Why? Obama wants a to get a second term and Israel wants to keep its military hegemony in the near and middle east for the next few decades by making sure Iran gets no nukes. How? Attack Iran´s nuclear program and military power. Exactly how? In spite of many powerful war mongers in the US, if Obama attacks he may loose too many Democrats and may gain too few Reps to win the second term. But if he gives a nod to Israel or does not prevent them, they can attack Iran for 2 or 3 days; Iran will respond by mining Hormus and maybe attacking oil tankers and facilities in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Then Obama is in the best of all worlds: He is forced to and can finish the job of breaking Iran´s military power, clear Hormus from mines and appear to the electorate as not having broken off a war from the fence, but only to have saved the situation with a posture of being a strong leader for the US. So as not to loose Dems and getting the middle and maybe enough Reps in the elections . Assuming clearing Hormus from mines would take 4 to 6 weeks a good time for Israels attack would be 5 to 7 weeks before US presidential elections. No unusual moral hazard for the US administration.