Jeffrey Lewis

The Ayatollah’s Pregnant Pause

What's behind the "new" intelligence on Iran's nuclear program.


On Aug. 9, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that U.S. President Barack Obama has received a new Special National Intelligence Estimate finding that "Iran has made surprising, significant progress toward military nuclear capability." U.S. officials have refused to confirm that the new estimate exists — either on the record or anonymously — but the administration has asserted that its overall assessment remains unchanged since its last public statement this January, when James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said, "Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons … should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons." Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reiterated this view on Tuesday, Aug. 14. Unfortunately, the White House’s concerted campaign to criminalize national security discourse has prevented officials from discussing the estimate with journalists, allowing the most alarmist conjecture to dominate public debate.

The "new" intelligence is probably old news, but that’s hard to see, especially when reporters and officials continue to misstate the judgments of the now famous 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear capabilities and intentions. Unless you have carefully read that report, you are almost certainly misinformed about what it says. Much of the discourse, even among foreign-policy "elites," includes wildly inaccurate assertions, which in turn makes the entire discourse about Iran much, much dumber.

This is not the time to dumb down the discussion of Iran’s nuclear programs. There is growing support for military action, and we are entering the homestretch of a U.S. presidential election, when sober policy analysis will take a back seat to rhetorical machismo and blatant pandering to any ill-informed prejudice that might swing a few votes. I don’t know if time is drawing short, but my friends and colleagues are clearly wondering about the possibility. Injecting a little realism into this discussions depends, first and foremost, on understanding what the intelligence estimates do, and do not, say.

There have been at least four NIEs on Iran’s weapon-of-mass-destruction programs: in 2001, 2005, 2007, and 2011. (The 2005 document was a "memo to holders," but for our purposes we can refer to all of them as NIEs.) The defining text is the 2007 NIE. In the popular telling of the story, the 2007 NIE reversed the findings of previous NIEs, revealing that Iran had no nuclear weapons program. This is, depending on your political inclination, a courageous act of dissent by an intelligence community desperate to stop George W. Bush’s warmongering administration from invading yet another country, or a cowardly effort by unelected bureaucrats to subvert the will of the people by undermining Bush’s determination to prevent the most dangerous weapons from falling into the most dangerous hands. Neither of these caricatures is remotely accurate.

What the 2007 NIE really said is something more cautious and, I would add, interesting. The NIE stated that Iran, until 2003, had a covert nuclear weapons program. The NIE was apparently rather specific about this program, including names, dates, and places. It is also very clear that by "weapons program," it is referring to a parallel effort to the nuclear program run by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran that centers on the enrichment facility at Natanz. The covert weapons program centered on an entirely different set of activities managed by something called the Physics Research Center (PHRC) located in the Lavizan neighborhood of Tehran and run by a fellow named Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

In 2003, however, Iran "halted" this latter nuclear weapons program. Now, "halt" is a very special word. Those of us without military experience might think of "halt!" as the sort of command that signals a serious barrier. Like, "Halt, or I will shoot you." The authors of the NIE, on the other hand, were apparently thinking of something else — a halt in a march, something that may be permanent or temporary. After all, when Iran "halted" this tawdry little enterprise, it isn’t as though Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had Fakhrizadeh and his colleagues put to the sword (though as complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament goes, that would be pretty spectacular). The individuals continue to go to work every day, existing as a latent capability to restart a nuclear weapons program. Fakhrizadeh, at last check, is still in charge of these activities. Only the name of his institute has been changed — from the PHRC to the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research (Sazeman-e Pazhuhesh va Nowavari-ye Defaie, or SPND). What he does all day is anyone’s guess. I like to imagine him playing computer solitaire all day, occasionally glancing at a red phone that never rings.

How could the NIE’s authors make such an odd word choice? Why not "pause" or "suspend"? One odd feature of intelligence community products is their distinct lingo, which imbues select words with highly specialized meanings not readily apparent to the rest of the English-speaking world. My favorite example occurs in the 2005 NIE, which said Iran was "determined to develop" nuclear weapons. Determination sounds pretty serious, right? It’s a tough word, with plenty of grit and synonymous with "dead set," as John Bolton, former undersecretary of state for arms control, famously described Iran’s desire for nuclear weapons. Or not. The drafters of the NIE thought that "determined to develop" conveyed the notion that, though Iran’s leaders would like to have a nuclear weapon, they might or might not have a program to develop one. The authors selected "determined to develop" as a softer alternative to saying that Iran was "pursuing" nuclear weapons on the grounds that the latter implied a program we did not know existed. (Still think the intelligence community is a politically savvy entity that routinely interferes in the policy process?)

The intelligence community appears to have had good reason to believe Iran paused this program. U.S. officials, anonymously, have suggested that the United States intercepted oral and written communications documenting the "halt." There are also indications in the open-source literature. In 2005, Hassan Rowhani, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator for the first few years of the nuclear crisis, gave a pair of remarkable talks in which he recounted the decision-making behind Iran’s engagement with the West. Iran’s leaders engaged in an intense internal debate through much of 2003, reorganizing the decision-making structure for Iran’s nuclear programs. Rowhani even refers obliquely to Fakhrizadeh’s PHRC, noting the problems arising from the activities of a "private entity" that Iran did not wish to disclose to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Pausing the program is certainly what I would have done. Iran preserved the ostensibly civilian aspects of its nuclear program, including a large centrifuge facility near Natanz, that would allow it to make technical progress toward a bomb capability, while attempting to hide evidence of the parallel program that might get it bombed. So, for example, Iran closed up shop at Lavizan and, when the IAEA asked to visit, sent in the bulldozers and declined to make Fakhrizadeh available for interviews. Today, the site of Iran’s covert nuclear weapons program is a lovely park.

The second important idea in the 2007 NIE relates to why Iran shut down Fakhrizadeh’s little bomb empire. The Iranians would have you believe that the supreme leader declared nuclear weapons to be a sin; the U.S. intelligence community believes it was more likely due to "international scrutiny and pressure." That’s an important observation. Left to its own devices, the 2007 NIE suggests, Iran would likely have acquired a nuclear weapon. As it is, Iran was continuing work in areas that it could claim had a legitimate civilian purpose, while holding off on any overt moves toward weaponizing its growing nuclear capabilities. The NIE was not intended to give Iran a clean bill of health; it was intended to signal to policymakers observable evidence that Iran was sensitive to international pressure. As Thomas Fingar, the former head of the National Intelligence Council explained, he and his co-authors intended it to send the message: "You do not have a lot of time, but you appear to have a diplomatic or nonmilitary option."

This is the core observation of the 2007 NIE: Iran had both a civil enrichment program at Natanz, as well as a parallel weapons program that was centered on the PHRC at Lavizan. Under international scrutiny in 2003, Iran sought to close down the parallel program, putting Fakhrizadeh and his cronies on ice, while preserving a civilian program that would allow Iran to pursue a bomb at a later date if it so chose.

I am baffled by the ire that conservative pundits have directed at the 2007 NIE. For a group of people who believe that Iran had a covert nuclear weapons program and who support sanctions on Iran, the 2007 NIE ought to be welcomed with open arms. Because, you know, it says Iran had a covert nuclear weapons program and that sanctions might work. I normally don’t do the "pox on both houses" thing, but in this case I am also baffled by the embrace of the NIE by those opposed to sanctions on Iran. If the document said one thing, it was that international pressure, like sanctions, is important to preventing a nuclear-armed Iran.

Since 2007, the debate within the intelligence community has been about whether Iran has restarted its covert nuclear weapons program. In February 2011, the United States completed another NIE, which confirmed the view that Iran had not restarted the parallel program, though U.S. officials made clear in stories with the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post that they were carefully watching the remnants of Fakhrizadeh’s empire.

The intelligence community faces a real challenge in determining whether SPND oversees an active or dormant nuclear weapons program. Take the explosives facility near Parchin. In the past few years, the IAEA has been interested in some explosives work carried out with the assistance of a former Soviet nuclear weapons scientist. His specialty was making the conventional explosives that perfectly compress a sphere of plutonium or highly enriched uranium at the heart of a bomb. After the fall of the Soviet Union, this scientist took the same process for compressing plutonium and applied it to making nanodiamonds (really, really small diamonds for industrial applications).

He spent some time in Iran, at a military base near Parchin. The Iranians would have us believe that this was all part of a civilian nanodiamonds project. After the IAEA focused attention on the site, Iran undertook a thorough scrubbing of the area — or what I like to call "the full Lavizan." Now, let’s stipulate the explosives team at Parchin was working on nuclear weapons implosion until 2003, when they were told to work exclusively on nanodiamonds. Is that defense conversion? Or hedging? The answer, of course, is that it is both.

Now imagine you are an Iranian policymaker in 2003, debating with your colleagues about whether to "halt" the bomb program. Decide for yourself which side you want to take, and ask yourself this question about Parchin: If you want to shut down the bomb program, do you propose using the facility for civilian research? Why, yes, you do, if only so that the hawks won’t accuse you of being under the control of Great Satan in using the nuclear weapons program to hold back Iran’s scientific and technological development. If you don’t want to shut down the bomb program? You also want to keep the scientists at work, if only to keep the option alive for another debate when you have the numbers. Two opposing politicians may agree on the same policy, but for very different reasons. If one looks in from the outside, how is it possible to make a larger statement about Iran’s intentions in a situation like this?

The short answer is to look for something unambiguous, like an order from the supreme leader. It seems that much of what the U.S. intelligence community is now doing is looking for a sign that the supreme leader has authorized a resumption of the program. Micah Zenko, at the Council on Foreign Relations, has written an interesting piece noting that Clapper and other U.S. officials seem to have concluded that an order to resume the nuclear weapons program will come directly from the supreme leader. Zenko also noted that Israeli officials have suggested that the supreme leader has not done so because he believes his decision-making process has been penetrated and that any decision to restart the nuclear weapons program will be detected by the West. Given that the West detected covert Iranian enrichment facilities at Natanz and then again at Qom, to say nothing of the 2003 decision to pause the program, he wouldn’t be paranoid to think so. On the other hand, the supreme leader may have other reasons for refraining, including real religious opposition, per a fatwa, or religious edict, he issued prohibiting the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons.

Very little has been written about how the supreme leader would authorize a resumption of the nuclear weapons program. Would he make a telephone call? Take a meeting? Or, as Franklin D. Roosevelt did to start the Manhattan Project, simply take a blue pencil to a report and write, "OK — returned — I think you had best keep this in your own safe. FDR."

Iran’s paused program is why neither the United States nor Israel has launched an airstrike, at least not yet. Iran is creeping toward a bomb option, by accumulating multiple and redundant capabilities to build nuclear weapons. These steps make an airstrike less and less effective by the day, which is what some Israelis mean by the term "zone of immunity." Still, something seems to have stayed the supreme leader’s hand. He does not yet appear to have decided to exercise his option to build a bomb — something that he would almost certainly do following an attack. So we scour the deserts of Iran for any sign that the supreme leader has decided to go for it.

If Haaretz is correct and there is a new intelligence estimate, it appears to be old news. The substance of its story — that "activity around the ‘weapon group’ … is progressing far beyond the scope known to the International Atomic Energy Agency" — is apparently intended to be an official confirmation of similar allegations made by Iranian dissidents this year and published in the Daily Telegraph by Con Coughlin. The Iranian dissidents, according to Coughlin, alleged that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has established something called the "New Defence Research Organisation," comprising 60 scientists, "to work on the key areas of the weapons programme that still need to be completed before Iran can start work on assembling a nuclear weapon."

As it turns out, the New Defense Research Organization is just an English variant of Sazeman-e Pazhuhesh va Nowavari-ye Defaie, or SPND — Fakhrizadeh’s group. In an op-ed, one Iranian dissident admitted as much. Apparently, some people believe the creation of the SPND, which happened last year, and Iran’s refusal to grant the IAEA additional access at Parchin demonstrate that Iran has restarted its weapons program. I think that’s pretty thin gruel. Iran may be hiding past weaponization work at Parchin, but I don’t know how anyone can conclude when that work occurred. And Iran has reorganized the PHRC at least three times since 2003. Oh, this is interesting all right, and worth considering, but hardly the sort of thing one puts in a PowerPoint to U.N. Security Council. Um, moving on.

There is a simple explanation for a new intelligence assessment at this time. According to the IAEA, Iran started using the SPND name in February 2011 — the same month that the United States completed the last NIE. The authors must have loved that! Out of date immediately! It would be reasonable, following yet another reorganization and the standoff over Parchin, for the intelligence community to take another look. My guess is that the intelligence community found Fakhrizadeh still punching the clock, but no evidence that the supreme leader has made a decision to go all out for a bomb. This is not surprising. Iran is successfully slicing off one piece of salami after another, while the Israelis scream about the "zone of immunity." Why would the supreme leader invite an airstrike?

Then there is another reason for skepticism. We are reading about this in the paper! One thing I learned living in Washington is that intelligence leaks are usually the losing side of an argument. I was at a meeting recently at which an old intelligence hand made the same point rather forcefully. Leaks are a way of appealing a decision through the media and political opposition. In this case, there are clearly Americans and Israelis who believe that the United States lacks a sense of urgency over the challenge posed by Iran. Hence the leak this summer that appeared in the Daily Telegraph and now in Haaretz. Whether these leaks are coming from dissatisfied officials in the United States or Israel is beside the point. We probably only have half the story. The losing half, at that.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

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