The NIE is Dead

The 2007 Iran NIE was a poorly written document, ignoring relevant information about the totality of Iran’s nuclear programs. Iran has been unresponsive to both negotiations and sanctions, and her programs continue through today, with substantial progress made in uranium enrichment and rocket/missile development.

Long Live the NIE


A number of commentators, like Shmuel Rosner at Commentary’s contentions blog, have picked up on the tacit move of the Obama administration leadership this month, away from the 2007 NIE on Iran’s nuclear program.  Both Obama and new CIA Director Leon Panetta have spoken categorically in the last few days of Iran pursuing a nuclear weapons capability.  As Rosner notes, however, the emerging official honesty about Iran’s intentions is likely to have a limited impact on policy, at least if the comments of new Director of National Intelligence (Admiral) Dennis Blair are an indication:

“They [Iran] want a nuclear program and, quite likely, a nuclear weapon, and there isn’t much that will stop them.”

There is some justification for wondering, at this point, if the price of this straightforwardness about Iran’s intentions, from the intelligence community’s leadership, is a posture by the sitting US administration that “there isn’t much that will stop them.”  If the authors of the 2007 NIE had trusted George W. Bush to adhere to this posture, they might even have written the unclassified summary of it differently.  We may leave others to speculate on the motives of senior intelligence officials for the rhetorical organization of the NIE, as reporters, bloggers, and editorialists did at the time.  What is incontrovertible, however, is the strange unprofessionalism of the NIE in its wording and organization.

At the time of its writing, in late 2007, the UN had imposed two rounds of sanctions on Iran in the previous year due to Iran’s refusal to terminate uranium enrichment, her refusal to comply with updated NPT reporting provisions accepted by all other signatories, her non-compliance with IAEA verification requirements, and her continued construction of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility and the Arak heavy water reactor, a future source of plutonium.  Regarding the progress made in uranium enrichment over that period, analysts David Albright and Jacqueline Shire of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) characterized it as follows, in a November 2007 summary:

What a difference a year makes. In November 2006, Iran had slightly more than 300 gas centrifuges running at its pilot uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz, approximately 200 kilometers south of Tehran. One year later, Iran has close to 3,000 centrifuges installed in a vast underground hall of the commercial-scale Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) at Natanz. It has also stockpiled enough of the enrichment feedstock uranium hexafluoride to produce enriched uranium, whether for nuclear energy or for nuclear weapons, for years to come.

This period has also seen two UN Security Council sanctions resolutions: Resolution 1737 was adopted December 27, 2006, and its sibling, Resolution 1747 was approved only three months later, on March 24, 2007. Each demands that Iran suspend its enrichment program and imposes what are arguably mild sanctions, cutting off arms exports and curtailing certain banking and overseas investment. Iran has flatly ignored the call to suspend uranium enrichment, seemingly determined to have its centrifuges and run them too. It has flouted not only the Security Council but also and, perhaps, more importantly the Bush administration’s determination that Iran not achieve a nuclear weapons capability.

Iran had also reported a test space rocket launch in February 2007, ensuing on her 2004 announcement that she would modify a Shahab-3 ballistic missile – the missile delivery platform considered most likely for a nuclear warhead — to conduct space launches.  While the 2007 launch was assessed in the West to be of an older rocket frame, and Iran stated that it was a sub-orbital launch intended solely for testing, the launch represented a significant first for Iran’s rocket and missile programs.  During the year, the US State Department promulgated an assessment that Iran could have long-range ballistic missiles capable of striking Europe or North America by 2015.  Cited in the assessment was Iran’s acquisition in 2006 of 18 IRBMs from North Korea, reverse-engineered from the Russian submarine-launched R-27 (SS-N-6 “SERB”) ballistic missile.

These developments had all unfolded since the US intelligence community published a classified 2005 NIE outlining the elements of Iran’s various nuclear-related programs, which included “credible indicators that Iran’s military is conducting clandestine work,” and, in the words of an administration official, “could be diverted to bombmaking.” According to Steven Weisman and Douglas Jehl in the New York Times, an unnamed US official stated that the August 2005 NIE assessed with “high confidence” that Iran was determined to develop a nuclear weapon, and might do so between 2010 and 2015.  Contemporary reporting tied this high confidence to the recovery by US intelligence of an Iranian laptop computer, which contained detailed schematics from design experiments and simulations on a Shahab-3 reentry vehicle.  The design attempts were assessed as an effort to expand the nosecone to accommodate a nuclear warhead.  The evidence from the computer of warhead-related design, along with the other two features of a nuclear weapons program – uranium enrichment and delivery platform (missile/rocket) development – were indications that Iran was at least assembling the capability to produce a nuclear weapon.

I note here that analysts will point out the difference between saying that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon, and saying that Iran is pursuing the capability to produce a nuclear weapon.  This distinction is more significant than it might appear, and has a direct bearing on the characterization of the 2007 NIE as a poor product.  The significance of this wording to analysts is suggested by a passage in an Albright and Shire piece from November 2006, in which they outline what they call invalid statements from a House Intelligence Committee Report on Iran’s nuclear programs.  Their first point in refuting statements from the HIC Report is quoted in its entirety:

“The first bullet on page 4 states that ‘Iran has conducted a clandestine uranium enrichment program for nearly two decades in violation of its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement, and despite its claims to the contrary, Iran is seeking nuclear weapons.’ The categorical assertion that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons is not supported by either the IAEA or the U.S. intelligence community. There is circumstantial evidence to suggest that Iran seeks a nuclear weapons capability, but none to support the conclusion that it is currently seeking a nuclear weapon.”


The average reader may judge that, from a political standpoint, as regards Iran’s intentions, this is splitting hairs.  But Albright and Shire might argue in their turn that it matters how far Iran is from producing a weapon – still pursuing the capability to develop it, or actually developing the weapon – because of the implications of the different timelines for counterproliferation policy options.


If we accept the premise that this distinction is both valid, and politically significant, then it clearly implies that we can and should make an analytical distinction between Iran’s acquisition of capabilities, and Iran’s demonstration of intent.  This is, in fact, a distinction routinely made in intelligence analysis, which rigorously requires that both be evaluated.  A nation may, as Albright and Shire point out, have acquired, or be acquiring, a set of capabilities she does not have a demonstrated intention to use.  It may indeed be an unwarranted analytical leap to assert categorically, as the HIC Report did, that the nation in question has the intention imputed to her.  Better intelligence on the nation’s intentions is the remedy here.


When the assessment in question involves a threat, however – especially one like weapons of mass destruction — analysis that does not address developments in capability, and focuses only on an updated deduction about intent, is equally weak.  A new analytical judgment – one that is given political prominence and couched in terms of a change in overall assessment – should at the very least be presented in the context of all relevant factors:  developments that relate to both capability and intention.


At the time the unclassified summary of the 2007 NIE was released, at the end of November, none of the facts or developments cited above, regarding uranium enrichment, missile/rocket development, or warhead-related design, had been reassessed or invalidated.  I recount this summary of developments prior to the 2007 NIE’s release, because it throws into strong relief the fact that the NIE did not address any of them.  It focused, instead, on a single conclusion, reportedly drawn from a series of signals intelligence intercepts*, that Iran had suspended her effort to develop a warhead – the effort implied by the contents of the laptop — in late 2003.

There has never been a decisive reason to suspect that this conclusion, considered on its own merits, was drawn improperly.  The key failure of the 2007 NIE, as an intelligence document, was its unprofessional – there is no other word for it — focus on this one conclusion in isolation, and its treatment of the conclusion not as an a point in assessing the capability Iran was actually obtaining – as well as her intentions — but to make a policy argument about the efficacy of diplomatic measures in dealing with Iran.

A sober evaluation of the suspension assessment suggests that it was probably accurate.  However, it is also quite possible that that accuracy had an expiration date – something that should have been considered in greater depth in an analysis offered four years later.  There is every possibility that it was considered more extensively in the classified NIE.  But regardless of classification level, when a fundamental change of assessment is being implied, the customer is entitled to insist on some justification for the featuring of a single conclusion that, at the time it is offered as paramount – and still valid — is four years old.  There is not even a pro forma reference to classified substantiation of continued validity.  The NIE merely assesses with “moderate confidence” that it is still true.

Moreover, as summarized above, Iran had made significant strides in uranium enrichment and rocket/missile development since the 2005 NIE, but this point was not made in the 2007 NIE.  This, notably, was in spite of the fact that uranium enrichment – not weaponization or delivery platform design – is the most difficult and longest-lead-time aspect of developing a nuclear weapons capability, as attested by then-DNI Mike McConnell in later Congressional testimony.  Iran had also spent the interim between NIEs defying UN sanctions on her enrichment activities, and UN requests for compliance with provisions of the NPT, to which Iran is a signatory; but this national posture was not mentioned either, nor were the IAEA’s continued concerns about Iran’s lack of cooperation, and its own “diminishing” knowledge about Iran’s nuclear program.

In any sound analysis of a nuclear program, and a nation’s intentions for it, these facts would figure, and be explicitly considered.  In the unclassified summary of the 2007 NIE, there is no indication that they were.  Unfortunately, what was discussed at length – an analysis that Iran had suspended weaponization in 2003 due to specifically efficacious international diplomatic pressure – was unsupported by chronology, as outlined by Ambassador John Bolton in an editorial from December 2007.  As he and others pointed out, there was minimal diplomatic pressure exerted on Iran in 2003:  the greatest influence on her decisions that fall, when the weaponization suspension was concluded to have occurred, was probably the US invasion of Iraq in March.  In October 2003, Iran agreed, in EU-3 negotiations, to suspend uranium enrichment and allow more extensive IAEA inspections.  But it was near-surreal, from the perspective of late 2007, and the much more intensive diplomatic program of the intervening years, to consider those 2003 concessions the result of particularly forceful diplomacy.

Even more significant, Iran’s October 2003 concessions had not, by late 2007, proven to have enduring value.  Iran did ultimately suspend uranium enrichment in November 2004, but resumed it by August of 2005 at the conversion facility at Isfahan, and in January of 2006 at the main processing facility at Natanz.  The January 2006 resumption entailed breaking IAEA seals at the site, an action that resulted in IAEA reporting Iran to the UN Security Council, and Iran, in February 2006, withdrawing her agreement to the no-notice inspections she had signed up for in December 2003.  Diplomatic events proceeded ever less auspiciously from that point.  The timeline of diplomatic dealings with Iran, from 2003 to 2007, reveals no successes in securing  meaningful cooperation from her.  All of these facts were known at the time the unclassified summary of the 2007 NIE was written, focusing on the 2003 weaponization suspension and an imputed efficacy for diplomacy.

It may be that what has had enduring value, for anyone who advocates Iran acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, is the 2007 NIE.  In the wake of the political flap over Iraqi WMD, the NIE effectively eliminated the possibility of US national confidence in a preemptive approach to Iran.  We will discuss intelligence and its role in preemption in a follow-on post; for now, it is worth summarizing events related to Iran’s nuclear program since the 2007 NIE.

ISIS analysts Albright and Shire pull no punches in their January 2009 summary, intended for the incoming Obama administration.  They state flatly:

“The year 2009 will likely mark Iran’s development of a nuclear weapons capability.”

“Iran…is now well within striking distance of having a ‘breakout capability’ for a nuclear weapon.”

Iran was operating 3800 P1 centrifuges at Natanz in November 2008, and reportedly intended to bring another 2100 online in the near future, while installing another 3000-centrifuge module in early 2009.  This represents the potential for at least 9000 P1 centrifuges in operation by mid-2009.  Iran continues to test and develop new-generation centrifuges at Natanz, which would be capable of enriching uranium to higher levels.  With the centrifuge operations so far, since their inauguration in 2003, Iran has produced enough uranium hexafluoride (350 tonnes) for 35 nuclear weapons.  Albright and Shire point out that this stock is under IAEA safeguard.

The heavy water reactor at Arak has seen extensive additional construction since the 2007 NIE, and as of October 2008, when commercial imagery was obtained, the reactor dome was assessed by the ISIS analysts to be nearing completion, with a water cooling tower completed, and extensive progress on outbuildings.  The reactor, which would produce enough plutonium for two weapons per year, is reported by an IAEA source to be scheduled for completion in 2011, and to be taken critical in 2013.

Iran has continued her rocket program, conducting test space launches in February, August, and November 2008, and successfully placing a payload in orbit with her indigenously-produced Omid rocket on 3 February 2009.  In November 2008 Iran reported success with the launch of a new-generation, solid-fueled, longer-range (1200 mile) missile, the Sajjil (thought by Western analysts to be a new name for Iran’s previously announced “Ashura” missile program).  US intelligence initially suggested the test was of the first-stage rocket for the new-generation missile, which flew for about 180 miles, although Jane’s also reported a valid second-stage separation.  The Sajjil, besides being an indigenous Iranian design, is a sold-fueled missile, meaning it can remain launch-ready without a last-minute refueling requirement, unlike older liquid-fueled missiles.  Iran also claimed to have launched a new, longer-range variant of her Shahab-3 missile during a major exercise in July 2008, although US sources indicated that the missile launched was the existing variant with a standard range.

Finally, reporting from February 2008 indicated the IAEA had received documents from foreign (non-US) sources that confirmed some of the estimates about Iranian activity based on the recovered laptop.  Specifically, these documents indicate “advanced research into a variety of nuclear-related technologies, including uranium ore processing, warhead modification and the precision-firing of high explosives of the type used to detonate a nuclear device. Other documents point to attempts by civilian scientists to purchase sensitive equipment of the kind Iran would eventually use in its uranium enrichment plants.”

The UN Security Council again extended sanctions on Iran – which have been in effect since December 2006 – in March 2008.   The IAEA continues to monitor enrichment activities at Natanz, although it notes, in each of its reports, the UNSC demand that Iran suspend enrichment.  In May 2008 Iran stated that she did not recognize her uranium enrichment as a compliance issue with the UN, and had no intention of suspending enrichment.  In July 2008, the US, for the first time, joined the Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany in direct talks with Iran on her nuclear program – talks which offered Iran a new and more extensive incentive package than the one offered in 2006 — and Iran reiterated that the suspension of uranium enrichment was not an option.  In October 2008, IAEA inspectors were denied access to the heavy water reactor facility at Arak, where imagery indicates that construction is proceeding at a robust pace.

In February 2008, IAEA presented to Iranian officials a comprehensive summary of the indications (outlined above) from foreign documents about Iran’s possible weapons-related activity, including design, testing, and procurement.  IAEA requested that Iran provide responses to satisfy its concern about the possible military applications of these activities, to which Iran’s response was that the allegations were baseless and the information was fabricated.  (The foreign-source documents are referred to in IAEA reports as the “Alleged Studies.”)  IAEA’s report to the UNSC from November 2008 indicated no progress in obtaining further responses from Iran regarding the documents.

In February 2009, as senior US officials speak straightforwardly about Iran’s potential to develop nuclear weapons, it is clear that the trend of Iran’s activities has not been particularly opaque.  There is no apparent disjunction at any point between 2003 and 2009; rather, Iran’s progress looks steady, and her national attitude unvarying.  In two aspects of a nuclear weapons program — uranium enrichment and missile/rocket development – Iran has made substantial progress, both before and after the 2007 NIE.  In the other aspect – weaponization – additional information has emerged to confirm analyses based on the Iranian laptop recovered in 2004.  There have been three rounds of UN sanctions levied in this period, two of them prior to the 2007 NIE; and different combinations of the UNSC Permanent Five and other nations have pursued multiple avenues of diplomacy, including generous promises of economic incentives that entail support for peaceful nuclear development – Iran’s stated objective.

That Iran has not suspended enrichment, or agreed to comply with her NPT obligations, or render her nuclear programs transparent and thus allay the concerns of the IAEA and the UN – none of these failures is due to a lack of knowledge, or a refusal to negotiate, on the part of the United States, Europe, or the United Nations.  We have not failed to negotiate; negotiation has failed to work.  Sanctions have not worked.  Iran continues to reject UN demands, enrich uranium, develop missiles, deny access to IAEA inspectors at will, and remain secretive and unresponsive about challenges regarding the nature of her nuclear-related activities.  The question is not whether she is acquiring the capability to produce nuclear weapons, but whether we will do anything about it.

In the next post, I will discuss options for applying force to deny Iran nuclear weapons.


* Peter Baker and Dafna Linzer, “Diving Deep, Unearthing a Surprise; How a Search for Iran’s Nuclear Arms Program Turned Up an Unexpected Conclusion ,” The Washington Post, December 8, 2007.  This article is available online only by subscription or purchase.

14 thoughts on “The NIE is Dead”

  1. Very informative and useful, and I’m looking forward to your promised next post on force options.

    Still, though I have every confidence that you know what you’re doing, what I find missing from the analysis above, and what strikes me as crucial to assessing force and other options, is what we understand or assume about Iranian intentions. What do the Iranians themselves think they’re going to have, why precisely are they seeking it, what do they think they’re going to be able to do with it once they have it?

    I’m thinking, of course, of the topics we discussed in our prior exchange of posts at Contentions. More generally, if we don’t have some good idea of what we might be trying to prevent – whether it’s a specific set of threats or whether it’s really a political defeat and its effects that we most fear – then it’s impossible to determine what we stand to gain or lose. Possibly as important, possibly less so as the express train actually nears its destination, what do the Iranians assume or have they assumed would be the result of giving in to US and international demands?

    In other words, I wonder to what extent symbolic and inherently non-negotiable precepts – defiance of the US, assertion of the equality of Iranian and/or Islamic civilization with the West – have been driving Iran, over and above whatever other theoretical military or political interests. In that case, the suffering undergone in pursuit of those goals – economic pain, potential military attack – will tend or have tended to validate them: The more Iran’s adversaries are invested in stopping Iran, and the more that Iran itself has invested in defiance, the more the attainment of a nuclear option, regardless of its real utility, becomes an end in itself.

    It may be unthinkable for the current Iranian leadership to reverse course, and even a successful attack on the Iranian nuclear program might harden their determination someday to realize their goals and in the meantime to sustain any damage we’d be willing to inflict on them in order to demonstrate their continued defiance. We, on the other hand, have termed a nuclear-armed Iran “unacceptable,” but everyone knows, and under the current administration the premise seems even less questionable, that we have a tendency to change our minds – that what was unacceptable yesterday may not seem so today in the light of re-assessed costs and benefits.

    Most of all, I’ll be curious to see whether there’s any reason to believe, based on all available public information, that the safe bet isn’t that neither the US nor Israel nor anyone else will act.

  2. CKM — indeed, there is much to discuss here. I will save most of my own comments for the post I plan to make this week on Iran’s probable strategic course, as a nuclear-armed nation. The discussion of this whole topic is breaking down into the following subtopics:

    1. The situation thus far, and how the 2007 NIE fit into it.

    2. Options for the use of force to address Iran’s nuclear programs (sanctions and attacks being the obvious “uses of force”; diplomacy being a separate, although potentially related, issue).

    3. Iran’s path as a nuclear-armed power.

    4. The meaning of all these factors for the idea of preemption in US policy — with some discuss-a-matizing on preemption as a philosophical position; how a healthy, much-needed national dialogue on it has been averted by focusing on inherently ambiguous intelligence; the importance of intelligence, per se, to preemptive policy; and what we should expect of our political leaders in regard to intelligence and preemption.

    All that said, my fundamental take on Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons — and I have no doubt that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons — is that it is undertaken to obtain the power to deter other nations (namely, today, the US) from interfering in Iran’s regional policies. Nuclear weapons are a trump card that were useful to the Soviets in the Cold War, and that have been useful to China, India, and Pakistan in the unfolding of their regional rivalry. Iran, in my judgment, wants to play in that arena.

    Let’s hope this response posts. I had trouble with that the other day. I look forward to the dialogue on this with you, as the new posts are made.

  3. optimistic,

    Some people have argued that Israel and west’s fears of *some* of the consequences of an Iranian nuke are a form of paranoia. They posit that Iran’s main aim is deterrence ( similar to what you suggest above) and that despite appearances to the contrary Iran is a rational actor which will not risk self annihilation by the actual use of nukes.

    (I know that the views you package with the deterrence argument are probably different so this is not a challenge to those views).

    My main problem with that line of reasoning has always been. How can you be so sure ?

    In predicting the long term behavior of any human entity( government or nation) one must necessarily consider FUNDAMENTAL factors i.e long term prediction has to be based on the basic nature of that entity.

    Given it’s demonstratable religious fanaticism, it’s demonstratable use of militant proxies against Israel, it’s leaders open threats to the very existence of Israel( regardless of linguistic nitpicking) and it’s demonstratble religious nuttiness doesn’t one have to concede a general possibility that nukes in Iranian hands may be used against Israel at a future date ?

    How can anybody, given those facts, deny that their is a reasonable possibility that they might ?

    So the argument for the use of force must then consider not just the strenthening of Iran’s strategic aims in the protection provided by nukes but must also consider the general possibility of their actual use against a western ally in the future.

  4. Publius — you do indeed identify a concern about Iran that we can’t just wish away. While I think there are mitigating factors, such as the relatively rational approach of the ruling clerical council in Iran (which functions as a check on Ahmadinejad), there are enough similarities with North Korea to give us pause.

    I’ll be covering this in more depth when I talk about what Iran would likely do with nuclear weapons, and will save my comments for that post. But I do think there is substance to the concern that the ayatollahs are nuttier than the Soviet Russians.

  5. CKM — the timeline Blair cites doesn’t surprise me. Albright and Shire (who are very much opposed to a military option against Iran, BTW) predict that Iran will have a “breakout” capability this year, but that isn’t the same as predicting that Iran will have a working weapon.

    Having a breakout capability means having all the pieces in existence to manufacture and test the weapon. The long pole in the tent is the enriched uranium, and the ability to spin it to higher enrichment levels quickly. A&S predicted in December that the earliest Iran might have these pieces ready to play with would be mid-year (2009). My guess: it will take longer than that, but Iran will have the breakout capability before 2013. Probably by next year.

    The breakout capability is a political milestone because it means Iran doesn’t have anything left to do except make the bomb. A&S predict grave concern in the Middle East when a breakout capability is identified, and that I agree with. One thing Iran might do is play the IAEA inspectors to delay the perception that the breakout capability has been reached.

  6. Thanks for the clarification, OC. I’m now wondering how much difference in political terms there is between having a breakout capacity and being on the verge of obtaining it.

  7. Just to be clear, I take your point in your last paragraph regarding the “milestone,” but just wonder whether it will matter domestically in the US and possibly elsewhere until and unless it motivates dramatic action on someone’s part. I don’t expect you to provide an answer right now – was just daydreaming out loud.

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