Jeffrey LewisNIE on Iran's WMD Programs

I reviewed Shahram Chubin’s Iran’s Nuclear Intentions for the journal Middle East Policy.

In that review, I discussed the provenance of the 2005 NIE on Iran’s WMD programs. Chubin asserts that members of the US intelligence community produced a “tainted” National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program that underestimated how close Iran was to building a nuclear weapon, in order to support a late 2005 effort to engage Iran.

For those advocating regime change, it was important to demonstrate that there remained time for [a graduated, deliberate approach] (and a sanctions policy) to be viable, which may have accounted for the “new intelligence estimate” in August 2005 that assessed Iran to be technologically further away from a nuclear weapon than many had assumed.44

44. This estimate, however, might well be tainted. Before this National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), U.S. estimates, such as that by Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lowell Jacoby in February 2005, were “within five years.”

This is wrong and it matters. How close Iran is to a bomb is the most important “fact” bearing on the prospects for a diplomatic solution to the current impasse over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. If Iran is five-to-ten years away, then we have time for patient, tough diplomacy.

The National Intelligence Estimate (or NIE) in question was commissioned in January 2005 by then acting-chair of the National Intelligence Council David Gordon.1 The previous NIE on Iran had been produced in 2001.2 Paul Pillar, then-National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, was responsible for overseeing the drafting and coordination of the estimate. The process for commissioning NIEs – an authoritative, community-wide estimate related to a particular issue – is well described in the public policy literature.

The NIE dealt with political, economic and social trends in Iran, emphasizing issues relating to the stability of the regime in Tehran. Along with the NIE, Gordon also commissioned a “memo to holders” to update a preceding national intelligence estimate about Tehran’s chemical, biological and nuclear capabilities. Robert Walpole, National Intelligence Officer for Strategic and Nuclear Programs, presumably oversaw the “memo to holders.” Both documents – the NIE on political stability and the “memo to holders” on Iran’s WMD programs (which was appended to the NIE) – were completed in May 2005.

There is no evidence to support the idea that senior US policy makers favoring diplomacy, rather than Gordon as acting Chairman of the NIC, commissioned the estimate or that Gordon had any other motive. U.S. officials in February 2005 told Maxim Kniazkov of Agence France Presse that the “memo to holders” was “self-initiated” adding “It is not that somebody has requested it.”3

The intelligence community had plausible reasons in January 2005 to turn to its assessments of political stability and nuclear policy in Iran. Following the Iraq Survey Group’s interim report in October 2003 that suggested Iraq did not possess militarily significant stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, the intelligence community revisited many of its WMD-related assessments.4 As noted, the look at Iran’s nuclear program was not, in fact, an NIE but rather a “memo to holders,” a document that updates an existing national intelligence estimate based on new information, without providing a comprehensive reassessment.5 By January 2005, thanks to the activity of international nuclear inspectors to verify Iran’s suspension of enrichment activities under the terms of the November 2004 Paris Agreement, the intelligence community would have had access to enough new information to justify such an update.6 It is likely that Gordon, anticipating briefings on the inspectors’ visits to Iran, decided to update the preceding NIE on Iran’s nuclear program on this basis.

Although both documents—the NIE on political stability and the “memo to holders” on Iran’s WMD programs—were completed in May, the results did not appear in the press until August 2005 (accounting for Chubin’s confusion regarding the publication date). On August 2, Linzer reported that the “memo to holders” had concluded Iran was 5-10 years away from a nuclear weapon, stating that Iran could complete a nuclear device “early to mid next decade.”7 The conclusions of the NIE about the political stability of the Iranian regime appeared in Newsweek two weeks after Linzer’s story.8

Chubin asserts that Iran might be very much closer to nuclear weapon, but he does not address the substance of the NIE. Chubin cites one analyst warning that “What remains is for [Iran] is to assemble, test and run a few thousand centrifuges with the feed stocks produced at the UCF.”9

Public accounts of IAEA findings suggest Iran continues to find such challenges are far from trivial. An IAEA report that argued that Iran continues to have difficulty understanding the relationship between UF6 gas flow, temperature and stress corrosion. A “Western Intelligence official” explained to the Washington Post’s David Ignatius in September 2006 that “The Iranians are unable to control higher temperatures, and after a short period they must stop because of higher temperatures. So far they haven’t been able to solve this.” The official added that some centrifuges “are simply crashing—10 or so have broken down and must be replaced.”10

Indeed, the other estimate that Chubin cites, by David Albright and Corey Hinderstein of the Institute for Science and International Security, states quite clearly that their estimate “reflects a worst-case assessment” adding that “Iran can be expected to take longer”:

Iran is likely to encounter technical difficulties that would delay bringing a centrifuge plant into operation. Factors causing delay include Iran having trouble in the installation of so many centrifuges in such a short time period, or Iran taking longer than expected to overcome difficulties in operating the cascades as a single production unit or commissioning the secret centrifuge plant.11

Albright and Hinderstein do not, as one might have supposed from Chubin’s description, minimize the impact of these technical hurdles. Indeed, in subsequent reports, Albright, writing with Jacqueline Shire, has noted that Iran has made “limited progress at its Natanz uranium enrichment plant, installing and operating fewer gas centrifuges than expected. Senior Vienna-based diplomats have confirmed to ISIS that Iran may be either delaying deliberately the pace of its work while diplomatic efforts are underway, or is experiencing technical problems with its centrifuge program.”12

Such technical troubles, revealed by international nuclear inspections, appear to have influenced the conclusion of the May 2005 memo to holders that Iran remains five to ten years from building a nuclear device.

Recent public statements suggest that a new forthcoming NIE on Iran’s nuclear program will not significantly alter this estimate.13 This is not to say that Iran is not making progress toward mastering enrichment, but merely that time remains for diplomacy.


1. Dafna Linzer and Walter Pincus, “U.S. Reviewing Its Intelligence on Iran; Council Working on New Assessments of Country’s Rulers and Arms Programs,” The Washington Post, February 12, 2005, p.A12. See also: Douglas Jehl And Eric Schmitt, “Data Is Lacking On Iran’s Arms, U.S. Panel Says,” March 9, 2005, p.A1 and Kevin Whitelaw, “In Saddam’s ominous shadow,” U.S. News & World Report 138:11, March 28, 2005, p.32.

2. A senior official told Linzer that previous assessments produced during Bush’s first term were “narrow in scope” and that “advocates of policies that were inconsistent with the intelligence judgments” had rejected the assessments. See also: Steven R. Weisman And Douglas Jehl, “Estimate Revised on When Iran Could Make Nuclear Bomb,” The New York Times, August 3, 2005, p. 8.

3. Maxim Kniazkov, “With rhetoric heating up, US spy agencies launch review of Iran data,” Agence France Presse, February 12, 2005.

4. New NIEs on WMD programs of Libya, Cuba, and Al Qaeda and Afghanistan were completed in May, September and December 2004. See: On Libya and Al Qaeda and Afghanistan, see: Final Report of The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction (Government Printing Office, March 31, 2005) citing NIC, Title Classified (NIE 2004-05HJ) (May 2004) and NIC, Title Classified (NIE 2004-08HC/I) (Dec. 2004). On Cuba, see: Steven R. Weisman, “In Stricter Study, U.S. Scales Back Claim on Cuba Arms,” New York Times, September 18, 2004 p.A5.

5. For example, see Memo to Holders National Intelligence Estimate 13-8/1-69 Communist China’s Strategic Weapons Program (August 20, 1970) that updated NIE 13-8/1-69 Communist China’s Strategic Weapons Program

6. In October 2004, Paul Kerr reported that the U.S. intelligence community was “waiting on IAEA inspectors to present more details about the conversion facility” at Esfahan. According to Linzer, the subsequent estimate resulted from “a better understanding of Iran’s technical limitations.”

7. Dafna Linzer, “Iran Is Judged 10 Years From Nuclear Bomb; U.S. Intelligence Review Contrasts With Administration Statements,” The Washington Post, August 2, 2005, p.A1.

8. Mark Hosenball, “Iran: Revolution, Unrealistic,” Newsweek, August 15, 2005, p.6.

9. Ephraim Asculai, “Intelligence Assessment and the Point of No Return: Iran’s Nuclear Program,” Tel Aviv Notes No. 143 August 8, 2005.

10. David Ignatius, “Iran’s Uranium Glitch; Technical Troubles Offer Time for Diplomacy,” The Washington Post, September 29, 2006, p.A21.

11. David Albright and Corey Hinderstein, The Clock is Ticking, But How Fast? Institute for Science and International Security, March 27, 2006.

12. David Albright and Jacqueline Shire, Iran’s Centrifuge Program: Defiant but Delayed, Institute for Science and International Security, August 31, 2006. See also, the testimony Albirght and Robert Einhorn, Senior Adviser, Center For Strategic And International Studies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Hearing Of The Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subject: Iran’s Political-Nuclear Ambitions And U.S. Policy Options, Federal News Service, May 17, 2006.

13. See: Interview of Ambassador John D. Negroponte, Director of National Intelligence With Mr. Robert Siegel of National Public Radio, September 1, 2006 and Mark Hosenball, “Intelligence: How Close Is Iran to Having Nuclear Weapons?” Newsweek, September 25, 2006, p.6.


  1. Andy (History)

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but one of the problems Iran encountered last year was impurities in its domestically-produced UF6 that were causing crashes. So Iran may be having UF6 problems in addition to cascade problems. I haven’t seen any information to indicate the Iranians have solved UF6 purity problems.

    With respect to intelligence, predictive analysis of technical and developmental projects is ripe for political interference because conclusions and timeline assessments are inevitably based on assumptions and judgments about Iran’s technical capabilities and expertise (essentially, how knowledgeable and skilled their technicians and engineers are). It’s impossible to predict with any degree of precision how quickly Iran or any other country will be able to overcome the technical hurdles we know they will face. Those advocating military action against Iran sooner rather than later essentially make a worst-case-scenario argument for Iran – meaning Iran will encounter few technical hurdles and those they do will be overcome quickly. They argue it is wrong for the IC and policymakers to “downplay” the threat by making more realistic assumptions based on our own experience and those of other nations’ programs.

    And that is why access to Iran’s program via the IAEA is so critical – it provides evidence of Iranian technical capability that is used to improve predictive analysis. Without such information policymakers are much more likely to take the worst-case-scenario view, even if it may be unlikely based on experience and history.

  2. Binh (History)

    If I’m not mistaken, hasn’t the NIE been saying Iran is “at least five years away” from being able to produce a nuclear weapon since 1995?

  3. Haninah (History)

    Good piece – typo in spelling of Ignatius’s name, though.

  4. Mel Goodman (History)

    Paul Pillar was also the manager and coordinator of the CIA “White Paper” on Iraqi WMD in October 2002, making case for war.

  5. Arthur Fitzgerald

    Regardless of the true state of Iran’s nuclear program, it is clear that this NIE is worthless, for two reasons. First, “following the Iraq Survey Group’s interim report … the intelligence community revisited many of its assessments.” This means that having got burnt once, the IC is now trying to be as cautious as possible, introducing the same kind of political bias as in the case of Iraq, but now serving the opposite agenda. Secondly, “such technical troubles … appear to have influenced the conclusion”. When the IC does not even attempt to consider the possibility of the Natanz problems being a deception, it is asking to be ignored.

  6. Lurker

    I have to say it: the underlying assumption that Iran is in fact seeking nuclear weapons goes unstated and unchallenged in both Chubin’s article, and yours. We don’t know that Iran is in fact seeking weapons at all.

  7. Rwendland (History)

    ElBaradei gave an interesting interview 19 February when he said Iran didn’t announce they were progressing to a 3,000 centriguges on Revolution Day (11 February) as some suspected, which was positive and gave a space for negotiation. He thought Iran might announce in April.

    ElBaradei was reluctant to estimate when 3,000 would be running smoothly, but did say “I don’t know, it could be a year, it could be six months.”

    He also said the thought that the “Iranian issue will only be resolved when the US takes a decision to engage Iran directly” … on a range of issues. i.e. a Six-Party talks like situation perhaps. Seems about right to me – 1979 was a long time ago, but how to get there?

    Lots of other interesting comments:

  8. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    I did, actually, challenge that assumption in my review of Chubin’s book.

    I referred to an article by Paul Kerr (“Divided from Within,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist 62:6, November/December 2006, pp. 17-19) that concludes “international diplomatic efforts may have succeeded for a time at reining in what quite possibly had been a clandestine bomb program operating below the attention of senior policy makers …”

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