Jeffrey LewisIran NIE Forthcoming

Apparently, the much anticipated NIE on Iran’s nuclear programs is coming out any day now.

Walter Pincus went over to lunch at the Wilson Center, where McConnell dropped that the NIE will be done by the end of the month:

Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell said yesterday that a long-awaited intelligence estimate covering Iran’s nuclear program will be finished by the end of this month, attributing the delay to new information collected in late spring that caused a reconsideration of some elements of the assessment.

“We had more information that inserted some new questions, so the effort has been to sort that out,” McConnell said at a luncheon at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Following a recently announced policy, McConnell said he does not intend to release an unclassified version of the estimate’s key judgments.

(More from the inky Pams: AP’s Hess and CNN’s Benson.)

Let’s see … late spring 2007? Well, in April 2007 Iran began enriching uranium in what were then eight cascades at the Fuel Enrichment Plant near Natanz. That was, as a result, when we learned the Iranians were underfeeding the cascades and spinning them below the optimal speed. (See my trio of posts on the subject: one, two , and three.)

Will be fascinating to see what the IC makes of all this, although McConnell say he won’t release an unclassified version.

It will leak though. What do you all think? Will the IC have a consensus? If so, will the estimate move forward, to before 2010?


  1. Jeff Dexter (History)

    I picked up this information this morning also, and had a slightly different take (policy oriented). You seem fairly confident the report will leak. I certainly hope that the key judgments are made public, in their entirety. Did you catch at the end of the WaPo article that McConnell said he would resign if the report was leaked piecemeal, as you seem to expect the Bush Administration will do?

  2. Yale Simkin (History)

    late spring 2007 ??

    Its frightening if decisionmakers rely on information 7 months old, particularly in areas of rapid political and technical change.

    As the saying goes: much worse than not knowing something, is knowing something that happens not to be true.

    I wouldn’t be comfortable with data even a month old.

  3. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    The conclusions always leak. The shame is that they will be leaked to subvert the policy process, rather than to inform.

    I agree that I would like to see the key judgments released, as well as any dissent.

    As far as I can tell, the issue has been that the IC couldn’t reach a consensus, leading to the now year-long delay in publishing the NIE.

    Some suggest that the problem is the Vice President’s office didn’t like the draft. Although I’ve heard similar rumors, the sourcing is very thin.

    I would observe that Hadley made a remark about how estimates vary widely which leads me to believe there are significant dissents one way or the other.

    I doubt McConnell will resign when the New York Times gets an anonymous, one-sided read-out on the most alarmist aspects of the

  4. Mark Gubrud

    Yale Simkin has posted here the outlines of a worst-case analysis arguing persuasively that the window is rapidly closing for a bombing attack on Iran to set back for a few years its ability to make enough HEU for a first weapon, i.e. the attack would have to come within the next year or two at most. Yale’s scenario also indicates that left unmolested Iran could have nuclear weapons before 2010.

    I think a lack of consensus will translate into an NIE which encompasses a range of views including something like Yale’s analysis, alternately cautioning, on one page, that we don’t know exactly when Iran will have a nuclear weapon, if ever, and that some analysts believe it may take another 7 years, and on the next page, darkly warning that the mullahs are within months of having enough HEU for a bomb that could kill a million Americans and that once they get it we won’t be able to do anything to stop them.

    With the latter type of perspective officially endorsed by the new, improved, Intelligence Community™, the Bush gang will hammer Congressional, military, and media resistance to the drumbeat for an attack.

    I think it’s clear that one reason for barring an unclassified version is that the new Iran NIE will shift dramatically from the previous one. If its release became a big public event, as it would if there were a public version released, this shift would be widely noted in the media. Two thirds of America would collectively mutter “bullshit” and “more lies just like the ones that got us into Iraq.” This reaction would be so strong and pervasive that it would resound even in privileged quarters and effectively blunt the message.

    However, with the NIE classified, the corporate media will only dribble out leaks about its character, leading to much inconclusive debate but never producing the strong reaction that would negate its effectiveness in closed-door sessions.

  5. Karl Schenzig

    Dear Mr. Lewis,

    Instead of engaging in political backtalk, you may wish to remind yourself that the CIA managed to miss Stalin’s bomb by four years.

    Furthermore, I suggest you query your Israeli contacts as to Israel’s probable response to an Iranian nuclear test. It seems that you will be surprised.

  6. FSB

    fyi, parts of the Iran NIE have already been leaked:

  7. Andy Grotto (History)

    Getting an accurate technical read of Iran’s centrifuge program is obviously important.

    But what is far more interesting to me — and ultimately, much more policy determinative — is the constellation of political forces brewing both within Iran and throughout the region that are relevant to understanding and influencing Iran’s behavior.

    These political forces bear on Iran’s (un)willingness to compromise on the enrichment issue, it’s posture in negotiations with the IAEA and Solana, and how developments along these fronts, together with ongoing technical progress on the enrichment program, will affect Iran’s broader geopolitical outlook.

    It’s interesting to note that since spring 2007, a number of datapoints about Iran’s domestic political situation and regional ambitions have emerged: Ahmadinejad’s plummeting domestic popularity; a worsening domestic economy; accusations from senior U.S. military commanders in Iraq that Iran is supplying advanced weaponry to insurgent groups, an apparent abrupt end to such activities since Petraeus’s testimony in September; signs of a deepening rift between pragmatic conservatives in Iran associated with Rafsanjani and right-wing conservatives associated with Ahmadinejad (witness Larijani’s sudden resignation and espionage charges against former chief negotiator Mousavian); etcetera.

    Given how much these and other political factors bear on a bottom-line threat assessment vis-a-vis Iran—how will it behave if and when it achieves a nuclear capability, and how will its Arab neighbors respond—and how murky they can be to assess, they are ripe for manipulation.

  8. hass (History)

    The Iranians may have an atom bomb within two years, the authoritative Jane’s Defence Weekly warned. That was in 1984, two decades ago. Four years later, the world was again put on notice, this time by Iraq, that Tehran was at the nuclear threshold, and in 1992 the CIA foresaw atomic arms in Iranian hands by 2000. Then U.S. officials pushed that back to 2003. And in 1997 the Israelis confidently predicted a new date – 2005.
    SOURCE: “Iran – Ever a ‘threat,’ never an atomic power:

  9. abcd (History)

    Hass: Most of that information is irrelevant to the fact that there are 3,000 centrifuges – of whatever quality – spinning at Natanz today, despite three UNSC resolutions demanding the contrary.

  10. Yale Simkin (History)

    Hass quoted:

    The Iranians may have an atom bomb within two years, the authoritative Jane’s Defence Weekly warned. That was in 1984, two decades ago…

    It is ironic that history is repeating itself.

    Jane’s was speaking about reports that the West German technicians were returning to Iran to complete the Bushehr “civillian” power plant.

    The WGs had left the plant unfinished after the radical revolution took over in 1979 and began its chaotic reign.

    If the plant was completed, then plutonium would be available in the astounding quantities that a big LWR creates in just a few years.

    The Iraqis, in a repeat of Israel’s attack on its own reactor, blasted the crap out of the Bushehr plant, effectively spiking that cannon.

    Those other estimates were based on various indications of Iran’s both clandestine attempts to aquire enrichment technology, and our great friend Russia’s efforts to rebuild Bushehr.

  11. Yale Simkin (History)

    The latest IAEA report on Iran’s progress has been released and it is quite discouraging.

    In the 6 months between 2/2007 and mid-June 2007 the Iranians processed 690 kg of UF6 as thay ramped up to 12 cascades.

    In only 2 1/2 more months they have processed another
    550 kilograms, as they ramped up the final 6 cascades.

    It is reasonable to assume that following the cascade interlinking they will begin the heavy push.

    Adding insult to injury, our friends, the Russians, appear to be ready to ship 80 tons of Grade-A LEU – sufficienct to create a nuclear arsenal either in an enrichment plant, or as a plutonium feedstock in the reactor.

    BTW – since I am not a Neocon… (as a card-carrying member of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the UCS, the thought is nauseating) .. , I would consider my comments as alarming, not alarmist. I have no desire to blast the crap out of anyone, but I also don’t want to be blindsided.

    A Cassandra would be a perfect fit.

  12. Rudi (History)

    Karl The USSR had an infrastructure and enough German scientists to build their bomb. Also, I don’t think non-proliferation existed then to stop them from developing/stealing components.

  13. Andy (History)


    I understand your arguments about Iran using the Russian fuel, but they could not do so without the world knowing. If Iran made such a decision, a clear and incontrovertible violation of the NPT, then they’d really be inviting attack. I do believe the Iranians are largely rational and such a course of action would, in my mind, be quite a departure for them. They would certainly know the US would prevent any HEU production through the use of military force, so I see that scenario as quite remote.

    The bigger worry, imo, are the long-term implications since a parallel clandestine military program could be achieved, particularly without the additional protocol. A more near-term worry is that such a parallel program might currently exist – something that can only be determined with any measure of confidence when the IAEA fully understands all aspects of Iran’s program during its covert period.

    Finally, WRT the NIE, I suspect that there will be dissent and the dissent will come down to intent. Unlike pre-war Iraq, it’s my belief the community is in large agreement on the nature and quality of the evidence, but will be in disagreement as to what the evidence means. The intent of nation-states is difficult to judge in ideal circumstance, but becomes nearly impossible when evidence is limited and ambiguous.

    And this is assuming actual Iranian intentions have been consistent and unambiguous in both scope and time over the past 25 years. In fact, I would be surprised if Iranian intent has not at least adjusted over time. Additionally, the discovery of Iran’s covert program in 2003 may easily have altered Iranian intentions – perhaps by pushing their expected timeline out into the far future, or they may be in a holding pattern – waiting to see how the current situation develops before deciding if a nuclear weapon’s capability is both in their interest and an achievable goal. My position is that Iran intends to acquire as much capability as possible under the NPT and be in a position to weaponize relatively quickly should it so choose – in other words, to have it’s cake and be able to eat 90% of it too.

  14. Alex W. (History)

    Actually, Rudi, the biggest hurdle for the Soviets was not information or even infrastructure—it was simple uranium acquisition. As Holloway points out in his wonderful Stalin and the Bomb, unlike many countries, the USSR had never developed any domestic uranium sources of any size, because it had been able to obtain its radium from other sources (most countries knew where their uranium was because they used it to get at their radium, which was far more valuable at the time).

    Interestingly enough, most of the guesses by scientists as to how long it would take the Russians to get the bomb were not bad, but they were never updated. So they guessed it would take 4-5 years in 1945… and then it was 4-5 years in 1946… and 4-5 years in 1947… etc. The numbers on which the guess was made were based on a number of things, but key to them was an estimate of how long it would take them to find uranium reserves that they could use; the biggest surprise in the end was not that the Soviets figured out how to make reactors, bombs, and factories, but that they managed to make such good usage out of very low-grade ores and that higher-grade ores were more evenly distributed than was originally thought. (See Ziegler and Jacobson, Spying with Spies: Origins of America’s Secret Nuclear Surveillance System, Ch.2)

    All of which is just a way to say… historical analogies can be pretty complicated and nuanced, and using examples from the 1940s to make sense of the present is perilous (we now know there is a lot more uranium in the world than anyone thought back in 1945). And all of which is to say, “I don’t know anything interestingly to say about Iran, but boy, I love to talk about the USSR!” 🙂

  15. Yale Simkin (History)


    I agree that it is unlikely that Iran would immediately divert reactor fuel into HEU production centrifuges. What I am trying to express is that a “crossing of the Rubicon” occurs.

    Once a country (possessing enrichment gear) has 1 ton of “homegrown” or purchased LEU or fires up a gigawatt reactor (which produces a bomb quantity of plutonium every week of any desired purity) then Everything Changes.

    Previous to that point, a-bombs simply cannot exist.

    After that point, it is only the fear of that if detected building a bomb then political, economic, or military punishments will be intolerable.

    Israel has never put much faith in trusting the will of the outside world.

    In Iran’s case, enrichment, power reactors, and HW production reactors are all being put into place.

    Until out-ed, Iran’s enrichment program was clandestine. Its heavy water reactor is for “research”. Its LWR is just for power.

    Yes, the 80 tons of Russian fuel will be sealed, but it will also be parked for at least 6 months. Even after fueling, reserve LEU is stockpiled to replace defective fuel. Bi-annually, 20 tons of fresh LEU will be cycled in, while plutonium sufficient to produce dozens of a bombs will sit in Iranian spent fuel pools for years.

    Latent proliferation occurs.

    The capability lasts longer than any particular regime.

    Breakout can happen at short notice. Iran has repeatedly expelled IAEA inspectors and removed seals and cameras when it suited them.

    Israel has historically taken the absolutist path when its life is at stake. That being said, I find it quite interesting that Olmert is surprisingly talking accommodation

    Is it legit, or a feint after the dress rehearsal in Syria?

  16. Mark Pyruz (History)

    It should be pointed out that the Iranian Air Force “blasted the crap” out of the Osirak reactor in 1980, eight months before the IDF/AF did so.

    Concerning the “dress rehearsal in Syria”, the entire enterprise looks to be the likes of deliberate disinformation.

    As for Israel “taking the absolutist path”, there is a military reevaluation taking place today in Israel, after the disappointment of the 2nd Lebanon War. The US and Israel have played the Iran wargame for years now, and it keeps on ending up unfavorable.

    I’m of the opinion that the Iranians already have a foreign sourced, small nuclear weapon stockpile.

  17. Mark Gubrud

    Thanks to Yale for another very clear statement of his analysis. I would emphasize that this “crossing of the Rubicon” is apparently about to occur, i.e. within the next year or two at most. The other side of the river is not necessarily a nuclear-armed Iran, but one which will forever have the capability to make nuclear weapons within a short time.

    This is the source of a crisis for those who want to stop Iran from crossing by bombing if nothing else works. The attack needs to come in the very near future; after that the risks of an attack, already very high, rise steeply and the expectation of its effectiveness declines.

    For Israeli hardliners and for the Bush gang, then, the clock is ticking.

    However, this does not mean an attack is imminent. For the moment, it appears as if peace may have a chance. As the link Yale provided shows, the basis for accepting the possibility of a nuclear Iran exists not only in the US but even in Israel.

    The idea that Iran is going to nuke Israel for no reason, and invite its own utter destruction, is pure paranoia. So for that matter is the notion that Iran would give nuclear weapons to terrorists who would attack the United States.

    Let’s make a deal.

  18. Arnold (History)


    According to above, Iran has processed about a ton and a quarter of raw uranium. How much LEU should that have yielded?

    Also how much LEU does it take to get a bomb’s worth of HEU?

  19. Yale Simkin (History)

    Mark Pyruz…

    The 9/80 Iranian attack on Osirak by 2 Phantoms (out of a flight of 8) was ineffective. Its failure (and Begin fearing inaction by a new Israeli government after upcoming elections) impelled the 1981 IAF attack which obliterated the reactor site.

    Are you saying that Israel did not attack sites in Syria? Why, after 5-6 years would the Syrians suddenly bulldoze the BoE?

    What is the specific information that is the basis for your opinion that Iran may have a nuclear arsenal?