Jeffrey LewisIC: Iran Stopped Nuke Program in Fall 2003


The IC says Iran suspended its clandestine weapons program in Fall 2003. (The NIE and the DDNI statement)

I can’t quite believe the IC agrees with something that Paul Kerr and I have been arguing was possible for years — that the bureaucratic consolidation undertaken in late 2003 may have choked off the clandestine program, at least for now. I mean, we were just making educated guesses.

I made this argument in a July 2005 blog post, pointing to a speech about Iranian decision-making by Hassan Rowhani that I called “wonkporn” and suggesting that the bureaucratic reorganization undertaken by Khatami might later been seen as the “beginning [of] a process of negotiations that constrained his more hardline successor.”

Paul made the argument, more eloquently, in Divided from Within in the November 2006 The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

Indeed, while Iran probably pursued nuclear weapons in the past, a plausible reading of the evidence suggests that Tehran could be pursuing a different course. A critical turning point came in 2003, when IAEA investigations began to reveal the full extent of Iran’s clandestine activities. The IAEA Board of Governors, pushed by the United States, considered referring Iran’s case to the U.N. Security Council, a move that could have resulted in punitive measures.

Iran was publicly defiant and resisted cooperating with the IAEA investigation. Yet internally, there were signs that the government was anxious to avoid a potential confrontation with the United Nations. In an apparent attempt to facilitate cooperation with the IAEA, Iran consolidated decision-making authority over its nuclear program around October 2003. Hassan Rowhani, who was the head of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC)—Iran’s top decision-making body on security-related issues—was put in charge of nuclear diplomacy. Previously, oversight of the issue had been divided between Iran’s Foreign Ministry and its Atomic Energy Organization.

Presumably, the IC has additional evidence confirming what we were able to infer from the bureaucratic changes revealed in Rowhani’s speech.

Anyway, the whole text of his speech, published in Keyhan is available here. You can also read Chen Zak’s account of the speech, Nuclear Decision-Making in Iran: A Rare Glimpse.

Oh, and looks like they are sticking to 2010-2015.


  1. Yale Simkin (History)

    It is surprising that not only are they assuming a 2010-2015 timespan, they seem to be strongly biased towards the 2015 end of the spectrum (with only a nod to the 2009 possibility).

    I fear that they (and we) are going to be sadly surprised when Iran accumulates 4000 SWU of LEU in 2009.

  2. Michael Roston (History)

    Glenn Reynolds says this is proof that the Bush Doctrine worked, and this is collateral benefit from invading Iraq:

    I wonder who else will come out and say this. Rove? Freedom’s Watch? Hadley?

  3. Muskrat (History)

    Ooooh, Cheney’s going to be mad. Warm up the DeFib machine at GW, call Team B, and summon the Flying Monkeys. It ain’t over until the Fat Man sings.

  4. Gelfant

    Typical. You think it’s all about you. And, given what they wrote, you are probably right.

  5. FSB

    This makes clear that the Iranian government are somewhat rational players and can be pragmatic.

    They are not suicidal freaks and ought to be engaged diplomatically.

  6. hass (History)

    There is and never was any evidence at all of any nuclear weapons program in Iran, ever. Not now, not in 2003.

    Why should we believe that Iran EVER had a nuclear weapons program at all?


    Iran NIE report: Are you lying now, or were you lying then?

    If the 2005 NIE report was wrong when it claimed with “high confidence” that Iran had a active nuclear weapons program, why should the 2007 NIE be any more credible when it claims that Iran had a nuclear weapons program until 2003? If Iran really had a nuclear weapons program until 2003 as the new report claims, then why has the IAEA found no evidence of it?

  7. Rudi (History)

    VDH is also making the absurd claim. Will they want Bush on Mt. Rushmore next?

  8. Arun (History)

    Excellent post as usual. Just wanted to point out that the Rowhani Interview link is not opening.

  9. John Bragg (History)

    The NIE draws a distinction between secret military and known civilian/dual-use programs.

    But Iran’s secret military program was revealed in 2002 by the MEK terrorist group.

    Did the IC believe that there is/was some third secret military program somewhere in Iran?

    —Confused hawk

  10. abcd (History)

    John Bragg:

    I think the distinction is being made between openly pursuing legally recognized fuel cycle activities, and actively working toward weaponizing the program under the table (or, at all).

    This makes sense, really. The Iranians got caught with undeclared activities in August of 2002 and, whether they were part of a covert effort directed at nuclear weapons acquisition or not, they probably realized how vulnerable they were to pressure and crippling, US-led sanctions. Continuing on the strictly civilian route out in the open provides the legal protection while a break-out option is pursued (which the NIE seems to view is the new goal); maintaining any undeclared activities undermines Tehran’s public claim that its actions are innocent.

    Needless to say, they’ve played their cards brilliantly.

  11. Andy (History)

    According the WAPO, the information that changed the assessment was SIGINT-based:

    Senior officials said the latest conclusions grew out of a stream of information, beginning with a set of Iranian drawings obtained in 2004 and ending with the intercepted calls between Iranian military commanders, that steadily chipped away at the earlier assessment.

    In one intercept, a senior Iranian military official was specifically overheard complaining that the nuclear program had been shuttered years earlier, according to a source familiar with the intelligence. The intercept was one of more than 1,000 pieces of information cited in footnotes to the 150-page classified version of the document, an official said.

    Some people at the NSA are probably quite vexed this morning…

  12. asdf (History)

    Some people at the NSA are probably quite vexed this morning

    Didn’t Chalabi leak information about US snooping on Iran , and didn`t Hersh write about the Israeli unit 8200 “cracking” a “sophisticated code”

    So I doubt Iran learned something new*

    BTW “cracking a code” sounds rather old fashioned. With “pretty good” crypto software available on the web, 😉 you have to work hard to get a weak crypto algorithm these days. And I don`t think Iran would fall for Crypto AG gear (or lotus notes) a second time. Not after what they did to the sales guy the last time.

    If I were to attack a government crypto system I wouldn`t try to outsmart the math and/or brute force the algorithm. And I wouldn`t try and sell a backdoored version after the previous backdoor has been found. I would go for wherever keys are stored. Its just more efficient than spending money until I can brute force my way trough a decent algorithm…. But then again, I have been playing way to much splinter cell.

    * ) Actually, Iran did learn something new! They learned that despite all the rhetoric from the Cheney gang the US isn`t actually acutely afraid from their gazillion centrifuge like stage props and the US might just sit back for years and years while the sanctions do their work… I could forgive the Iranian for mistaken all the tough talk from carriers in front of their coast for a sign that the US would sanction half a year, and then give in or do a little bombing and then give in and call it victory.

    I believe Iran-US talks have been moving along for a while now, and in that context releasing the NIE summary would make sense.

  13. Yale Simkin (History)

    The Wapo article (and the NIE summary)

    make clear the issue that I have emphasized repeatedly:

    But the report also depicts Iran as cleverly preserving its options, by making steady strides toward a civilian nuclear energy capability that both complies with international law and puts the country on a course that will allow it to easily develop nuclear arms if it so chooses..

    With the possession of less than 4000 SWU worth of “harmless” LEU, Iran is always only a matter of weeks from sufficient HEU to build a bomb.

    The question is what is the IC’s definition of a nuclear weapons program? Is it a clandestine enrichment facility? An implosion design and manufacture program? Weapon delivery system? All of the above?

    If the Iranians would be willing to break-out from IAEA monitoring of enrichment, then the only big drag on bomb-building would be the warhead design (if they are not currently working on the process).

    Using the Chinese plans, it would add maybe a half year to implementation.

  14. Sean (History)

    This may be simplistic, but what if the Iranians were building the bomb over concerns from Saddam? If so, then after we removed that threat, they decided it wasn’t as urgent as before?

  15. Mark Gubrud

    The story told in the unclassified report is very specific, i.e. that Iran had a secret military nuclear weapons program that was terminated in 2003. I don’t see how this conclusion could represent the consensus of 16 intel agencies if it were drawn from any piecework analysis or even sigint data. My guess is that Iran told them this, and provided enough evidence, combined with independent source data, to make a convincing case. I’m betting the simple story line is of Iranian origin, but verified by our spies.

    The unclassified report really doesn’t examine the case from the other side, i.e. that the uranium enrichment and plutonium production projects are proceeding and would in any case be the most important parts of any bomb program. These facts are noted but curiously downplayed. I get the sense that this document represents the entire bureaucracy screaming “NO” at the administration wrt to an attack on Iran, and “yes” to some defacto ongoing negotiation process.

    If the Iranians stopped their military bomb program in 2003, and told us about it, that suggests that the famous diplomatic overture through the Swiss may have been only a deliberate leak to the public, with the real conversation having taken place directly between Iran and the USG through the IC. We can see that the admin probably thought it was on top of the world and the Iranians were falling into line anyway, so no need to give anything away publicly. Maybe Rice told the truth when she said she’d never seen the Swiss fax, if it was just a sideshow.

    The Syrian reactor project, if that’s what it was, would have come to light at the same time. That would explain why it appears to have been stalled after only a shell went up.

    So you have the picture that, after the Iraq invasion, both the Iranians and Syrians got spooked and shut down the most dangerous parts of their nuclear projects. This might seem like a vindication of Bush, except for what has happened in Iraq and the fact that the clock is still ticking for Iran to get across the wire.

    The NIE concludes that the earliest Iran could make sufficient HEU for a bomb is “late 2009” which is roughly consistent with the analysis Yale Simkin has given here. However, the IC judges this “very unlikely,” attributing their judgement to “foreseeable technical and programmatic problems.” I would guess the main point is that Iran can’t fulfill Yale’s worst-case scenario while sticking to its civilian nuclear fuel cover story. If Iran breaks out and starts making HEU, it will face an unknown and very dangerous situation. I think that is what the IC judges they are “very unlikely” to do.

  16. Ghoztface

    I agree with Yale, the NIE’s definition of nuclear weapons program is unhelpful. Missile programs don’t appear to have halted if we are to believe the 05 German newspaper reports on BM-25 shipments from North Korea and recent Iranian statements on the new ‘Ashura’ missile.

    however, applying the limited definition make me consider one possibility to explain the difference between the 2005 and 2007 NIEs; that in 05 the IC may have known something about the P-2 work being conducted ‘covertly’ and surmised this was for a weapons program. Not sure of the exact sequencing but wasn’t it in April 06 that Ahmadinejad publicly declared R&D on the P-2s. Hence the last bastion of covertness was exposed possibly leading to a shift in assessments.

    Also, the fairly obvious conclusion that political factors matter; the enrichment program being influenced by political rather than technical/programmatic considerations could offer some explanation for the more conservative end of the timelines.

    Hey at least all the agencies managed to sign up to something that isn’t completely banal.

  17. hass (History)

    The MKO didn’t expose any “secrets” – Natanz was not yet finished, and construction on Arak hadn’t even started. Iran’s plans to enrich uranium were so widely known that Iran had invited IAEA inspectors to see its uranium mines in 1996.

    There as no secret weapons program.

  18. Allen Thomson

    > Missile programs don’t appear to have halted if we are to believe the 05 German newspaper reports on BM-25 shipments from North Korea and recent Iranian statements on the new ‘Ashura’ missile.

    Which is why Congress should ask with some urgency that an NIE on Iran’s long-range (> 2,500 km) missile programs, if any, be written.

    Ditto on North Korea’s.