Jeffrey LewisMore on the Iran NIE

Tomorrow, the New America Foundation is going to host U.S. Iran Policy After the NIE with yours truly, Steve Clemons and Flynt Leverett

To help with coverage, friend of wonk James Acton of King’s College London is going to be making a special guest appearance here at Arms Control Wonk. You may know him from the truly awe-inspiring VERTIC report, Use of voluntary transparency measures to increase trust in states’ nuclear programmes: the case of Iran.

Here is my take, basically what I plan to say tomorrow.

Two Big Developments

Today’s papers are starting to reveal the story behind the two major revelations — the 2003 halt to the program and the 2010-2015 timeframe. Here’s what I have.

1. “… in fall 2003, Iran halted its nuclear weapons program.”

Dafna Linzer reports in the Washington Post that a crucial bit of information was an intercepted communication by a senior Iranian military official “complaining that the nuclear program had been shuttered.”

The intercept — which Linzer notes was one of 1,000 footnotes in a 150 page document — was the final piece in the puzzle, and Linzer reports that the intercepts were briefed to the Bush Administration “beginning in July.”

So, that timing would be consistent with Mike McConnell’s reference to “new information collected in late spring that caused a reconsideration of some elements of the assessment.”

I had guessed that spring was significant because of developments at Natanz (more on that in a second) or, possibly, the defection of Ali Rez Asgari (an Iranian defense official who was not linked in the press to the nuclear program). Lord knows it wasn’t poor Hussein Musavian.

It seems interesting that the IC confirmed through SIGINT, the sort of thing that Paul and I hypothesized based on bureaucratic reorganization.

2. Iran could use centrifuges to “produce enough fissile material for a weapon … sometime during the 2010-2015 timeframe” based on “significant technical challenges [Iran] sill faces operating them.”

According to USA Today‘s Richard Willing “photographs taken during the media visit this year… were reviewed by intelligence analysts who concluded Iran continues to face ‘significant technical problems’ in using the facility to enrich uranium.”

Seriously, they let them take pictures? (I thought I had the only one.)

One wonders what visual evidence might have tipped the IC to significant technical challenges beyond what is evident from current operational problems. The physical appearance of the casings or the cold traps? Environmental conditions in the facility? How the operators were handling the centrifuges?

Anybody remember when Adam Ereli called a similar visit in 2005 a “staged media visit”?

More staged media visits, please.

The Big Picture

A special tip of the hat to Greg Miller, at the Los Angeles Times, who had both stories, but in truncated form. Miller gets the prize for best overall comment, from a “senior U.S. intelligence official” who “cautioned against concluding that a single piece of information, or ‘Rosetta stone,’ had surfaced.”

This NIE creates a tremendous opportunity for Iran. I’ve long worried that Iran won’t be able to come clean without admitting to a past weapons program and thus handing ammunition to the hawks in Washington. Now that the IC says the program is shuttered, Iran can basically say, “Yes we did it, but now we shut it down just as your intelligence community said. Come verify that.”


  1. Gordon Mitchell (History)

    Good points Jeffrey, but there are also some tough questions raised by Michael Rubin (Giuliani advisor and NRO Corner commentator) about implications of the new intel for the net assessment regarding the road ahead:

    These questions seem more lucid than the conspiratorial flailing coming from Ledeen and Podhoretz (who are conveniently glossing that the main actor here, NIC Chief Tom Fingar, got the Iraq intel right).

    Over at Security Sweep, we’re thinking that the text box on page 5 might leverage calls for bomb Iran hawks to disclose and try to defend their Team B intel.

  2. Joseph Logan (History)

    I applaud your high profile and wish I were able to be there. As is, I will be in Brussels with many who will certainly have interest in your views. As to educated guesses (from your previous post), those run along a continuum from more to less educated, and yours have always tended to run toward the former. Absent full disclosure from the Iranians (or the North Koreans, or the Syrians, etc etc etc), that’s all you are likely to get. I doubt even Mrs. Plame could give you much more.

    Further to that post, “wonkporn” is nothing more than “orgporn” masquerading in neo-nuclear branding, especially given that you are speaking of a bureaucratic matter effecting some change in policy. Still, one has to acknowledge that you were right well over two years ago. Well done.

  3. Mark Gubrud

    I really find it hard to imagine that such bits of evidence (even assuming there were more of them) as “an intercepted communication by a senior Iranian military official “complaining that the nuclear program had been shuttered”” could have led to an IC-wide consensus that Iran’s nuclear weapons program had been shut down in Fall 2003 and not resumed, particularly against what would have been enormous political pressure to spin the available evidence the other way.

    As I commented in the previous thread, Iran must have told this story to the US and already invited the spies to come and verify it. The scandal is that this information was allowed to be suppressed for so long, until the consensus was so strong it couldn’t be stopped. There must be a lot of evidence to support such a consensus, and much of it must have been supplied by the Iranians.

  4. R.H


    The problem as I see it is that the latest NIE appears to simultanously judge that Iran has halted indefinitely its nuclear wepons program, whilst maintaining that Iran is still likely to have both the technical expertise and enough fissile material for a bomb haf way through next decade.

    From a technical perspective, what does halting a nuclear weapons program actually mean?
    Has Tehran stopped trying to enrich Uranium to the requsite levels, or does it have more to do with halting research into weaponisation?

    Also, how readily reversible is a decision of this kind?

  5. Shelby (History)

    I feel like an idiot for even asking, but somebody explain this to me. I’m on the left side of the aisle and definitely in the cautious camp regarding upping the hostility ante with Iran. However, I’m somehow less ready to see the silver lining of “See, Bush White House, you need to relax! We told you they were not actively pursuing nuclear weapons! Stand down,” than many of the pundits & wonks (and probably all of the D politicians). To me the big gray cloud inside that lining is, “Yep, Iran was lying through its teeth when it insisted its nuclear research was for peaceful power in ’02-‘03, (i.e., this was explicitly about weaponization and not just to build up to a break-out capability),” thus making all the rest of its protestations and assurances that much more suspect. Am I just being a negative Nancy? Or is it just that nobody who was anybody ever believed Iran’s denials anyway so the only news in the NIE is the good news that it’s been shuttered?

  6. b (History)

    Jeffrey, a point I would like to have clarified. Maybe you or someone here can comment on it.

    The IAEA does not assert that Iran ever had a military nuclear program. A IAEA comment in yesterdays NYT says so explecetly again.

    According to Ignatius and Pincus in todays WaPo, “The Laptop” played a significant role in the NIE assertion that such a weapon program existed.

    The U.S. has rejected IAEA requests to hand over “The Laptop”.

    From the 2006 reports about it I regard “The Laptop” as very dubious and likely a forgery. It smells like “Niger papers”.
    (I collected the links and mocked it here:

    My questions:
    1. On what basis does the IC assert that there was a weapon program and that this was stopped in 2003?

    2. Does “The Laptop”, as reported, played a significant or even decisive role?

    3. How dubious or not is “The Laptop”?

    Thanks to all for any answers.

  7. Mark Gubrud

    The posters here raise good questions about the meaning of the NIE conclusions.

    The story told in the NIE, that Iran had a secret military-run nuclear bomb program, which was shut down in 2003, does not seem like the kind of story the IC could have come up with on its own on and agreed on as a consensus conclusion if the basis were just an analyst’s interpretation of bits of evidence. There would be too many other bits of evidence supporting a different interpretation. Especially with the winds from the Right blowing so hard (although this report makes it clear there is now an even stronger wind blowing from the Left).

    That’s why I say the Iranians must have supplied this story line, plus enough evidence, access, and accounting to make it credible; the story must also have been supported by independently collected bits of evidence such as the intercepted complaints of Iranian hardliners.

    The story does contradict what Iran has said publicly, and is inconsistent with the IAEA’s reported finding.

    I think Iran’s nuclear weapons efforts prior to 2003 may have been small and diffuse enough, and quiet enough, not to provide the IAEA with enough clues that would qualify as evidence of a “nuclear weapons program”.

    What seems to have happened in 2003 was some kind of assertion of authority from above to reorganize the Iranian nuclear program in terms of civilian objectives, stopping anything that was specifically bomb-related while forging ahead with pursuit of a fissile materials capability.

    They could then say to the world, ‘See, we’re all about peaceful atoms and we’re just doing what we’re allowed to under the NPT.’ Meanwhile, they could quietly say to the US, and probably the EU3, Russia and other interested parties, ‘Look, we’ve shut down the military’s nuclear weapons program. It wasn’t that big to begin with, but now we’ve stopped it entirely.’

    If you wouldn’t buy the cover story, maybe you’d buy the inside story. And then maybe you would cut a deal.

  8. Andrew Foland (History)

    For anyone interested, the publicly-known questions about weaponization are summarized nicely in a note by Paul Kerr from March ’06 at

  9. Mark Gubrud

    Let me correct myself. The wind behind the NIE blows from the Center, not from the Left.