Jeffrey LewisGates on the Iran NIE

As much as I hate to say this, folks are misreading the most recent NIE. Yes it says that Iran halted its clandestine weapons program, at least for a time, in fall 2003. And, yes that suggests that Iran’s leaders are sensitive to pressure.

But the halt doesn’t given Iran a clean bill of health, it simply offers a path for Iran and the United States. I agree with SECDEF Gates’ excellent summary of the NIE and a substantial measure of US policy as he described it:

In reality, you cannot pick and choose only the conclusions you like of this recent National Intelligence Estimate. The report expresses with greater confidence than ever that Iran did have a nuclear weapons program – developed secretly, kept hidden for years, and in violation of its international obligations. It reports that they do continue their nuclear enrichment program, an essential long lead time component of any nuclear weapons program. It states that they do have the mechanisms still in place to restart their program. And, the estimate is explicit that Iran is keeping its options open and could restart its nuclear weapons program at any time – I would add, if it has not done so already. Although the Estimate does not say so, there are no impediments to Iran restarting its nuclear weapons program – none, that is, but the international community.


Considering all this, the international community should demand that the Iranian government come clean about the extent of its past illegal nuclear weapons development. The international community should insist that Iran suspend enrichment. The international community should require that the Iranian government openly affirm that it does not intend to develop nuclear weapons in the future and, further, that it agree to inspection arrangements that will give us all confidence that it is adhering to that commitment.

It is so nice to have an adult in the Defense Department.

Where I part ways with the Administration — although this isn’t absolutely clear from policy as summarized — is in two areas:

  • “Suspend enrichment” has no technical meaning. I would define “warm standby” — where the centrifuges spin empty — as sufficient to meet “suspend.” The Administration, so far, has not.
  • “Inspection arrangements that will give us all confidence” that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons could be devised, in my opinion, to accept the reality of some centrifuge work in Iran — although the Administration is probably right to stick to the Russia proposal for at least a while longer.

Indeed, given that we cannot verify “zero” centrifuges without the Additional Protocol in force, I tend to value inspection arrangements more than proscribed activities in placing meaningful barriers between Iran’s bomb option and an actual bomb.

Update: Jonathan Schell has more.


  1. Miles Pomper (History)

    I heartily second you and Gates’ conclusions. Clearly, the Iranians simply made a tactical adjustment in 2003 to avoid being caught in open violation of the NPT at a time that they felt vulnerable (US riding high in Iraq, oil prices low etc). They have no such incentives now as indicated by their willingness to move forward fullbore with enrichment, avoid the additional protocol etc. George Perkovich’s quote from Iranian leaders in the Saturday Post testifies to this. While this does provide an opportunity for negotiations, if Dems make too much of this they are going to regret it if they end up in the White House in 2009 and later are faced with an Iranian program that people no longer believe is a threat.

  2. Joseph Logan (History)

    The latest Economist has a piece on why Iran is still a threat. The substance of it is much as you mention above. Seems to me the administration’s puffery on this left them vulnerable to the schadenfreude many people (myself included) are feeling now. When that self-satisfaction wears off, though, I hope the clear-headedness you call for above will carry the day. It’s natural to gloat a little, but it’s also probably time to get back to something resembling logic and cognition.

  3. Yale Simkin (History)

    There is another centrifuge option, which altho the least desirable, could be a final fallback position.

    The best option, of course, is dismantlement plus hiring the Iranian techs, engineers, and scientists to come work at General Mills in MN.

    Second best is cold shutdown.

    Third best is warm shutdown, just spinning vacuum.

    The fourth option is to allow Iran to repeat a process they employed earlier – reblending the product and tails streams at the cascade ends.

    This would allow them to claim active enrichment capability, and hone their skills, and continue interconnecting modules.

    The upside is that SWU are not being accumulated, leaving a two year breathing space always available.

    This fourth option allows both sides to operate from their comfort zones, with the Iranians moving forward, but always leaving a large time cushion to keep anxiety low and allow the diplomatic tango to proceed.

    The sand in the KY jelly of this whole opportunity is whether the Russians begin delivering 10’s of tons of Grade-A LEU for the nuke. Just the reserve fuel kept on hand will be enough to allow a bomb breakout in just a matter of weeks.

    Option 4 depends on no significant LEU being available.

  4. Andy (History)

    When looking at Iranian intent since 2003, I’m drawn back to this post by Paul Kerr – specifically the Matthew Bunn and Hassan Rowhani quotes.

  5. Cernig (History)


    Perhaps you could give an opinion on the timing of suspension? Should it be a pre-requisite to negotiating as the Bush administration insists since it seems to be one of the major objectives of the actual negotiating process?

    I would also say it’s worth noting that the IAEA have expressed a certainty that, since they have both cascades and product under surveillance and snap inspections, no LEU could be diverted to weapons production from the known cascades without them knowing about it. Surely that in itself should make a difference to preceptions of what is possible in negotiation.

    Regards, C

  6. mark F (History)

    Mr. Schell’s article doesn’t say it, but doesn’t he believe there is a better way to proceed than non proliferation? Isn’t the best option, to stop using nuclear reactors for generating power? Disable the reactors used for power generation. Get power from a process that doesn’t easily lead to atomic weapons. With that, there will be no guesswork, and no material for nuclear weapons.

  7. Arnold Evans (History)

    But I can pick and choose which conclusions I accept.

    Russia says it has seen no evidence (and the US has shown them no evidence) of a weapons program before 2003. The IAEA has found no evidence of a weapons program before 2003.

    So when the NIE reports that since 2003 Iran has not had a nuclear weapons program (which matches what Russia and the IAEA say) but that before 2003 Iran did have a nuclear weapons program (which directly contradicts what Russia and the IAEA say) I hereby reserve my right to pick and choose which NIE conclusions I accept.

    The US intelligence community is free to clear all of this up by showing its evidence of a program before 2003 in order of preference, either to the public, the IAEA or even the Russians.

    Until it does so, the only NIE conclusion that has objective support is that Iran has not had a weapons program since 2003.

  8. hass (History)

    In reality, it is quite possible to pick and choose only the conclusions you like of this recent National Intelligence Estimate.

    Where the NIE says that Iran has no current weapons program, that is backed up by the IAEA.

    Where the NIE says that Iran had a nuclear weapons program in 2003, that is not backed up by the IAEA or any other source.

    The NIE is not a take-all proposition. DOn’t be silly.

  9. Mark Gubrud

    Yale, much as I respect your analysis and pointed warnings, I must point out that the most likely option, and the only viable one that doesn’t lead to “World War III,” is option five: Accept that Iran is going to have a fissile materials production capability, and undertake a “grand bargain” so that they don’t build a nuclear arsenal.

    This would involve normalized relations between the US and Iran, recognition of and trade with Israel, a US nonaggression pledge and military-to-military contacts, plus cooperation to get US troops out of Iraq and put out the fires there. Get a full accounting of all past nuclear weapons activities, get the Natanz and Arak facilities under monitoring and safeguards, get a commitment by Iran not to build any covert facilities and never to build nuclear weapons, get limits on Iran’s ballistic missile development and deployment, and let the rejoicing begin.

  10. Karl Schenzig (History)

    Dear Mr. Gubrud,

    You have captured the essence of the question in a superb manner. The solution you suggest covers all the key problems between the United States and Iran. It would have been perfect, were Iran ready to contemplate any concessions on any these issues. It is not, because it has no incentive to do so.

    You don’t understand that Iran wants a “final solution” to its problems, not a compromise, and its leaders are willing to stake their lives on it. Not because they are extremists, but primarily because they are daring and the odds are extremely good.

    I predict with confidence that Iran will be succesfful both in stalling out the Bush administration and pushing Iraq towards annihilation next year. Furthermore, the next administration will not be able to summon the strength of will to confront Iran. As to the ultimate result, I suggest that the previous century is a good guide.

  11. Yale Simkin (History)

    Mark G. – My option 4 was not to be taken as the only last option. I was simply adding it into stream of possible “fallback” positions, each less desirable than the prior. Your option 5 and my 4 are the same in allowing “fissile materials production capability“, unless you are also including the actual production of bulk near-fissile LEU (my option instantly downblends the material)

    Mark F. wrote:

    Isn’t the best option, to stop using nuclear reactors for generating power? Disable the reactors used for power generation. Get power from a process that doesn’t easily lead to atomic weapons. With that, there will be no guesswork, and no material for nuclear weapons.

    Absolutely. Nuclear Power is the problem, not the answer.

    ’ …human society is too diverse, national passion too strong, human aggressiveness too deep-seated for the peaceful and the warlike atom to stay divorced for long. We cannot embrace one while abhorring the other;
    we must learn, if we want to live at all, to live without both.’ ——Jacques-Yves Cousteau, speech at UN conference 1976

  12. Benjamin Waltrop (History)


    If nuclear power is part of the problem and not the solution, what is the energy solution for France (~80% of electrical generation from nuclear power). Like it or not, nuclear power is a solution and a problem for decades to come, and we would do well to deal with that reality while working toward a non-atomic solution.

  13. Yale Simkin (History)

    Altho this is not the correct forum for this, France made a terrible decision and now finds itself importing essentially 100% of oil – which much of its economy runs on. Its crushingly expensive nuclear program (most of the costs are hidden in its almost Byzantine government corporation) and its plants are in terrible shape. Outages are driving them into having to import electricity.

    After spending zillions of dollars France gets only a fifth of its delivered end-user energy from nuclear power.

    It is NOT a solution. Its high costs DISPLACE more effective alternatives.

    A short essay on the linkages between proliferation and nuclear power by Lovins can be found here

    An oldy but a goody is Amory Lovins Negawatt presentation where he is discussing Quebec Hydro (the Canadian utility company), but the concepts are universal.

    Take a look….

    or for another view here…

  14. Yale Simkin (History)

    I forgot to add this link on one of many plans for leading France out of the nuclear dead-end

  15. FSB

    When the US and the rest of nuclear-armed UN security council clique heed Jacques Cousteau’s advice — which I think is excellent! — then Iran should follow suite.

  16. John Bragg (History)

    Evans, Haas: I agree on the legitimacy of picking and choosing conclusions to accept from the NIE. But, then again, we’re not the US Secretary of Defense. It would be awkward for him to do otherwise.

    But how do the “No Iranian weapons program” folks explain the fact that the Natanz reactor was a secret until revealed by the MEK terrorists in 2002?

  17. Mark Gubrud

    Dear Mr. Schenzig,

    You have a remarkable ability to read the collective mind of not just one or two leaders, but of an entire nation. Your powers of prediction are equally impressive. In an earlier post, you informed us that

    “The Iranian plan is acquire a nuclear retaliatory capability, publicise it, generate volatility on the commodity markets and force the US economy into recession. Following this, all Iran has to do is to seize the opportunities that American economic, and hence military, weakness presents, particularly in regard to Iraq, Lebanon and Israel.”

    I recall wondering how you were able to foretell future developments in such detail and with such clarity given, presumably, no more clues than are available to the rest of us. Now I think I see what your methodology may be. Forgive me if I am mistaken, but could it be that you simply assume of the Iranian leadership the maximal amount of reckless belligerence, guile, and perfidy, and draw on that basis the worst-case scenario as to what they will choose from their menu of options and as to what will unfold in consequence?

  18. Karl Schenzig (History)

    Dear Mr. Gubrud,

    The “Iranian nation”, even if it did exist, would be entirely irrelevant to this issue. Countries are governed by leadership groups, not by populations. Predicting the intent of the leadership group in a country such as Iran is quite simple, notwithstanding the protestations of intelligence agencies.

    All of Iran’s current and possible future leaders are Persian nationalists and Twelver Shia Muslims. All of them are more devout than the majority of Westerners, even though only a select few of them are fanatics. Furthermore, their lives and those of their parents were decisively influenced by the collision between Islam and modernity which took place in the previous century and is still ongoing.

    Above I have outlined the dominant influences on the thinking of this group. Now let us consider the challenges they perceive they must confront. First is the existence of Israel. None of them can ever accept that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jews, nor even that the Jews are a nation. Doing so would be the undoing of all the beliefs and ideological habits to which they are accustomed. Therefore, they must destroy Israel. The method by which this is to be achieved will be a source of controversy among them, but the need for this action is not questioned by any of them. I will discuss the likely method by which they will seek to destroy Israel later, but let us now discuss the problem of the USA. America is in a sense the primary problem, because Israel must be removed for ideological reasons, while the US is a practical threat.

    The USA is a problem for Iran for the same reason it was a problem for Hitler, only Iran’s concern is even more acute. The leadership understands that over time the economic and social power of the United States will make the current regime unsustainable by attracting the population to mass consumption and a liberalisation of social norms, leading to the collapse of the IRI. Thus, American power must be sufficiently damaged so as to enable the IRI to keep its populace under control. US influence in the Middle East must be severely curtailed to this end. There are two sources of American power in the region: its economy and its military. The only way to curtail both is through the acquisition of nuclear weapons, which will prevent American military action against Iranian territory and induce an economic crisis in the USA through its effect on commodity prices.

    The Iranian leadership considers that it has many other problems and interests, but none are as pressing in practical or ideological terms as the confrontation with America and Israel. At the same time, the leaders of the IRI are not reckless and the vast majority of them do not desire martyrdom. Thus, they must bring about their “final solution” through indirect means. Israel is the focus of this indirect approach. The perverse ‘popular sovereignty’ that Ahmadinejad demands for Arabs in Israel and the Territories is a way of destroying Israel without any Iranian involvement and is much preferred even by the most anti-Semitic of the IRI’s leaders, which is indeed why even Ahmadinejad mentions it often. As a general principle, the IRI wants to destroy Israel by using the international community to fatally undermine it. However, the IRI understands that Arafat attempted the same strategy with negligible effect, so it must be considering other options. A logical and relatively simple substitute would be to transfer nuclear weapons to Hezbollah and stage a nuclear strike by proxy. This is of course risky, but I would warrant a guess that the ‘Ahmadinejad faction’ of more radical leaders is considering this.

    I do not assume that the Iranian leadership are maximalists. I assume that they are men driven by a perverted rationality, the sources of which are to be found in their background, which makes them seek the destruction of Israel and of US power in the Middle East. Furthermore, I assume that along the path to their ultimate goals they will behave in a rational manner. For a country of Iran’s technological poverty, nuclear weapons are the most cost-effective security guarantee and the best deterrence shield for expansionist plans.

  19. hass (History)

    John Bragg:
    Natanz was not a “secret” nor was Iran’s plans for enrichment. The secret was Iran’s importation of centrifuges technology – after the US consistently thwarted Iran’s contracts with other nations and the IAEA to obtain enrichment technology that it was entitled to have under the NPT. Hell, the IAEA inspectors visited Iran’s uranium mines in 1993.

    “Iran did not have to declare that it was building a pilot plant until 180 days before it expected to introduce nuclear material into the plant.”

    SOURCE: Furor over fuel; Iran.
    Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists May 1, 2003 by Albright, David; Hinderstein, Corey

    “Although Iran is a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and has concluded a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA, it has not concluded an Additional Protocol to its agreement. The Additional Protocol would provide for more rigorous inspections, including inspections of undeclared nuclear facilities. On December 13, ElBaradei called upon Iran to conclude such a protocol. Iran, however, is not required to allow visits to the Arak and Natanz sites under its current agreements with the IAEA.”

    SOURCE: IAEA to visit two ‘secret’ nuclear sites in Iran – Arms Control Today, January 1, 2003

    A spokesman for the U.S. Department of State asserted in a press briefing last week that Iran was out of compliance with its IAEA obligations because it had failed to notify the IAEA of its intent to build the facilities 180 days prior to construction. IAEA officials told NuclearFuel Dec. 18 that was not the case. Rumyantsev’s assertion that Iran did not violate its commitments ‘‘was correct,’‘ one official said. In 1992, after the Gulf War, the IAEA Board of Governors recommended by consensus that member states provide design information to the IAEA 180 days in advance of construction. Iran, however, singularly raised objections to that. Compliance with the board’s recommendation, an IAEA official said, has since been ‘‘voluntary.’‘ A similar provision is contained in the Additional Protocol for integrated IAEA safeguards, which thus far Iran has refused to join and which so far is not binding. Infcirc-153, the model safeguards protocol for member states of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), including Iran, discusses facility design information in Articles 42-47. But any specific requirement on a member state for reporting design information and notification to the IAEA of an intention to construct a nuclear facility subject to safeguards is handled in confidential Subsidiary Arrangements, which are annexed to the safeguards agreement and are country-specific. In the case of Iran, the Subsidiary Arrangements for Infcirc-214 — Iran’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA — require Iran to notify the IAEA of any new nuclear facility and to provide information on the design no later than 60 days prior to the introduction of nuclear material into the facility. In early safeguards agreements such as Iran’s — it dates from 1974 — member states were allowed considerable freedom in notifying the IAEA of new nuclear facility construction, said one former U.S. official, ‘‘practically right up until they loaded fuel.’‘ More recent agreements require notification in advance. For example, the Subsidiary Arrangements for Argentina and Brazil under the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting & Control of Nuclear Material (Abacc) regime, dating from 1994, specified that the two countries must give notification ‘‘at the time the decision is made to construct an installation,’‘ he said.”


  20. Andy (History)

    Karl is incorrect on the nature of the Iranian regime, which is actually quite factional. Although a bit dated now, this is instructive.

    Hass conveniently leaves out many details – Iran’s violations were not limited to importation of centrifuge equipment. See IAEA gov2005/67 for a complete list of Iran’s CSA violations.

    Additionally, Iran began its covert activities in the mid-1980’s, just a couple of years after Iran’s sudden renewed interest in nuclear technology after unilaterally defaulting on and/or canceling all the programs begun under the Shaw. Hass likes to blame the west for being unfair to Iran but he always neglects to mention that it was Iran that canceled the contracts in the first place. Iran would likely be receiving EURODIF reactor fuel today if not for it’s own actions – both in canceling the contract, but also the way it conducted itself in the legal dispute that followed.

    The subsequent reluctance of Western governments and companies to do business with Iran were really the result of the war with Iraq, it’s own actions in attempts to violently export its revolution, and the substantial residual fear of investment in Iran due to Iran’s poor business practices (as evidenced by the mass contract cancellations). Iran did not win any friends when it used French hostages taken in Lebanon as bargaining tools in its EURODIF dispute, along with preventing French nationals from leaving Iran to say nothing of the assassination of Iranian dissidents living in Europe.

    It was only after the war with Iraq ended that the US really worked to prevent Iran from obtaining most but not all) nuclear technology, but by that time, Iran had already made it’s deal with AQ Khan.

  21. Mark Gubrud

    Mr. Schenzig,

    Once again you speak with great assurance about matters which, putting pretenses aside, most of us would be less certain of no matter how much we thought we knew about “Iran’s current and possible future leaders”. Most of what you say the Iranian leadership thinks are things it is plausible some of them think some of the time. But unless you do believe they are “maximalists” it is hard to know why you think they are such fools that they would bet their country and their regime on such dangerous assumptions.

    The idea that the economic and hence, military collapse of the American empire is imminent or can be brought about due a single manipulable factor is a staple of fringe thinking Left and Right; no doubt some Iranians may theorize that they can bring about America’s destruction through an oil shock but, since they do not control more than a small fraction of the global market it is hard to credit your theory that Iran can pull this off solo or that the mere advent of an Iranian bomb would have more catastrophic effects on the oil market than the Iraq war and the oil peak already are having. Or that such an oil crisis would leave the US militarily impotent rather than, as seems more likely, even more ready to throw its weight around stupidly. Or that all the Iranian leadership are such fools as to have confidence in such strategems.

    Your belief that the destruction of Israel is a central and ineluctable goal of the Iranian leadership is particularly implausible. I will be a bit adventurous myself here and assert that Iranian thinking is centered on Iran. Frankly, you are the extremist here with your statement that “The perverse ‘popular sovereignty’ that Ahmadinejad demands for Arabs in Israel and the Territories is a way of destroying Israel…” I do not believe that Israel’s continued existence is incompatible with the basic human and political rights of Arabs in Israel and the Territories, but if I did, I could not support Israel in such a conflict. Nor could anyone who believes in democracy, human rights and human decency. Fortunately, there are still some of us who believe that even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, let alone the US-Iran confrontation, is soluble without anyone needing to be destroyed.

    Your further suggestion that Iran would “transfer nuclear weapons to Hezbollah and stage a nuclear strike by proxy” amounts to ascribing to the Iranian leadership not only a suicidal insanity but a willingness to take their entire nation along for the ride. This is not something I would expect of men driven by any sort of rationality, however perverted.

    Given the threats that the US and Israel have made in recent years against Iran, given Iran’s memory of the destructive imperialist meddling of the Americans and before them of Britain, Russia and other powers, given the imbalance of power that has been created by Israel’s nuclear and conventional arsenals, given Iran’s drive for national pride and regional leadership, the pursuit of a nuclear weapons option is an understandable mistake. Given that it comes also with high costs for the Iranian nation, it is likely that the current or, if not, then the next Iranian leadership will be open to accommodation with the US and Europe. Ahmadinejad does not call the shots in Tehran, you know. The proposals Iran advanced in 2003-2005, under the same supreme leadership, could have and should have served as the basis for a grand bargain that would have defused this completely stupid and needless confrontation, for the betterment of Iran, Israel, and the world, at the cost only of American hubris.

  22. hass (History)

    Andy – You’re way, way off.

    U.S. in 1983 stopped IAEA from helping Iran make UF6
    by Mark Hibbs, Bonn
    Nuclear Fuel August 4, 2003
    Vol. 28, No. 16; Pg. 12

    SO much for a “hidden” enrichment program.

  23. Karl Schenzig (History)

    Dear Mr. Gubrud,

    An “oil crisis” would have no effect on the US military. Rather, Iran’s nuclear weapons would preclude a US military attack on Iran and thus effectively paralyse America in the Middle East. This is the primary reason why Iran is attracted to nuclear weapons.

    As to the other points that you have made, I would rather send my reply to any e-mail address that you are willing provide. This is because I am inclined to include strong language in that reply.