Jeffrey LewisClapper on Iran NIE

Taking a break from Japan for a bit, DNI Clapper, in his prepared statement, provided an unclassified summary of the most recent NIE on Iran’s nuclear programs during the March 10 World Wide Threat hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Full text after the jump.

We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.

One of the most important capabilities Iran is developing is uranium enrichment, which can be used for either civil or weapons purposes. As reported by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the number of centrifuges installed at Iran’s enrichment plant has grown significantly from about 3,000 centrifuges in late 2007 to over 8,000 currently installed. At the same time, the number of operating centrifuges that are enriching uranium has grown at a much slower pace from about 3,000 centrifuges in late 2007 to about 4,800 in late 201 0. Iran has used these centrifuges to produce more than 3,000 kilograms of low enriched uranium.

Iran’s technical advancement, particularly in uranium enrichment, strengthens our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons, making the central issue its political will to do so. These advancements contribute to our judgment that Iran is technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon in the next few years, if it chooses to do so.

We judge Iran would likely choose missile delivery as its preferred method of delivering a nuclear weapon. Iran already has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East. It continues to expand the scale, reach and sophistication of its ballistic missile forces, many of which are inherently capable of carrying a nuclear payload.

We continue to judge Iran’s nuclear decisionmaking is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran. Iranian leaders undoubtedly consider Iran’s security, prestige and influence, as well as the international political and security environment, when making decisions about its nuclear program.

Senator Levin, during the questions, got Clapper to confirm that the intelligence community has a “high level of confidence” that Iran “as not made a decision as of this point to restart its nuclear weapons program” — which I have always believed to be defined as “all the sketchy stuff Fakhrizadeh was up to.”

Chairman LEVIN. Now, relative to Iran, Director Clapper, you mentioned in your statement that you do not, we do not know, talking about the Intelligence Community, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons. I read into that that Iran has not made a decision as of this point to restart its nuclear weapons program. Is that correct?

Mr. CLAPPER. Yes, sir. I would like, though, to defer a more fulsome response to a closed session.

Chairman LEVIN. Okay. But, what is level of confidence that you have that as of this time they have not decided to restart that program? Is that a high level of confidence?

Mr. CLAPPER. Yes, it is.

The contents of the NIE were described in reporting by Adam Entous in the Wall Street Journal and  Greg Miller and Joby Warrick in the Washington Post, which provide a possible context for the more “fulsome” answer that Clapper deferred to a closed session.


  1. Andrew (History)

    The publicly discussed portion seems to contain nothing much new.

    The most troubling aspect of their program is that they are developing uranium enrichment: Argentina, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Japan, the Netherlands, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States all maintain indigenous uranium enrichment. We say we want more transparency from the Iranians, but then we are not willing to take steps which could lead to more transparency.

    Iranian missile development is troubling, yet there is essentially no IRBM/ICBM threat from Iran and even if it were to emerge, is is far from imminent. It is very difficult to imagine the circumstances in which Iran, a country who’s “decisionmaking is guided by a cost-benefit approach”, would decide to attack Europe or the U.S. even if it were able to do so within a reasonable timeframe.

    How many industrialized nations could have a troublesome report written about their potential nuclear capabilities (a list easily in the double digits?)? On the list of nuclear safety issues, how far up is this on the list? And finally, how hard would it really be to remove the impetus for the construction of missiles bound for the US and to increase transparency through recognition of NPT rights, security assurances such as the supplying of somewhat modern missile and air defense systems, fuel exchanges, etc?

  2. ikje (History)

    Why is it so hard to see the writing on the wall?

    Iran has been involved in secret uranium enrichment now two times. Afterwards, they excuse themselves. They want to produce the fuel for the only reactors they have: the TRR and Busher. For the TRR, they lack the technology to produce the fuel elements. For Busher, the Russians will never ever allow them to load their own Iranian fuel elements, even when they are able to produce anually 50 tons of 5% enriched uranium, which they can not do. For the heavy water reactor in Arak, they do not need to enrich.

    What conclusion should one draw?

    • lsxaq (History)

      ikje we all see the writing on the wall clearly, what policy recommendations would be appropriate here?

    • Amir (History)


      By your logic, if one doesn’t have a technology should never try getting it. If human race had done so we were still in the dark ages!

      BTW, they have plans to build other NPPs. For big projects like these to finish, the sub-projects needto be done in parallel.

  3. Nick (History)

    The conclusion I draw is that ikje ignores the big eleghant in the room as far as nuclear weapons in the ME are concerned.

    It defies logic to give a free pass to Israel because nuclear scrutiny is only for NPT members.

    As for secret enrichment, both Ghom and Natanz met code 3.1, this has been argued here many many times, but if you want to open the discussion again, we can revisit it.

    • Andrew (History)

      I think ikje is missing many of the other nuclear elephants and animals in the zoo.

      India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea maintain nuclear weapons despite the NPT. Among other scenarios, how fast could a disaster or regime change happen? Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Turkey maintain nuclear weapons on their soil through nuclear weapons sharing. Are these properly protected against disaster, regime change, meandering protesters, etc? Japan, Belgium, South Africa, Belarus and Ukraine all maintain amounts of uranium which could be quickly weaponized, if the political decision was made to do so or if it loosely came in to the wrong hands, among other scenarios. Argentina, Brazil, Germany, India, Iran, Japan, the Netherlands, and Pakistan all maintain uranium enrichment facilities on their soil which could potentially be used to produce fissile material. Could they produce this material without someone being aware of it? This list only hits a partial spectrum, as there is also the possibility of nuclear accident, nuclear disaster, nuclear material mishandling, etc.

      So apart from all the currently actual or virtual nuclear states which could be arguably more serious, there is also the fact that if this came down solely to a simple problem of undisclosed uranium enrichment there have also been other countries which have had examples of the same issue. The entire dispute about Iran and its 3.1 agreement with the IAEA centers not on whether Iran has to report information, but how much notice it must provide to the IAEA. If it were solely about undisclosed activity, the U.N. nuclear watchdog has previously found traces of highly enriched uranium at a nuclear research site in Egypt, which have more of the work done to be used in a nuclear bomb than tradition low enriched uranium (LEU). Separately in 2000, South Korean scientists enriched 200 milligrams of uranium to near-weapons grade (up to 77 percent) using laser enrichment, yet South Korea failed to report the matter to the IAEA all the way through 2004.

  4. SandMan (History)

    Stating the obvious, Iran has reached its strategic objective of nuclear ambiguity. I think they already have done the cost-benefit calculation and there are no benefits of going wholesale nuclear. The question is how does this capability changes the US middle-east political/security calculus?

  5. Scott Monje (History)

    Why is it so hard to see the writing on the wall?

    People generally assume that the Iranians have a clever plan whereby they’re pursuing a set goal (i.e., nuclear weapons and strategic missiles) while at the same time denying that goal and trying, rather ineffectively, to conceal evidence of it. Many Iran specialists, however, believe they really are of two minds on the issue. Some want the bomb; others really do believe it is un-Islamic. The “writing on the wall” may be signs of a clever plan, or it may just reflect the ongoing debate as one side pushes development as far as it can get away with it and the other side either resists them or simply pushes the final decision off into the future. In the end, the final decision–and it could be a long way off–will probably reflect some unpredictable combination of internal politics and external events pushing one way or the other. If they do get the bomb, there’s no real reason to assume they’ll be more likely to use it than anyone else. The very same arguments about how they’ll use it because they’re different from us were made first about Stalin and then about Mao. (The Soviets said it about Mao, too. It’s a common way of thinking, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right.) They may act more aggressively in other arenas because they know they’re protected from rataliation by the bomb, or they may just relax for the same reason. Hawks will assert that it is always safer to assume they will be aggressive. That, of course, is how we got into Iraq. There, it turned out that Saddam Hussein wanted the Iranians to believe he had weapons of mass destruction when he didn’t so as to deter them by bluff (an inverse clever plan, as it were), but that’s another story.

  6. Andrew (History)

    Are you are part of an Iranian masterful plan lull complacency and seed doubt or indeed one whom they call “Scott”? (Only 0.546% of U.S. males have the name Scott, so there is a 99.454% chance that you are lieing!)

    Please don’t cite Occam’s Razor, I cut myself with it 🙁

  7. yousaf (History)

    Glad Clapper is not being driven politically. There is no evidence that we know of for an ongoing Iranian nuclear weapons program.

    Unsurprisingly, the IAEA just cannot prove a negative. No one can prove a negative.

    The fundamental problem is with dual-use technologies and with the NPT itself.

  8. ikje (History)

    Dear all,

    You seem to have mis interpreted my reaction.

    Of course, Iran is perfectly legal when it tries to get the enrichment of uranium up and running.

    But why try to master a technology that has been mastered elsewhere? If you abide the rules of the IAEA, you can buy 5% enriched uranium, ready to load fuel rods on the market. For a price that will dwarf the investments the Iranians have made in developing centrifuge technology, uranium conversion plants, yellow cake production.

    It would have made sense if they were sitting on a rich uranium ore deposit, ready to be mined.

    But they do not sit on top that ore, they are desperately looking for other sources of yellow cake.

    Make the maths, try to figure why they are spending so much money for a commodity they could have bought at much lower prices, provided they made their operations transparant?

    And the 3.1 discussion is useless, since they have now twice declared their facilities after the fact.

    Not really assuring behaviour.

  9. ikje (History)

    And to continue, Iran has not signed the international treaty for secure operation of nuclear plants.

    Busher being based on outdated, not-certified Siemens technology makes it a primary risk. When we see that the launch of Busher was delayed due to metal chips coming from a pump in the backup cooling circuit, we may only guess how bad the situation is at Busher.

    I think it is no coincidence that the Russians required unloading of the fuel assemblies at Busher.