Jeffrey LewisAyatollah’s Pregnant Pause

Sorry about the light posting as of late — the day job has been busier than usual and the new column at Foreign Policy is definitely a lot of work.

I’ve started a few posts, but got hung up in the usual ways — the problems turned out to be more interesting than I thought or documents harder to obtain.  I am hoping some of these efforts will bear fruit at some point.

In the meantime, I have a long piece up at Foreign Policy looking at the recent history of US National Intelligence Estimates on Iran’s nuclear capabilities and intentions, titled The Ayatollah’s Pregnant Pause.  I didn’t write the title, but I wish I did.

As I said, it is long.  Despite clocking in around 3,000 words, there were bits and pieces that needed to be trimmed.  Some of them I still want to share.

First, and most important, the original draft contained a shout-out to my friend Paul Kerr, who currently works at the Congressional Research Service.  We’ve known each other since the late 1990s and much of my thinking about the 2005 and 2007 NIEs arises directly from our conversations while he was at the Arms Control Association and blogging here.  I highly recommend his CRS report, Iran’s Nuclear Program: Status.

Second, I wanted to republish the two talks by Hassan Rowhani that appeared in Rahbord and Keyhan.  These are amazing documents (Wonkporn!) for those of us interested in Iran’s decision-making during the early stages of the nuclear crisis.  The fact that they were available to contemporary policymakers will always amaze me. Every time I re-read them, I spot something new, such as the reference to a “private entity” that almost certainly refers to the Mohsen Fakrizadeh’s Physics Research Center (PHRC).

Third, speaking of the notorious MoFak, one section that needed to be trimmed was a discussion of the details in the various  IAEA reports, including the Annex on “possible military dimensions.”  One of the most useful details is this chart in IAEA GOV/2011/65 showing the evolution of Fakhrizadeh’s empire from the PHRC to the SPND:

Fourth, and finally, a word about the decision faced by Israeli and US policymakers.  The decision to conduct an airstrike or not is an interesting policy choice.  (Keeping in mind I have a very high burden of presumption against  the use of force in general.) The benefit of a strike is an induced pause in the program — more or less what we have now though imposed through force.  The question is whether an airstrike creates more delay than the current indecision of the Supreme Leader.  So far, I think, the best answer has been no — the NIE believes Iran is reluctant to force the issue by attempting to weaponize its capabilities.

This framing of the policy problem assumes that, once attacked, the Supreme Leader would very likely order a crash program to acquire a nuclear deterrent, a fear that stems directly from Saddam’s reaction to Israel’s destruction of the Osirak reactor. One of the dumbest things I have seen written in a long time is this:

A similar argument was used by critics of the prospective Israeli strike against Iraq’s nuclear reactor back in 1981 (the critics included then Labor Party head Shimon Peres, now Israel’s president, who reportedly is a major critic of the prospective attack on Iran). But that successful strike actually put paid to Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program, which was never resurrected.

Iraq did reconstitute its nuclear program as we discovered after the 1991 Gulf War.  There is no room for disagreement on this factual point. Whether the Iraqis were competent enough to ever figure it out, they successfully hid an enrichment program for a decade, which probably accounts in no small part for Iran’s late 1980s interest in enrichment technology.

Moreover, the Iraqi “nuclear weapons program” — in the sense of a formal commitment by Saddam to seek nuclear weapons — is best understood a response to the strike on Osirak.  All of the historical evidence that I have seen –largely in the form of memoirs by Iraqi scientists like Madhi Obeidi, Imad Khadduri and Jafar Dhia Jafar — suggests Saddam had yet to decide to seek nuclear weapons until the humiliation of the strike by Israel.  One can suspect he would have gotten around to it eventually, but as it happened the best evidence is that the airstrike was the catalyst for the Iraqi nuclear weapons effort, which then proceeded undetected for nearly a decade.

The Syria case, on the other hand, is the best case, especially if Assad falls before whatever remains of his nuclear weapons program can bear fruit.  That leaves a question about whether Iran is more like Iraq or Syria.  The Iranian program is both less vulnerable than the Syrian program and, according the NIE, paused. These are important differences:  By building an unsafeguarded reactor with the assistance of North Korea, Assad created both a signal of his intention to acquire a nuclear weapon and a fat, juicy target.  The Surpreme Leader has not been so careless, either with regard to Iran’s intentions or capabilities.  Nor do I have confidence that the Islamic Republic is nearly as vulnerable as the Assad regime, which appears to be crumbling but has yet to fall.

I still think diplomacy remains a better option for dealing with this problem, all things considered.


  1. Andy (History)

    I read the article earlier today – what can I say except, “Excellent work.” This is the best lay explanation of the NIE’s I’ve seen, well done.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Thank you. That means a lot to me coming from you.

  2. Igor (History)

    The core presumption that attacking Iran is predicated on nukes is flawed. We’ve been through this with Iraq already.

    For the West + Israel + Gulf States, Iran is a thorn in the butt because it’s the only country left in the Middle East that won’t bend over. No matter what Iran does regarding its nuclear development, the hostilities will continue.

    • Igor (History)


      I am curious why my comment is still “awaiting moderation”. Hopefully it’s not because you disagree with my statement?


    • Jeffrey (History)

      I thought it was a bit off-topic — the post concerned what the 2007 NIE said, not other aspects of Iran policy — and mildly vulgar (“bend over”).

  3. Bradley Laing (History)

    I thought it was still in doubt if that really was a nuclear reactor?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      You’d have to believe the images were fakes, the IAEA samples were in error and the Assad is just really sensitive about his love of swimming. I think it was a reactor.

    • bradley laing (History)

      If the Assad government falls, does the whole story come out?

      More importantly, does the public learn something about nuclear proliferation that will disturb people paying attnetion, or will it just confirm what most people already thought was true?

  4. Dan Joyner (History)

    Just to throw another factor into the decision making matrix (though I wish it meant more than that in DC and Tel Aviv), airstrikes on Iranian nuclear facilities by the US or Israel would be a violation of international law:

  5. Malenki Sasha (History)

    I hate to stray from the topic but doesn’t it sound a little absurd that Israel would even try to bomb Iran?

    Even with about four hundred aircraft at Israel’s disposal Iran has many sites guarded by hundreds anti aircraft missile batteries, hundreds of aircraft (although many dated and nonoperational). This is further complicated by the distance between the two countries as Israel will require to have all those aircraft refueled part way, and when aircraft engage in combat they use a lot of fuel, which might be all it would take to cost Israel planes. Each site will require numerous sorties in while Iran would play anti air guerrilla warfare.

    This would also be made worse if Hizbollah and Hamas decided to launch rockets at Israel as Israel is dependent on its air force to counter these attacks.

    Despite all the noise made in the media this at best is incredibly risky.

  6. John Schilling (History)

    Incredibly risky, yes, but the risk mostly isn’t in the first wave of airstrikes. Iran’s air defenses are vast but outdated, and we know from experience what happens when a modern, professional air force goes up against 1980s vintage[*] air defenses. US v. Iraq (twice), NATO v. Serbia, NATO v. Libya, Israel v. Syria (twice), Israel v. Iraq, and Russia v. Georgia. Three total wars, three limited wars, two strikes against nuclear facilities, and a total of fifty-four aircraft lost to enemy action.

    And fuel consumption, while a substantial concern, is also a known concern. Dogfighting went out of style after World War I and was I believe last seen for real in the Falklands; in modern air-to-air or air-to-ground combat planes pretty much only light their afterburners when attempting to engage targets of opportunity. Not an issue for the Israelis on the first (and presumably only) day of an Israel-Iranian war.

    Which makes this, for Israel, mostly an exercise in logistics. How many aircraft can Israel spare from national defense for a day, what is their fuel capacity and consumption, how much ordnance can they carry, and what is needed to carry out the SEAD 101 playbook? George Herbert, myself, and a few others looked at this when the issue first came up; I believe we all independently concluded that Israel could safely and reliably deliver on on the order of 20-40 large munitions to relevant Iranian targets in a one-day “war”.

    And Israel v. Iran is necessarily a one-day war. After the first day, not only is Iran warned and prepared, but the US does not have plausible deniability re Israeli warplanes flying through the airspace of American allies. At that point, either the war ends or it becomes US v. Iran.

    The risk, to Israel, is that the United States will decline the invitation.

    [*] Iran does have a few modern SAM systems, but they are all short-ranged low-altitude systems; Israeli aircraft would almost certainly attack from high altitude using stand-off munitions.

    • Dan Joyner (History)

      Iran may yet get more SAM systems under its S-300 contract with Russia. Though that looks doubtful at the moment. See the below post for an analysis of this deal:

    • fafnir (History)

      Actually the iranians appear to have at least one s300 system that has been shown publicly also their older systems have in all likelyhood been upgraded in addition the iranians have literally thousands of aa guns ranging from multi barreled 12.7mm up to fully automated 100mm,theres also the sa15 tor and the iriaf f14/aim54 combo is still even today a nasty customer,personally though I think irans greatest defence is its missile arsenals retaliatory capabilities

  7. J House (History)

    What is missing from the policy debate is the Iranian response. It may be unconventional, to say the least. Attacks on Saudi and other gulf nation oil infrastructure, as well as on US ships within the gulf, are going to cause a second oil shock.
    In addition, Iran’s proxies are already positioned to conduct terrorist attacks throughout the EU and possibly the U.S. homeland. Israeli and U.S. leaders have reason to avoid discussing Iran’s response- if the American public really knew what was coming and the resulting economic fallout, they would be marching on Washington.

  8. archjr (History)

    I recommend Mousavian’s book (Brookings/Carnegie) as the only good and recent account at present of the variety of forces at play in Iran’s responses to the discovery of its clandestine program. Haven’t finished it, but reread the period to 2007 since it corresponded with my own limited, fly-on-the-wall involvement in what was going on. And you must take what he writes with a grain of salt. But Mousavian makes a big point: that Iranian policymaking is actually quite malleable, contrary to the popular belief fueled by their public and diplomatic rigidity and the history of outlandish (and not so outlandish) statements of “fact.” And his account supports the approach that Jeffrey has carefully laid out in his article. The big question remains how the Iranians resolve the internal conflict between ideology and national pride, and pragmatism, particularly as the “chicken crisis” ramps up internal pressure. I really see no possibility for pragmatism to win out in Tehran amidst the rubble from an attack.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I take that to be an implicit, if unspoken, judgment in Persepolis — that war allows the most extreme elements of the Islamic Republic unusual freedom to crush dissent in the name of patriotism and security.

      Which comes to think of it, is also the way it works everywhere else, including here.

  9. Denis O'Brien (History)

    Absolutely brilliant writing in FP. But one point of confusion and one point of speculation, if I may:

    With respect to the 2007 NIE you assert: Unless you have carefully read that report, you are almost certainly misinformed about what it says.

    Good advice, but it confuses me. Your article reads like it is based on your speculations of the contents of the NIE. Have you read it? Is it publicly available?

    You ask: Why would the supreme leader invite an airstrike?

    B/c whoever throws the first punch in this war loses.

    Israel has been trying to bait Iran into a preemptive attack for years, just like they tried to bait Egypt in 1967. We are back to the 1967 playbook where Johnson/MacNamera made it clear the US would not participate in a war that Israel started. Now, after 4000 dead kids in Iraq, Americans are even more fatigued at the thought of even more American sons and daughters dying for Israel. So if Israel throws the first punch, they’re on their own. They will lose, either militarily, politically, or both.

    If Iran throws the first blow, they will lose b/c the US will be into it with both feet. Maybe the Persians could sink the Stennis w/ their mult-Mach cruise missile, but they won’t be able to stop a 30,000 BLU. And it won’t be wasted on Parchin, it will be dropped on Terhan. The Ayatollah may be pregnant, but he ain’t suicidal.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      That is a totally fair question. I actually addressed it directly in an early draft, but we edited it out. (I’ve mentioned a few things in the past 48 hours that got cut from the piece. The original draft was far too long and, in the words of one colleague, “rambled.” So, although there are lots of things that I wish had stayed in — including at least one more Fakhrizadeh joke — the editing dramatically improved the final product.)

      In the original draft, I noted that this was an odd situation — commenting on something that I am not cleared to read.

      First, the US released an unclassified version of the 2007 NIE. It is available here:

      Second, I had the opportunity to speak with a number of people who were involved in the preparing the 2007 NIE and who read it as consumers. (There are also quite a few press stories and on-the-record interviews with participants in the process.) For example, I am pretty sure that my friend Paul Kerr and I got the story about “determined to develop” vs. “pursue” from the same small meeting held in a nice little room on a leafy campus that a few other readers may have attended.

      Third, much of the information in the two IAEA documents detailing possible “military dimensions” to Iran’s nuclear programs is from the US and also serves as the basis for the various NIEs.

      When you put these pieces together, a stunning amount of information is available in the public domain. I had held off on writing a “2007 NIE demystified” piece for a few years for exactly this reason, but the Haaretz story pushed me over the edge.

      In terms of the speculation, the conclusion of the NIE is that Iran is sensitive to scrutiny and pressure! If Iran wanted a confrontation, they could have had it by now. The Supreme Leader has been cautious, which is what the intelligence community was attempting to highlight in 2007.