Joshua PollackIC Threat Report on Iran: Sifting Tea Leaves

The Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community is out, and it’s official: cyber is the new black.

(The version presented to the Senate is linked above. Here’s the basically identical House version.)

Judging by the many threats ably described in this report, life is short, so let’s skip to the good stuff. Pages 13-15 summarize the IC’s view of missile and nuclear developments in rogue states the Axis of Evil Iran and North Korea. Today’s topic is Iran. Tomorrow — barring the Apocalypse or unforeseen delays — we’ll consider North Korea.

[Update | Feb. 7, 2010. After a Snowpocalypse-induced delay, we have a North Korea post.]

Two areas are especially worth a look: the analysis of the Qom enrichment facility, and the handling of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, a subject of fierce public debate, probably for years to come.

Qom — What is it Good For?

After summarizing what the IAEA reports say about Natanz, we get to Qom, a.k.a. Fordow, a.k.a. FFEP. Let’s focus on a few points of interest:

Second, Iran has been constructing—in secret until last September—a second uranium enrichment plant deep under a mountain near the city of Qom. It is unclear to us whether Iran’s motivations for building this facility go beyond its publicly claimed intent to preserve enrichment know-how if attacked, but the existence of the facility and some of its design features raise our concerns. The facility is too small to produce regular fuel reloads for civilian nuclear power plants, but is large enough for weapons purposes if Iran opts configure it for highly enriched uranium production. It is worth noting that the small size of the facility and the security afforded the site by its construction under a mountain fit nicely with a strategy of keeping the option open to build a nuclear weapon at some future date, if Tehran ever decides to do so.

Deep under a mountain. This echoes the characterization of the senior administration official who spoke to the press on September 25, 2009: “a very heavily protected, very heavily disguised facility.” But as Geoff Forden pointed out shortly thereafter, the available images show a cut-and-cover facility, neither deeply buried nor heavily protected by anything but its camouflage (“very heavily disguised”) and local air defenses. Is there some misunderstanding at work here?

To preserve enrichment know-how if attacked. This is almost what the head of the AEOI, Ali Akbar Salehi, told reporters at the time, but not quite:

“This site is at the base of a mountain and was selected on purpose in a place that would be protected against aerial attack. That’s why the site was chosen adjacent to a military site,” Salehi told a news conference. “It was intended to safeguard our nuclear facilities and reduce the cost of active defense system. If we had chosen another site, we would have had to set up another aerial defense system.”

The stated point, it appears, was to keep centrifuges spinning. The potential non-military application for uranium enrichment (in a hidden location, no less) after declared nuclear facilities have been destroyed is somewhat elusive. Bureaucratic inertia, as some have argued? A desire to prevent the West from imposing a “suspension by other means,” even if it has to be kept a deep secret? Or, as the IC testimony appears to suggest, to keep personnel trained up on centrifuge operations until large-scale operations could resume?

If Iran opts configure it for highly enriched uranium production. On the morning of September 25, President Obama stated flatly that “the size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program.” It appears that the IC has now walked back the part about configuration, perhaps on the basis of findings from IAEA visits. Does this mean that the President was misinformed or misspoke, or did something change at the site, perhaps in the three weeks that passed before the IAEA’s initial visit? [Update: Peter Crail of ACA points out that the language on this point in the ATA is consistent with a Q&A released last September.]

Keeping the option open. This bit tracks with the September 25 background briefing: “our information is that the Iranians began this facility with the intent that it be secret, and therefore giving them an option of producing weapons-grade uranium without the international community knowing about it.”

Reaffirming the 2007 NIE, Sorta

The ATA states,

Iran’s technical advancement, particularly in uranium enrichment, strengthens our 2007 NIE 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 lead us to reaffirm our judgment from the 2007 NIE that Iran is technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon in the next few years, if it chooses to do so.

But what about the other judgments? This passage does comment directly on the contentious questions of whether Iran A) suspended research on weaponization in late 2003, as the NIE had claimed, and B) later resumed the work, a possibility the NIE considered but did not embrace.

This question was stirred up again by the appearance of the celebrated or infamous uranium deuteride document in the Times of London last December. In early January, the New York Times reported that “top advisers” to the President had reached the conclusion that the NIE had been mistaken about the weaponization question, a view said to be shared in Britain, France, Germany, and Israel. The NYT did not mention the views of the U.S. IC, but a few days later, DIA Director Ronald Burgess told Voice of America something close to a reaffirmation of the contested point, but not quite:

“The bottom line assessments of the NIE still hold true,” he said. “We have not seen indication that the government has made the decision to move ahead with the program. But the fact still remains that we don’t know what we don’t know.”

Newsweek‘s sources claimed that the IC was settling on a view that Iran had resumed research, but not development of nuclear weapons. The Washington Times went further, stating that the IC was poised to walk back the claim that Iran had suspended work in the first place.

The closest that the new ATA comes to remarking on weaponization is this seemingly anodyne observation: “We continue to judge Iran’s nuclear decisionmaking is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran.” This language echoes the 2007 NIE Key Judgments: “Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.”

Readers will have to decide what that really means. After the warm welcome received by the Iran NIE Key Judgments back in December of 2007, we should not expect to see a similar release anytime soon. For clarification, we’ll probably have to settle for the forthcoming Questions for the Record.


  1. Bahram Chubin (History)

    Off topic: Any comments on this image of the “Simorgh Satellite Career”?

  2. Andrew

    Work on civilian enrichment and ballistic missiles could describe how many countries in the world again? Don’t a number of countries have indigenous civilian enrichment which could be used toward weapons production if a political decision were made to do so?

    According to the ATA:
    “We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that bring it closer to being able to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to
    build nuclear weapons.”

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

  3. archjr (History)

    “We continue to judge Iran’s nuclear decisionmaking is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran.”

    “Seemingly” anodyne? My kids ate stuff far spicier than this stuff. It is a staggering statement of the obvious, and just not particularly useful.

    Here’s a Question for the Record: What makes anyone think Iran will ever forego a warm enrichment capability, and why should they?

    Iran is working its way through the stages of refining its virtual deterrent, which has proved very successful to date. The international community is deterred from an effective response by the amount of time we all spend reading the tea leaves of every Ahmedinejad utterance on the matter.

  4. yousaf (History)

    The assessment seems bang-on.

    There is some evidence that Iran is researching nuclear weaponry, but no evidence that it is developing nuclear weapons.

    The “too small for a civil program and thus it must be a weapon-related” re. Fordow is bad logic. Both civil and military applications require a larger facility.

    The truth is likely that Fordow is for research.

    BTW, I doubt many people would be cheering and letting Iran off the hook if Fordow was a huge facility, consistent with what they think is needed for a civil program.

    Good work by the IC.

  5. Azr@el (History)


    It looks like a stretched first stage of the unha-2 but with the quoted figure of 32 tons of thrust per engine I’m assuming that it’s powered by a quad cluster of safir engines. As far as the second stage, it’s a mystery at this time. What is noteworthy is Iranian claims that this incarnation of their two stage Simorgh SC can loft 100kg to leo roughly the same as the three stage unha-2 was hoping to achieve. This might might be explained by using a quad of safir engines or something else, but it’s very interesting.

    I think the Simorgh could be the characteristic launch vehicle of the Iranian space program for the next decade. It seems well suited to scale up to serve all their possible needs from ICBM, with a heftier second stage and the addition of a third stage, as satellite carrier anywhere from 100kg as is to perhaps 1500kg with the addition of strapon SRM and a more energetic second stage and third stage and ultimately a man rated capsule chucker. Something along mercury wouldn’t be outside the lift potential of a central stack of Simorgh surrounded by a cluster of SRMs or a cluster of Simorghs by themselves. I’m inclined to believe that the Iranians are more willing to use clusters and allow serial production drive down per unit cost than go the route of new and bigger as their appetite for space access grows.

  6. PC (History)


    My understanding is Obama should not have mentioned the configuration at the time because that was not really known. Since that was in a joint statement on behalf of the three leaders though, I’d go with misinformed somewhere along the line. In the unclassified Q&A’s the IC released the same day, it appears to leave the question of configuration open:

    The facility could be used for centrifuge R&D or it could be configured to produce weapons-grade uranium.

    As for the some of the stories from last month about the IC and admin officials not believing or reversing the 07 NIE, much of it seems to me to just be sloppy reporting. The Washington Times piece in particular just described the key parts of that NIE completely wrong (3 pages of bullet points is apparently too much to read through again). For example, the IC had high, not moderate confidence that certain work was halted in 2003. There were reasons for that high confidence judgment and a reversal of that would be incredibly curious (and possibly ominous) given the nature of the information that reportedly led to that confidence level. The moderate confidence judgment, on the other hand, applied to the continuation of that halt through to mid-2007. I don’t think anyone would be surprised if that judgment was updated/changed. And if the WashTimes didn’t get the NIE description right, it would be no surprise if their conclusions were off as well. The NYT article also seems to confuse the assessment about the halt with the notion that the NIE said weapons work “ended.” It’s a matter of semantics but using the term ended seems to suggest more permanence than the words halt and suspend used in the NIE. A resumption could still be more or less consistent with the NIE (depending in part on when it occurred). It would certainly not mean there was never a halt. So did those officials the NYT spoke to say they don’t believe the part of the 2007 NIE about the 2003 suspension, or did they say they didn’t believe the halt was still being maintained? There were also several key judgments, not just one, so it’s just not clear which one they would be referring to.

    Since everything recently from the IC on record reaffirms or is consistent with much of the 07 NIE, my read is that the Newsweek piece is more on target. An “update” rather than total reversal seems to be where things are heading.

    Of course, another 3 pages of bullet points when the IC is done would really be nice…

    I think it is important though, that the ATA reaffirms the assessment about Iran’s cost-benefit analysis and hasn’t made a final decision yet. That still counters the narrative by those who objected to the 07 NIE (and smearing of those involved in it) that Iran has made a decision and cannot be swayed, so there couldn’t have been any halt. After all, the NIE pointed to that halt in the first place as evidence that outside influence can impact Iran’s decision-making about its weapons program:

    Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005. Our assessment that the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously.

    And that’s arguably the point that has the most significance for policy options.

  7. Jochen Schischka (History)

    Indeed, the ‘Simorgh’ is highly interesting.
    I, too, see a possible connection to the north-korean Eunha/Taep’oDong-B (could this be, to use Mr. Vick’s notation, a mock-up of a ‘Taep’oDong-2A’ or ‘2B’?) – an l/d of ~11.3 and a diameter-ratio of ~0.6 (photo measurements) of second-/first-stage at an alleged overall-length of 27m would probably be consistent with diameters of 2.4 and 1.5m.

    I hope Geoff will cover that ‘new’ (? -> only two-stage, additional NoDong?-fins) iranian launcher in a seperate post soon?

  8. Josh (History)

    Geoff is on hiatus for awhile — thus the paucity of missile-ological posts of late. I hope he’ll be able to rejoin us before much longer.

  9. Scott Monje (History)


    Regarding the Washington Times article, I would add that apart from the unsubstantiated charges by Peter Hoekstra, there is really nothing in the article that supports its conclusion.

  10. MarkoB

    Thanks for the great post.

    The ultimate conclusion is really, really interesting. If the IC concludes that the Iranian program is highly influenced by a cost-benefit calculus, not being a headlong drive for weapons regardless of opportunity cost, then it seems to me that Obama’s policy contradicts the assessment from the IC.

    The emphasis should be on engagement, not sanctions, if non-proliferation is priority number one. Offering greater economic and security benefits is probably the best way for external actors to influence Iranian opportunity cost.

    Seems to me that non-proliferation isn’t really a priority for Obama’s national security team.