Behind Iran’s nuclear weapons “halt”

By Michael S. Goodman, Wyn Q. Bowen | February 19, 2008

The release of the declassified summary of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities” on December 3, 2007 was an event of major political and strategic significance. Its conclusion with “high confidence” that Iran halted its military nuclear activities in fall 2003 removed, for the foreseeable future at least, any grounds for military action to prevent Tehran’s further progress in the nuclear field. This outcome has been welcomed in many quarters in the United States and elsewhere, but it has also generated intense debate and some controversy. In particular, analysts and policy makers are concerned that the publication of the summary findings weakened the international community’s ability to pressure Iran to comply with U.N. demands for an enrichment suspension and to fully resolve outstanding questions related to its nuclear activities.

Intelligence and nuclear proliferation

Intelligence collection and analysis has always been central to shaping national and international responses to nuclear proliferation whether the resultant assessments of motives, intentions, and capabilities prove accurate or otherwise. The secretive nature of proliferation programs makes the generation of accurate and timely indicators and warnings for decision makers a complex task. Proliferators often invest a great deal of time and effort to conceal their activities and to deceive external parties that might use hostile surveillance against them. Most proliferation programs of concern also exist within closed or semi-closed states, and are difficult to penetrate with reliable human sources. 1 The situation is further complicated by the potential pitfalls of “mirror imaging” and “received opinion.”

The former has been described as a “tendency to project one’s own logic and mindset onto that of the opponent,” which can result in erroneous assessments of intentions and capabilities because analysts may give inadequate consideration to diverging cultural and political frames of reference and a country’s technical wherewithal. 2 “Received opinion” is generally taken to constitute a resistance to change a particular viewpoint even “in the face of contradictory evidence,” which can lead to information being excluded if it does not fit an accepted, prevailing wisdom. Significantly, this can make analysts particularly vulnerable to deception campaigns by proliferators. 3 In addition, policy can influence the intelligence process where predilections for accepting, or seeking out, findings that support a specific priority or viewpoint can result in accurate information being ignored or down-played if they run counter to it. 4

During the Cold War, assessments of the Soviet nuclear program proved to be accurate on some occasions. 5 More recently, controversy accompanied the use of intelligence on Iraq’s weapons programs to justify war in 2003–notably the politicization of the intelligence process in the United States and Britain. In contrast, less is known outside of the intelligence and nonproliferation communities about the relative success of intelligence collection and analysis in the context of Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s decision to take Libya out of the nuclear weapons business in late 2003, and the positive role played by intelligence officers as “covert diplomats” to facilitate this outcome. 6

The challenge of accurately assessing proliferation programs and the checkered history of related intelligence make the recent NIE on Iran all the more noteworthy. Several issues stand out: (1) the NIE system and how previous intelligence estimates depicted Iran’s capability and intentions in the nuclear field; (2) the sourcing of the 2007 NIE; (3) the lack of significant changes to the assessment of capability; (4) the major alteration to the assessment of Iranian intent; (5) situating the decision to halt in 2003; and (6) explaining the decision to halt.

The NIE system and previous intelligence assessments on Iran

Before considering the 2007 NIE, it is informative to briefly look at the nature of the NIE system and how the U.S. intelligence community previously perceived the Iranian nuclear program. NIEs are produced under the auspices of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), which serves as the “bridge between the intelligence and policy communities” and as the broker and central voice of the U.S. intelligence community. NIEs are “the coordinated judgments of the Intelligence Community regarding the likely course of future events,” and importantly, they contain dissenting voices from within the intelligence community. 7 Within the NIC, an official responsible for Weapons of Mass Destruction and Proliferation contributed to the 2007 Iran NIE, as did an official from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence responsible for integrating the community-wide intelligence effort (both collection and analysis) on Iran.

Iran’s nuclear program was the subject of U.S. intelligence reporting long before 2003 when the current crisis over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions moved to center stage. U.S. intelligence produced assessments of Iran’s nuclear program during the Cold War and, starting in the mid-1990s, U.S. intelligence began estimating that Tehran would be capable of producing a nuclear weapon within 5-10 years. NIEs in 2001 and 2005 maintained this timeframe, which one observer recently labelled a “rolling estimate.” 8

The summer 2005 NIE concluded with “high confidence” that Iran “is currently determined to develop nuclear weapons”. Secondly, it assessed with “moderate confidence” that Iran “is unlikely” to develop a nuclear weapon “before early-to-mid next decade” (2010-15). Thirdly, it assessed that Iran could produce sufficient fissile material for a weapon “by the end of this decade if it were to make more rapid and successful progress than we have seen to date.” 9 These conclusions reportedly assumed that the Iranian program was “moving full speed ahead without major technical obstacles.” 10

Importantly, the March 2005 report of the WMD Commission had already highlighted the challenges of collecting intelligence on proliferation programs and noted the widespread gaps in intelligence on Iran. 11 Given the commission’s recommendations on strengthening intelligence analysis, the 2005 NIE was likely based on a re-assessment of past reporting, as well as new information from the 2-3 years of international investigations into Iran’s undeclared nuclear activities. 12 Despite the reassessment, the tepid 2005 NIE demonstrates the estimative uncertainty that must have been associated with seeking accurate intelligence on a program that the Iranians had concealed for nearly two decades. 13 Indeed, the 2005 findings make the 2007 NIE’s finding of “high confidence” about Iran’s decision to halt its military program all the more notable.

Sourcing the 2007 NIE

The findings of the 2007 NIE prompted immediate and widespread interest in the cause of the change of view. President Bush cut to the chase during a December 4 press conference, “I believe that the intelligence community has made a great discovery, and they’ve analyzed the discovery, and it’s now part of our government policy.” 14 What exactly was this great discovery? And was new information the only impetus for this major change in perspective?

That the intelligence community concluded with high confidence–and no dissenting opinions–that Iran had halted its military program in 2003 firmly suggests that it based its conclusion on multiple sources of various types and a re-examination of previous assessments. The community wouldn’t have made such a significant change from the character of the 2005 estimate without several new sources, including human intelligence. And the community would not have risked being the subject of an Iranian deception campaign on the basis of one or two sources.

New evidence likely accrued incrementally and slowly undermined previous conclusions on Iranian intentions, ultimately resulting in a wholesale review of the entire intelligence landscape. Speculation about how this new information was acquired includes: reports of walk-in defectors with laptops containing incriminating data about test-sites and nuclear warhead designs; communication intercepts between senior military figures complaining about the termination of the military program some years earlier; the acquisition of notes on these communications presumably through human agents; the existence of a CIA scheme designed to persuade key Iranian officials to defect; satellite surveillance; and even radiation monitoring. 15 The provision of information and assessments by friendly foreign intelligence services, such as Israel’s, may also have made a contribution or been ignored. 16

Improved analytical processes within the U.S. intelligence community in the wake of the Iraq intelligence debacle, including efforts to address perceptual predispositions and cognitive inhibitions, also would have contributed to the reassessment exercise and the increased confidence in the findings. 17

Assessing Iranian capability

The 2007 NIE does not significantly differ from the declassified elements of the 2005 in regard to when Iran could be capable of producing sufficient fissile material for a weapon, although there are important differences in how the information is presented.

In contrast to 2005, the 2007 NIE does not talk about “when Iran is likely to make a nuclear weapon,” which reflects the overarching conclusion that Iran halted military work in 2003. The 2007 version specifies when Iran could produce sufficient highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium for a weapon. The 2005 assessment makes no distinction between these routes to weapons development and only addresses when Iran could produce sufficient fissile material.

In 2005, the NIE assessed with “moderate confidence” that Tehran would be unlikely to have a nuclear weapon capability before “early-to-mid next decade,” roughly from 2010 to 2015; this was an apparent continuation of the rolling 5- to 10-year estimate. It also assessed, “Iran could produce enough fissile material for a weapon by the end of this decade [from 2009 to 2010] if it were to make more rapid and successful progress than we have seen to date.” The 2007 estimate assesses “with moderate confidence” that Iran “probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame,” with the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research judging this to be unlikely before 2013 “because of foreseeable technical and programmatic problems.” On the plutonium front, the 2007 estimate concludes with “high confidence” that “Iran will not be technically capable of producing and reprocessing enough plutonium for a weapon before about 2015.” In terms of the fissile material production, then, little has changed in the core assessment. This is certainly not the case in the realm of intent.

Assessing Iranian intent

Beyond the attention-grabbing conclusion of the 2007 NIE, the estimate illustrates the relative uncertainty about assessments of Iran’s intent and the general challenges associated with gathering intelligence on Iran.

While the 2007 NIE judged with high confidence that “the halt lasted at least several years,” the Energy Department and NIC attached dissenting opinions assessing that, because of intelligence gaps, they only had “moderate confidence that the halt to those activities represents a halt to Iran’s entire nuclear weapons program.” In contrast, the whole of the U.S. intelligence community assessed with “moderate confidence” that the military program had not been re-initiated. Further complicating the picture, the NIE assessed with “moderate-to-high confidence” that at a minimum Tehran is keeping open its options on the nuclear weapons front. In its totality, the 2007 NIE is characterised by significant uncertainty about Iran’s intentions, and this raises questions about the NIE’s application of some important terminology.

Given the nature of the declassified summary as a whole, the word “halt” may have been overly concrete to describe Iran’s activity; “suspension” may have been a more suitable term. Also, by making a distinction between “military” and “civil” programs, the NIE glosses over the inherently dual-use nature of enrichment and reprocessing activities. As long as Tehran refuses to suspend its civil enrichment program, it continues to develop and perfect a process directly related to the production of weapon-grade fissile material.

The language used to describe Iran’s halt of its military program is equally troubling. The NIE concludes with “high confidence” that “international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work” influenced Tehran to halt the military program, temporarily suspend its enrichment program, and initially agree to an Additional Protocol. However, the declassified summary does not provide further detail about this “international scrutiny and pressure,” leaving observers to speculate about the potential factors affecting nuclear decision-making in Iran.

Situating the decision to halt

“International scrutiny” appears to reference 2003 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigations into Iran’s covert nuclear program. The IAEA and its director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, issued three reports on Iran’s activities to the agency’s Board of Governors in 2003 dated June 6, August 26, and November 10. 18 These reports quickly became available for public consumption and drew increased attention to the investigation of Iran’s noncompliance. The reports did not conclude that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons, only that there were significant questions about Tehran’s intentions.

During its investigations, the IAEA uncovered evidence of potential military intent that drew even more attention to its activities. In September 2003, the agency discovered that Iranian scientists had irradiated bismuth metal samples in the Tehran Research Reactor between 1989 and 1993. The irradiation of bismuth produces polonium 210, which can be used peacefully in radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) or for military purposes with beryllium as a neutron initiator in some designs of nuclear weapons. On November 13, the Iranians wrote to the IAEA claiming that the irradiation was part of a feasibility study related to RTGs. 19 Moreover, on October 21 when Iran provided the agency with a list of domestic workshops involved in the production of centrifuge components, it turned out that most of them were “owned by military industrial organizations.” 20

As the agency’s technical work proceeded in 2003, the political and diplomatic pressure on Iran ramped up. Western countries demanded that Iran cease its most sensitive work related to uranium enrichment and the development of a heavy water reactor. They also insisted that Iran provide additional information and assistance so that the IAEA could address outstanding questions about the history of the nuclear program, its current status, and future plans.

International pressure appeared to bear fruit, when on October 21 in a meeting with the British, French and German foreign ministers Iran agreed to suspend its “declared” enrichment and reprocessing activities, to sign an Additional Protocol, and to act as if the protocol had taken effect before it was signed. 21 According to the recent NIE, Iran also halted the nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003.

Although the IAEA did not initially uncover Iran’s noncompliance, it is difficult to underplay the role that its scrutiny played in increasing international pressure in 2003. The November 10 report from ElBaradei demonstrated the depth of the international community’s concerns. It flagged the related problems of Iran’s safeguards violations, past and continued policy of concealment, limited and reactive cooperation, and the slow provision of information, often in a contradictory fashion. Significantly, the report cited the agency’s “serious concerns” about Iran’s involvement in sensitive aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, notably uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. 22 The Board of Governor’s resolution on November 26 subsequently contained much stronger language than its previous utterances on Iran.

Explaining the decision to halt

A combination of economic, political, security, and technical factors influence national decisions related to the pursuit of nuclear weapons, or decisions to temporarily or permanently forego the option. The same should be assumed about Iran’s decision to “halt” its military nuclear program.

During the last quarter of 2003, Iran’s brinkmanship on the nuclear front became an increasingly dangerous game, because the IAEA had raised serious noncompliance problems, outstanding questions related to very sensitive aspects of the fuel cycle, and potential evidence of military intent. The imperative of preventing discoveries that would have provided clear-cut evidence of weapons intent, likely influenced Iran’s decision to halt the military aspect of its program. 23 Indeed, such evidence would have significantly strengthened the position of those states that had advocated a tough line with Tehran ever since the first revelations about Iran’s undeclared program.

On the diplomatic level, the Bush administration actively lobbied the Board of Governors during 2003 to determine that Tehran was in noncompliance with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and Safeguards Agreement. Washington also demanded that the Board of Governors refer the Iranian issue to the Security Council, which would consider application of coercive measures, including multilateral sanctions, and the resultant political embarrassment for Iran.

The British, French, and German governments opted for a less confrontational approach, reflecting the view that rapid referral to the Security Council would reduce the ability of the international community to influence Iran. Active engagement and negotiation, they thought, was the optimal approach. This group also applied significant economic pressure, making the negotiation of a trade and cooperation agreement with Iran conditional on a satisfactory resolution of the nuclear issue. 24

Given Tehran’s desire to develop the Iranian economy with the help of international trade and foreign investment (two-way trade between Iran and the European Union amounted to some $15.4 billion in 2001), such economic pressure likely influenced Tehran. In addition to their firmness, the Europeans gave Iran some face-saving options, agreeing that, once international anxieties had been completely resolved, “Iran could expect easier access to modern technology and supplies in a range of areas.” 25 For its part, the Japanese government made its negotiations on investing in Iran’s oil industry dependent on Tehran signing an Additional Protocol. 26 And Russia appeared to apply its own economic pressure when it announced in October 2003 a 12-month delay in the start-up of Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant. 27

It is important to note that economic incentives, along with economic pressures, accompanied the Europeans’ approach to Iran. The 2007 NIE noted the value of this approach: “Some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might–if perceived by Iran’s leaders as credible–prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.” This assessment was based on the broader NIE conclusion that “a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs” guides Tehran’s decisions.

On the military level, the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and unseated the regime of Saddam Hussein, largely on the grounds of forced disarmament. This likely impacted Tehran’s thinking in several ways. Iraq’s war with Iran in the 1980s, its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and its use of chemical weapons against Iranian forces had prompted Tehran to re-start the country’s nuclear weapons program in the mid-1980s as a potential means to deter Iraq. At one level, the removal of Hussein and the lack of major WMD-related discoveries thereafter significantly reduced Iran’s sense of external threat in this direction and probably influenced its nuclear decision-making. This might account for the NIE’s conclusion that “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.”

On the other hand, the U.S.-led invasion and occupation likely increased Iranian concerns about U.S. strategic intentions–specifically, the Bush administration’s willingness to use conventional military power to enforce nonproliferation. Tehran’s failed attempts to initiate a dialogue with the Bush administration in 2003 and official U.S. rhetoric would have further exacerbated these fears. Qaddafi’s decision to forego nuclear weapons in December 2003 certainly appears to have been cemented and accelerated by the coercive effect of the Iraq invasion, despite Libyan claims to the contrary. Indeed, the events in Libya demonstrate that a country’s plausible deniability may be an important aspect of successfully pressuring states to cease proliferating. Could this have been the case with Iran in late 2003?

The wording of the declassified summary of the 2007 NIE suggests that IAEA technical investigations, together with a combination of diplomatic, economic, and military pressure on the part of the international community, can influence decision making in countries that fail to live up to their NPT and safeguards obligations. Seen with the effectiveness of U.N. inspections in, and international pressure on, Iraq during the 1990s, the course of events in Iran give the international community reason to be relatively optimistic about its ability to respond to ongoing and future cases of noncompliance.

However, regular IAEA inspections in Iraq, Iran, and Libya were not responsible for the initial uncovering of their clandestine nuclear programs, demonstrating the importance of national intelligence agencies generating accurate and timely indicators and warnings in order to bring to light nuclear indiscretions for the IAEA to investigate.

The NIE’s conclusion that Iran halted its military nuclear activities in 2003 due to international scrutiny and pressure, ironically removed for now military intervention from the list of options of how to deal with Iran’s nuclear indiscretions. In the process, this development probably weakened the international community’s ability to successfully pressure Tehran into again suspending its enrichment program and resolving outstanding questions. The lingering uncertainty about Tehran’s nuclear intentions and the dual-use nature of its enrichment capability could exacerbate the situation, even though the NIE assesses that Iran is likely to use “covert facilities–rather than its declared nuclear sites–for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon.” Iran’s intentions could also change abruptly. “Only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons–and such a decision is inherently reversible,” the NIE assessed.

The real nub of the 2007 NIE, therefore, emphasizes addressing political motives in Tehran as the only realistic way to address the Iranian nuclear problem in the long term. Indeed, the release of the NIE’s findings could intentionally lay the groundwork for a less confrontational approach with Tehran, which could involve both negative and positive incentives and the seeds of a “grand bargain” between Iran and the United States. It also raises the question of whether covert diplomacy has or could play a role in maneuvering the U.S. and Iranian governments toward such a juncture.

Wyn Q. Bowen is a professor of nonproliferation and international security and director of the Centre for Science and Security Studies in the Department of War Studies, at King’s College London. Michael S. Goodman is a lecturer in the Department of War Studies and runs the department’s Intelligence Studies Research Group.

1 Robert D. Blackwill and Ashton B. Carter, “The Role of Intelligence,” in New Nuclear Nations: Consequences for U.S. Policy, eds.Robert D. Blackwill and Albert Carnesale (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1993) pp. 216-250.
2 Jonathan S. Lockwood, “Sources of Error in Indications and Warning,” Defense Intelligence Journal, vol.3, no.1, pp. 75-78, 81, 84.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Michael S. Goodman, Spying on the Nuclear Bear: Anglo-American Intelligence and the Soviet Bomb (Stanford University Press, 2007).
6 Wyn Q. Bowen, Libya and Nuclear Proliferation: Stepping Back from the Brink, IISS Adelphi Paper 380 (London: Routledge, May 2006).
7 For more on the NIC, please visit:
8 Mark Fitzpatrick, “Lessons Learned from Iran’s Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons,” Nonproliferation Review, vol. 13, no. 3, p. 534.
9 This information was reported in S. R. Weisman and Douglas Jehl, “Estimate Revised on When Iran Could Make Nuclear Bomb,” New York Times, August 3, 2005.
10 Dafna Linzer, “Iran is Judged 10 Years from Nuclear Bomb,” Washington Post, August 2, 2005, p. A1.
11 Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, “Report to the President,” March 31, 2005, available at
12 Dafna Linzer and Walter Pincus, “U.S. Reviewing Its Intelligence on Iran,” Washington Post February 12, 2005, p. A12.
13 S. R. Weisman and Douglas Jehl, “Estimate Revised on When Iran Could Make Nuclear Bomb.”
14 White House, “Press Conference by the President,” December 4, 2007, available at
15 See: Dafna Linzer, “Strong Leads and Dead Ends in Nuclear Case Against Iran,” Washington Post, February 8, 2006, p. A01; Dafna Linzer and Joby Warrick, “U.S. Finds that Iran Halted Nuclear Arms Bid in 2003,” Washington Post, December 4, 2007, p. A1; David Sanger and S. L. Myers, “Details in Military Notes Led to Shift on Iran, U.S. Says,” New York Times, December 6, 2007; G. Miller, “CIA Has Recruited Iranians to Defect,” Los Angeles Times, December 9, 2007.
16 Seymour Hersh, “The Next Act: Is a Damaged Administration Less Likely to Attack Iran, or More?” The New Yorker, November 27, 2006.
17 Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus, “Lessons of Iraq Aided Intelligence on Iran,” Washington Post, December 5, 2007, p. A1.
18 See: Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” November 10, 2003, GOV/2003/75; Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, IAEA, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” August 26, 2003, GOV/2003/63; Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, IAEA, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” June 6, 2003, GOV/2003/40.
19 Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, IAEA, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” February 24, 2004, (GOV/2004/1), p. 5.
20 Ibid, pp. 6-7.
21 “Joint Statement at the End of a Visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran by the Foreign Ministers of Britain, France, and Germany,” October 21, 2003, available via the French Embassy in Britain,
22 “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” November 10, 2003, p.10.
23 For further information about evidence of military intent, see: Mark Fitzpatrick, “Assessing Iran’s Nuclear Program,” Survival, vol. 48, no. 3, pp. 5-26.
24 David Albright and Corey Hinderstein, “Iran, Player or Rogue,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/October 2003, pp. 52-58.
25 “Joint Statement at the End of a Visit.”
26 Brenda Shaffer, “Iran at the Nuclear Threshold,” Arms Control Today, November 2003, p. 7.
27 David Albright and Corey Hinderstein, “Iran, Player or Rogue”; Andrew Jack and Judy Dempsey, “Iran’s Nuclear Start-up Delayed,” Financial Times, October 14, 2003, p.13.

Together, we make the world safer.

The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent nonprofit organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.

Get alerts about this thread
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments


Receive Email