Chain reaction: How the media has misread the IAEA’s report on Iran

By Greg Thielmann, Benjamin Loehrke | November 23, 2011

When, earlier this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency  (IAEA) released a report on Iran’s nuclear program, several media agencies and politicians walked away with two messages: that the Vienna-based agency now refutes past estimates of the US intelligence community, and that Iran is now making a break for the bomb. Both representations are false. Yet these assertions have been repeated often enough to give them traction with the public and Congress.

Most analysts familiar with the report agree that there “is nothing in the report that was not previously known by the governments of the major powers” — a nuclear Iran is “neither imminent nor inevitable.” While it is clear that Iran’s continuing research on nuclear weapons is a serious concern for international security, there “has been no smoking gun when it comes to Iran’s nuclear weapons intentions.”

So why the conflicting analyses over a highly bureaucratic and technocratic paper?

Washington talks a lot, but does not read very much. That is the simplest way to explain why commentators overlook the consistency between the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran and the latest IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program.

The 2007 NIE on Iran made the headline-grabbing, high-confidence assessment that, in fall 2003, Iran halted its nuclear weapons program (as distinct from its uranium enrichment and ballistic missile programs). Additionally, the NIE said:

We also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons. …

We judge with high confidence that the halt lasted at least several years. (Because of intelligence gaps discussed elsewhere in this Estimate, however, [the Energy Department and the National Intelligence Council] assess with only moderate confidence that the halt to those activities represents a halt to Iran’s entire nuclear weapons program.)

We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.

That is remarkably consistent with the IAEA’s latest report, which noted:

[Iran’s nuclear weapons effort] … was stopped rather abruptly pursuant to a “halt order” instruction issued in late 2003 by senior Iranian officials. According to that information, however, staff remained in place to record and document the achievements of their respective projects. … The agency is concerned because some of the activities undertaken after 2003 would be highly relevant to a nuclear weapon programme.

The NIE left open the possibility that Iran could continue its weapons-relevant activities. With four years of additional perspective, the latest IAEA report gives greater detail on the weapons work that Iran did prior to 2003, then updates the available information on what lesser work occurred after 2003. The new activities included:

  • Engaging in experimental research, after 2003, on hemispherical initiation of high explosives.
  • Further validation, after 2006, of a neutron initiator design.
  • Conducting modeling studies, in 2008 and 2009, that could determine the yield of a nuclear explosion.

Carrying on scattered research activities does not amount to a full-fledged restart of an integrated weapons program. That type of activity still appears to have halted in 2003. The activities since seem more like Iran is refining its previous understanding of nuclear weapons design — not breaking for a bomb.

Hence, in explaining the latest classified NIE on Iran released in March of this year, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee:

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.

Clapper’s testimony was in keeping with the recent IAEA report, which added considerable detail to the sanitized summary of the 2007 NIE.

The IAEA’s comprehensive report is a strong indication that US intelligence in 2007 on Iran’s nuclear program was based on solid evidence that has not been upended by the latest information. Iran’s situation is not static; continuing reevaluation and updated analyses are necessary for any dynamic and professional intelligence process.

Moreover, sharing the information with the public on the conclusions reached is vital to informing ongoing debate. The IAEA deserves credit both for the quality of its analysis and for sharing its expert opinions with the wider public on these critical issues — particularly since no summary of the latest NIE update has been released.

Pundits and politicians who use the latest IAEA report to attack the 2007 NIE are distorting the information, at best — and, at worst, are playing politics with national security.

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