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Intel Estimates on Iran: Perspective, please

US Intellegence Estimates on the Iranian Nuclear Program declare Iran to be a decade away from nuclear weapons development. While it is ironic that even seemingly Iran-friendly Mohamed ElBaredei estimted little more than 2 years, the evaluation of the US NIE should first be considered within the confines of its own track record. James S. Robbins does precisely this in Time Bomb: The poor track record of atomic predictions. Just for starters...

Consider the track record of these estimates. When have they ever been correct? Usually when a country tests a nuclear weapon, the event shocks the world. This was true of India in 1974 and Pakistan in 1998. As well with China—an August 1964 National Intelligence Estimate of the chances of a Chinese nuclear detonation noted that a test site was being prepared at Lop Nor, and would be ready in two months. However, the CIA stated that the Chinese would not have the necessary fissionable material to finish a bomb, so they doubted anything would happen for the rest of the year. Sure enough, two months later, on October 16, 1964, the Chinese successfully tested a nuclear weapon. Something to keep in mind when the “lack of fissionable material” argument comes up with respect to Iran. [Emphasis Added]

We highlighted ElBaredei's stunningly short timeline in detail in a PrincipalAnalysis, The IAEA Tree That Fell and No One Heard, when it seemed no one else could be bothered. It remains significant.

Consider that December analysis in conjunction with James Robbins' latest. Today's Required Reading.

5 Comments

It's simply not easy to make predictions on nuclear weapon capabilities. There are many reasons, but primarily it comes down to trying to predict how quickly and easily Iran can solve certain difficult engineering and scientific problems. Despite what you may hear in the press, building large centrifuge cascades, processing the uranium to 90%+ U-235 and then building a working bomb is not easy if you've never done it before. We know from our experience and knowledge of other programs what technical hurdles the Iranians have yet to overcome. We make predictions based on assumptions about all these factors that are unknowable. No amount of intelligence can tell you if the Iranians will be able to put together a large cascade in a certain timeframe because not even the Iranians know how long it will take.

Then add in outside help into the mix. Had the AQ Khan network not sold Iran so many parts and technology, their program would still be in its infancy. It's possible Iran is still receiving some outside help, but we don't know for sure. If the Iranian's suddenly surge ahead, or easily overcome a difficult technical hurdle, then that may indicate they're getting assistance.

So, predicting the progress of a science and engineering program like the Iranian nuclear program is like predicting when we'll have a working ballistic missile defense system. It's ultimately unknowable, which explains the large disparity in predictions.

Absolutely correct, Andy.

But no matter the reason, the trend is clear, the CIA estimates have always (every time) been optimistic to the tune of years, without even adjustments at the brink of first revelation.

Sure it's hard. There is an undeniable trend and we should not rely on such estimates.

More importantly is the fact that when Russia or China or India or Pakistan developed nuclear weapons, we did not fear their immediate use and, while embroiled in conflicts of their own, none made persistent and direct calls for the destruction of another nation/state.

It was one thing to be wrong on China.

It is quite another consequence to rely upon historically underestimated capabilities when it comes to Iran.

Iran is different in nearly every aspect and we had better be safe rather than sorry.

Again, agreeing with you fully on practicalities, that is my only point.

I agree with your comment, but have a couple of points to add:

The NIE is a consensus document. The CIA takes the lead, but the real nuclear expertise lies with DOE and DTRA. It's hard to know from the NIE where each agency falls in regard to timelines.

2nd, you're right, Iran is different. But when talking about going to war with Iran in regard to its nuclear program, we can't assume a short timeframe or a long timeframe - we need a definitive answer. Going to war based on a worst-case scenario is fraught with danger. And, after Iraq, the public will not support military action unless there is solid proof, which is why we are in such a bind.

BTW, love the site - you guys really produce a lot of good stuff.

Again, Andy, Right on the money. Thanks for adding valuable context and turning a post into a conversation. Thank you also for the kind words on the site. It's a workload to be sure, but a labor of love and passion. I was just today grumbling that paying my mortgage was seriously interfering with my 'real' job and the study, research and writing that it entails. So your gracious words come at a perfect time. Thanks again. We appreciate it.

With regards to knowing where any particular agency falls, even then, on a more localized level, it is consensus with differing views within any given 'desk' and with those surrounding.

But you are right to mention one thing for certain: We don't know.

I'll pick a minor bone with your last on Iran:

"But when talking about going to war with Iran in regard to its nuclear program, we can’t assume a short timeframe or a long timeframe - we need a definitive answer."

Unfortunately, we will never have a 'definitive answer' until we or trusted eyes are within the various facilities and agencies poring through equipment and documentation.

We will inevitably have to make a judgement call. The call on whether or not they are developing nuclear weapons is, in my view, academic and a settled issue in my mind and in the mind of the majority across the planet.

Teh differences among us lie in whether-

A.) A nuclear-armed Iran is a good or a bad development for the various actors (re: Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, etc.)

B.) If a bad thing, is it bad enough to sanction them economically.

C.) If a bad thing, is it bad enough to go to war over (or endure an American war over).

D.) If a bad thing, is it worse than disrupted oil flow from the region and/or Iran making good on threats to toast the region with terrorism and missile attacks.

Personally, I have significant (understatement) issues with John McCain. However, I wholeheartedly agree with his statement regarding Iran.

"The only thing worse than a war with Iran is a nuclear armed Iran."

I agree because war with Iran under its current regime is inevitable (not just with Americans, but with Israel and Iran's neighbors -to the degree which they can wage it). Inevitable because they desire it.

It come down to a judgement of not whether or not Iran is seeking nukes, but how precisely to derail that incessant drive. They appear to want them so bad that no level of bribery via nuclear power plants & obscenely imbalanced economic incentives will deter them.

It very well may be a decision that befalls a Commander in Chief to either prosecute ugly warfare under our terms before nuclear arms can be constructed or wait comfortably until later and accept warfare on their terms with nuclear arms.

The current Iranian regime is not geopolitically logical, from a historical perspective.

It is a theocracy run by messianic zealots seeking to bring about the return of the 12th Imam.

That is why there is simply no price tag on their program. You cannot buy a prophet.

It is, at the end of the day, a Prophet which they seek.

We will have to live with the reality of information and judgment far, far short of definitive.

An important consideration, in my view, is the factional nature of the Iranian government. While the vocal figurehead, Ahmedinejad, certainly appears to have a messianic vision for Iran, it's not clear that his faction holds the power behind the throne. The Iranian presidency is an office without a lot of power - he's not the commander of the armed forces, he doesn't control the intelligence apparatus, and he can't declare war.

I think many in the west believe, because he's the "President," that he is the one in charge making policy - that's simply not the case. Khamenei is the real power in Iran, and it doesn't appear that he is a member of the Hojjatieh, though he is virulently anti-western and anti-Israeli. There are other factions in the government as well, though they were weakened in the purges that took place a few years ago.

I'm hopeful that something short of war with Iran or an Iran with nukes will come about. I feel that either prospect will lead to disaster for us. I think we need to exploit the many differences in the Iranian government and society to our ends and benefit. That’s the only real path I see out of this crisis, but it obviously will be very difficult.