ISIS Iran Report

Reading the Tea Leaves:  Obama Administration officials on Iran

February 14, 2009

There is a great deal of discussion about a perceived shift in Obama administration policy on Iran, captured best perhaps by this LATimes piece by Greg Miller.  Miller summarizes recent statements by President Obama, CIA Director Leon Panetta and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair on Iran noting that they all broadly acknowledge Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability.  The 2007 NIE, which has been exhaustively analyzed for its shortcomings (ex-CIA official Paul Pillar here describes the misunderstanding of the NIE as stemming “in large part from some infelicitous and misleading formulations in the estimate itself”) very narrowly defined the scope of its assessment on the issue of weaponization and not the broader nuclear fuel cycle, in particular enrichment.  Of course, the most important and difficult to achieve part of a nuclear weapon is the fissile material.  A close reading of the Blair statement (below are key excerpts) reflects the Obama Administration’s more nuanced assessment of Iran’s fuel cycle capabilities and how they contribute to a weapons capability.  At the same time, Blair does not suggest that there is any new intelligence indicating a decision to pursue weaponization, and notes that INR continues to believe Iran will not have sufficient uranium to produce HEU for a bomb until 2013.

“We assess Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons until fall 2003. Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision were made to do so.”

Iran continues its efforts to develop uranium enrichment technology, which can be used both to produce low-enriched uranium for power reactor fuel and to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.”

“We assess Iran since fall 2003 has conducted research and development projects with commercial and conventional military applications, some of which would be of limited use for nuclear weapons.”

We do not have sufficient intelligence reporting to judge confidently whether Tehran is willing to maintain indefinitely the halt of its previously enumerated nuclear weapons-related activities while it weighs its options, or whether it will or already has set specific deadlines or criteria that will prompt it to restart those activities.”

We assess Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons. In our judgment, 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.”

Iran made significant progress in 2007 and 2008 installing and operating centrifuges at its main centrifuge enrichment plant, Natanz. We judge Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame. INR judges Iran is unlikely to achieve this capability before 2013 because of foreseeable technical and programmatic problems.

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