Analysis: Iran's Nuclear Leap Forward

Anthony Cordesman is ABC News' military analyst and the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

He offered the following remarks about the developments in Iran.

• The IAEA found Iran had probably carried out test enrichments of uranium with its centrifuges long before this.

• A claim of 3.5% enrichment is not much of an achievement if true.

• There is no clear evidence that Iran has brought the limited 164 centrifuge chain at Natanz on-line in any kind of sustained operation. A one shot, limited output test has little meaning.

• These are old P-1 centrifuges. It takes thousands operating continuously for a year to have major output and 10,000s to get seriously into the weapons grade production.

Cordesman's detailed analysis of Iranian nuclear facilities follows.

The Problem of Uncertainty Versus Credibility

There is a long chain of indicators that Iran is proliferating. Iran's missile development problems only make sense if they are equipped with CBRN warheads. There have been numerous confirmed disclosures of suspect Iranian activity. Iranian nuclear program has been under intense scrutiny by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in recent years, and the IAEA reports disclose a pattern of activity that makes little sense unless it is tied to a nuclear weapons program.

Yet, the data on Iranian nuclear weapons efforts remain uncertain. The summary reporting by the IAEA has not stated that there is decisive evidence that Iran is seeking such weapons, although the detailed disclosures made in IAEA reporting since 2002, do strongly indicate that it is likely that Iran is continuing to covertly seek nuclear technology. Neither the U.S. nor its European allies have as yet released detailed white papers on their intelligence analysis of Iranian efforts, and there have been several press reports that U.S. intelligence feels that its knowledge of the Iranian nuclear program is less than adequate to make the case for where, when, and how the Iranians will acquire a nuclear weapon.[i]

Iran does have the right to acquire a full nuclear fuel cycle for peaceful purposes under the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty (NPT), and the Iranian government has been able to find ways to justify all of its activities to date as research, related to nuclear power, minor mistakes, or the result of importing contaminated equipment. It has claimed that its concealed and secret efforts are the result of its fears that the U.S. or Israel might attack what it claims are legitimate activities.

In fact, Iran may have advanced to the point where it can covertly develop nuclear weapons even if it agrees to the terms proposed by the EU3 and Russia, and appears to comply with IAEA inspection. As the U.N.'s experience in Iraq has shown all too clearly, there are severe limits to even the most advanced inspection regime. Iran might well be able to carry out a covert research and development effort, make major advances in weapons development, and improve its ability to produce fissile material. Iran might well acquire a "break out" capability to suddenly make weapons or be able to produce small numbers of weapons without detection.

At the same time, it is hard to discuss the case against Iran without raising questions about the mistakes the U.S. and the U.K. made in characterizing Iraq's efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. in particular, has problems in convincing the international community that Iran is a grave threat to global security. Credibility is a precious commodity, and one that can sometimes be worth more than gold.

The problems in addressing Iran's capabilities go beyond the ability to determine the facts. Since 2002, the Bush Administration and EU3 have consistently argued that the Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear weapons are real and that they must be stopped. The ability of the US, the IAEA, and the EU3 to halt the Iranian nuclear program is complicated, however, by the mistakes that the U.S. and Britain made in dealing with Iraq

It is also impossible to deny the fact that Iran is being judged by a different standard because its regime is associated with terrorism, efforts to export its Shi'ite revolution, and reckless political rhetoric. There is nothing wrong with a "dual standard." Nations that present exceptional risks require exceptional treatment. The fact remains, however, that Iran was under missile and chemical attack from Iraq, and seems to have revived its nuclear programs at a time that Iraq was already involved in a major effort to acquire biological and nuclear weapons. Iran has major neighbors -- India, Israel, and Pakistan -- that have already proliferated. It must deal with the presence of two outside nuclear powers: Russia near its northern border and the U.S. in the Gulf.

The situation is further confused by the fact there is an increasingly thin line between the technology needed to create a comprehensive nuclear fuel cycle for nuclear power generation and dual use technology that can be used to covertly develop nuclear weapons. A nation can be both excused and accused for the same actions. This can make it almost as difficult, if not impossible, to conclusively prove Iran's guilt as its innocence, particularly if its programs consist of a large number of small, dispersed efforts, and larger "dual-use" facilities.

Some efforts at proliferation have been called a "bomb in the basement" -- programs to create a convincing picture that a nation has a weapon without any open testing or formal declaration. Iran seems to be trying to develop a "bomb in a fog;" to keep its efforts both covert and confusing enough so that there will be no conclusive evidence that will catalyze the U.N. into cohesive and meaningful action or justify a U.S. response. Such a strategy must be made more overt in the long--run if it is to make Iran a credible nuclear power, but the long-run can easily stretch out for years; Iran can break up its efforts into smaller, research oriented programs or pause them; focus on dual-use nuclear efforts with a plausible rational; permit even intrusive inspection; and still move forward.

II. "Guesstimating" Iran's Nuclear Weapons Capabilities

There is more information available on Iran's nuclear programs than on its chemical and biological programs, but this scarcely eliminates major areas of uncertainty. Estimating Iranian nuclear capabilities is complicated by three key factors:

• First, the U.S., the E.U., and the U.N. all agree that Iran has the right to acquire a full nuclear fuel cycle for peaceful purposes under Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) but there is no clear way to distinguish many of the efforts needed to acquire a nuclear weapon from such "legitimate" activities or pure research.

• Second, Iran has never denied that it carries out a very diverse range of nuclear research efforts. In fact, it has openly claimed that it is pursuing nuclear technology and has a "national" right to get access to nuclear energy. This has given it a rationale for rejecting Russia's offer to provide Iran nuclear fuel without giving Tehran the technology and the expertise needed to use it for weaponization purposes, and the U.S. agrees with this position, and,

• Third, it has never been clear whether Iran does have a "military" nuclear program that is separate from its "civilian" nuclear research. America and French officials have argued that they believe that Iran's nuclear program would only make sense if it had military purposes. Both governments have yet to provide evidence to proof these claims.

If Iran is a proliferator, it has shown that it is a skilled one that is highly capable of hiding many aspects of its programs, send confusing and contradictory signals, exploiting both deception and the international inspection process, rapidly changing the character of given facilities, and pausing and retreating when this is expedient. It has also shown that denial can be a weapon, that consistently finding an alternative explanation for all its actions, including concealment and actions that are limited violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) can maintain some degree of "plausible deniability" for a long chain of ambiguous actions and events.

Problems in Analyzing Iran's WMD Program: A Case Study

Iran also presents major problems in intelligence collection and analysis. The details of U.S., British, and other intelligence efforts to cover Iran remain classified. At the same time, studies of U.S. and British intelligence failures in covering Iraq have provided considerable insights into the difficulties in covering a nation like Iran, and background discussions with intelligence analysts and users reveal the following general problems in analyzing the WMD threat:

• The uncertainties surrounding collection on virtually all proliferation and weapons of mass destruction programs are so great that it is impossible to produce meaningful point estimates. As the CIA has shown in some of its past public estimates of missile proliferation, the intelligence community must first develop a matrix of what is and is not known about a given aspect of proliferation in a given country, with careful footnoting or qualification of the problems in each key source. It must then deal with uncertainty by creating estimates that show a range of possible current and projected capabilities—carefully qualifying each case. In general, at least three scenarios or cases need to be analyzed for each major aspect of proliferation in each country--something approaching a "best," "most likely," and "worst case."[ii]

• Even under these conditions, the resulting analytic effort faces serious problems. Security compartmentation within each major aspect of collection and analysis severely limits the flow of data to working analysts. The expansion of analytic staffs has sharply increased the barriers to the flow of data, and has brought large number of junior analysts into the process that can do little more than update past analyses and judgments. Far too little analysis is subjected to technical review by those who have actually worked on weapons development, and the analysis of delivery programs, warheads and weapons, and chemical, biological, and nuclear proliferation tends to be compartmented. Instead of the free flow of data and exchange of analytic conclusions, or "fusion" of intelligence, analysis is "stovepiped" into separate areas of activity. Moreover, the larger staffs get, the more stovepiping tends to occur.

• Analysis tends to focus on technical capability and not on the problems in management and systems integration that often are the real world limiting factors in proliferation. This tends to push analysis towards exaggerating the probable level of proliferation, particularly because technical capability is often assumed if collection cannot provide all the necessary information.

• Where data are available on past holdings of weapons and the capability to produce such weapons -- such as data on chemical weapons feedstocks and biological growth material -- the intelligence effort tends to produce estimates of the maximum size of the possible current holding of weapons and WMD materials. While ranges are often shown, and estimates are usually qualified with uncertainty, this tends to focus users on the worst case in terms of actual current capability. In the case of Iraq, this was compounded by some 12 years of constant lies and a disbelief that a dictatorship obsessed with record keeping could not have records if it had destroyed weapons and materials. The end result, however, was to assume that little or no destruction had occurred whenever UNSCOM, UNMOVIC, and the IAEA reported that major issues still affected Iraqi claims.

• Intelligence analysis has long been oriented more towards arms control and counterproliferation rather than war fighting, although DIA and the military services have attempted to shift the focus of analysis. Dealing with broad national trends and assuming capability is not generally a major problem in seeking to push nations towards obeying arms control agreements, or in pressuring possible suppliers. It also is not a major problem in analyzing broad military counterproliferation risks and programs. The situation is very different in dealing with war fighting choices, particularly issues like preemption and targeting. Assumptions of capability can lead to preemption that is not necessary, overtargeting, inability to prioritize, and a failure to create the detailed collection and analysis necessary to support warfighters down to the battalion level. This, in turn, often forces field commanders to rely on field teams with limit capability and expertise, and to overreact to any potential threat or warning indicator.

• The intelligence community does bring outside experts into the process, but often simply to provide advice in general terms rather than cleared review of the intelligence product. The result is often less than helpful. The use of other cleared personnel in U.S. laboratories and other areas of expertise is inadequate and often presents major problems because those consulted are not brought fully into the intelligence analysis process and given all of the necessary data.

• The intelligence community does tend to try to avoiding explicit statements of the short comings in collection and methods in much of its analysis and to repeat past agreed judgments on a lowest common denominator level--particularly in the form of the intelligence products that get broad circulation to consumers. Attempts at independent outside analysis or "B-Teams," however, are not subject to the review and controls enforced on intelligence analysis, and the teams, collection data, and methods used are generally selection to prove given points rather than provide an objective counterpoint to finished analysis.[iii]

Few of these problems have been explicitly addressed in open source reporting on Iran, and it is uncertain from the reporting on past intelligence failures in the intelligence analysis of Iraq before the 2003 invasion that the intelligence community has covered them at the classified level.

Part of the problem lies with the user. Policy--level and other senior users of intelligence tend to be intolerant of analysis that consists of a wide range of qualifications and uncertainties even at the best of times and the best of times do not exist when urgent policy and warfighting decisions need to be made. Users inevitably either force the intelligence process to reach something approaching a definitive set of conclusions, or else they make such estimates themselves.

Intelligence analysts and managers are all too aware of this fact. Experience has taught them that complex intelligence analysis--filled with alternative cases, probability estimates, and qualifications about uncertainty--generally go unused or make policy makers and commanders impatient with the entire intelligence process. In the real world, hard choices have to be made to provide an estimate that can actually be used and acted upon, and these choices must either by the intelligence community or by the user.[iv]

Uncertainty and Credibility of Sources

If one looks at other sources of reporting on Iran, there have been many claims from many corners. First, from opposition groups that are largely associated with Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK). Their information has proved to be useful at times, yet some of the data they provided has been "too good to be true." The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) revelations about Iran's secret nuclear program did prove to be the trigger point in inviting the IAEA into Tehran for inspections, but their claims about "5,000 centrifuges" were seen by many as an exaggeration or at least an unconfirmed allegation.[v]

The source of such claims must be taken into account. As noted earlier, Mr. Alireza Jafarzadeh is the former president of NCRI, which is associated with MEK--an organization that is considered by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization. Its motives are well known, and its information must be considered with a certain level of skepticism. As a former CIA counterintelligence official said "I would take anything from them with a grain of salt."[vi]

NCRI claimed that it relied on human sources, including scientists and civilians working in the facilities or locals who live near the sites. In addition, the NCRI claimed at times that their sources are inside the Iranian regime, and added that "Our sources were 100 percent sure about their intelligence."[vii] The NCRI did not provide any confirmation about their sources, and their information is considered by some in the U.S. and European governments as less than credible. Another example was NCRI's claim in September 2004 that Tehran allocated $16 billion to building a nuclear bomb by mid 2005. This again was proven inaccurate.[viii]

Second, U.S. officials have cited "walk in" sources to prove the existence of an Iranian nuclear program. It is unclear who those sources are, but the U.S. insisted that they were not associated with the NCRI. In November 2004, U.S. officials claimed that a source provided U.S. intelligence with more than 1,000 pages worth of technical documents on Iranian "nuclear warhead design" and missile modifications to deliver an atomic warhead. In addition, it was reported that the documents also included "specific" warhead design based on implosion and adjustments, which was thought to be an attempt at fitting a warhead to Iranian ballistic missiles.[ix]

According to the Washington Post, the "walk--in" source that provided the documents was not previously known to U.S. intelligence. In addition, it was not clear if this source was connected to an exile group. The same source was, apparently, the basis for the comments by then Secretary of State, Colin Powell, on November 17, 2004 when he said "I have seen some information that would suggest that they have been actively working on delivery systems... You don't have a weapon until you put it in something that can deliver a weapon... I'm not talking about uranium or fissile material or the warhead; I'm talking about what one does with a warhead."[x]

Press reports indicate that "walk--in" documents came from one source and were without independent verifications. The uncertainty about this source, reportedly, stopped many in the U.S. government from using the information, and some expressed their surprise when Secretary Powell expressed confidence in the information provided. Some saw it as reminder of the problems in his presentation to the U.N. regarding Iraqi WMDs, and hoped that he had not made those remarks before they were confirmed. Some U.S. officials even went as far as saying that Powell "misspoke" when he was talking about the information.[xi]

Other U.S. officials described the intelligence as "weak."[xii] Other press reports claimed that the source, who was "solicited with German help," provided valuable intelligence that referred to a "black box," which U.S. officials claim was a metaphor to refer to nuclear warhead design. One U.S. official was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying the documents represented "nearly a smoking gun," yet the same official claimed that this was not a definitive proof.[xiii]

Third, there are sources within Iran that have cooperated with the IAEA. According to IAEA reports, Iranian nuclear scientists were interviewed on specific questions. For example, in November 2003, the Agency requested clarification on the bismuth irradiation. The IAEA reported that in January 2004, it "was able to interview two Iranian scientists involved in the bismuth irradiation. According to the scientists, two bismuth targets had been irradiated, and an attempt had been made, unsuccessfully, to extract polonium from one of them."[xiv]

The credibility of these scientists depend on how much freedom they have to talk about specific issues, their level of involvement, and the nature of the questions posed to them. The nature of access and the type of information provided to the IAEA by Iranian scientists remain uncertain.

Fourth, independent intelligence gathered by the U.S., the E.U., and regional powers have no obvious substitute. The IAEA and the U.N. do not have their own intelligence and have to rely on member states to provide them with the necessary information. These include satellite images, electronic intercepts, human intelligence, and various forms of information gathering and intelligence analysis. The history of the U.S. and U.K. intelligence provided to U.N. inspectors in Iraq, however, showed the limited ability of many intelligent agencies to get a full picture of a country's nuclear, biological, chemical, and missile programs.

Key Uncertainties in Iran's Nuclear Developments

While Iran and Iraq are very different cases, much the same level of uncertainty exists. Almost no one believes that Iran has nuclear weapons, is so close to acquiring them, or presents a time-urgent threat. Many believe, however, that it is a matter of when rather than if before Tehran acquires nuclear weapons. That is once Iran gets the capability to produce the materials necessary to producing a nuclear cycle; Iran would acquire the capabilities to produce a full nuclear weapons.

The previous history has also revealed to acquire nuclear technology long before the 1979 revolution. It is also clear from IAEA discoveries that Iran has pursues two key tracks: uranium enrichment and production of plutonium.[xv] Both of these tracks can produce the materials that can be used for nuclear reactors and for nuclear weapons. The IAEA, however, does not believe that Iran has yet been successful in achieving either goal. Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the IAEA, was quoted as saying "To develop a nuclear weapon, you need a significant quantity of highly enriched uranium or plutonium, and no one has seen that in Iran."[xvi]

Plutonium Production

Tehran has given them enough importance to take two different tracks to achieve the capacity to produce plutonium. First, it is building heavy-water production plants, which U.S. officials claim that their only purpose is to supply heavy water that is optimal for producing weapons grade plutonium. The Iranian government, on the other hand, has claimed that their purpose is for isotope production for its civilian nuclear energy program.[xvii]

The second track followed the production of light-water power reactors. The main reactor is at Bushehr, which is designed to produce civilian nuclear technology. Bushehr is also the reactor that Russia agreed to supply its fuel and recover the spent fuel from the reactor. The U.S. Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security, John, R. Bolton, claimed that Bushehr would produce enough plutonium per year to manufacture nearly 30 nuclear weapons.[xviii]

The following chronology by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) shows the history of Iran's plutonium separation experiments:[xix]

• 1987-1988: The separation process was simulated using imported unirradiated UO2 (DU); dissolution and purification took place in the Shariaty Building at TNRC; pressed and sintered pellets were manufactured using imported UO2 (DU) at FFL; the UO2 pellets were further manipulated into aluminum and stainless steel capsules at FFL

• 1988-1993: The capsules (containing a total of 7 kg of UO2 in the form of powder, pressed pellets and sintered pellets) were irradiated in TRR

• 1991-1993: Plutonium was separated from some of the irradiated UO2 targets in the capsules (about 3 kg of the 7 kg of UO2) and plutonium solutions produced; these activities were carried out at the Shariaty Building and, after the activities were transferred in October/November 1992, at the Chamaran Building at TNRC; the research and development related irradiation and separation of plutonium were terminated in 1993

• 1993-1994: The unprocessed irradiated UO2 was initially stored in capsules in the spent fuel pond of TRR, and later transferred into four containers and buried behind the Chamaran Building

• 1995: In July, purification of the plutonium solution from the 1988--1993 period was carried out in the Chamaran Building; a planchet (disk) was prepared from the solution for analysis

• 1998: In August, additional purification of plutonium from the 1988–1993 period was carried out in the Chamaran Building; another planchet (disk) was prepared from the solution for analysis

• 2000: The glove boxes from the Chamaran Building were dismantled and sent to ENTC for storage; one glove box was moved to the Molybdenum Iodine Xenon Facility

• 2003: Due to construction work being carried out behind the Chamaran building, two containers holding the unprocessed irradiated UO2 were dug up, moved and reburied

In September 2005, the IAEA analysis of Iran's plutonium separation experiments concluded that the solutions that were tested were 12-16 years old, which seemed to corroborate Iran's claims. In addition, the IAEA carried out verification tests for unprocessed irradiated UO2 targets stored in four containers, and these results also conformed to Iranian claims, although the IAEA argued that the number of targets provided by Iran was much lower than the actual ones. The IAEA reported in September 2005 that, "A final assessment of Iran's plutonium research activities must await the results of the destructive analysis of the disks and targets."[xx]

For the footnotes for this article, click here.