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Has the US intelligence community misread Iran’s nuclear program?

U.S. President Donald Trump seems to think so, as do certain longtime analysts.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats (center) and CIA director Gina Haspel (left) speak to Congress on their assessment of worldwide threats. Credit: Office of the National Intelligence.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats (center) and CIA director Gina Haspel (left) speak to Congress on their assessment of worldwide threats. Credit: Office of the National Intelligence.

U.S. President Donald Trump clashed with the intelligence community last week over the threats posed by Iran and North Korea, a position that has some U.S. and Israeli experts nodding in agreement.

Former weapons’ inspector David Albright, founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told JNS that the U.S. intelligence community in essence told us that “Iran does not have a structured nuclear-weapons program—something we all know.”

However, he said, the intelligence community “punted on the more important questions of whether Iran is preserving capabilities to make nuclear weapons, e.g., the Atomic Archive, or working on certain activities to overcome bottlenecks in their nuclear-weapons program.”

Trump criticized the U.S. intelligence community in a Jan. 30 Tweet: “The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong!” He also stated, “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”

This was after the heads of the U.S. intelligence community told the Senate that the threat from North Korea is unlikely to be resolved, and that Iran was acting according to the nuclear deal, positions that contradict Trump’s view, reported Reuters.

Emily Landau, director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, told JNS that on Iran, the assessment’s key sentence—“We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device”—is laconic, misleading and missing key information.

First, what does it mean that Iran is not working on “key nuclear weapons-development activities?” asked Landau rhetorically.

“It is indeed working on advanced centrifuge R&D under the terms of the deal,” she said. “Moreover, it is testing missiles that can carry nuclear warheads.”

“Both activities are key to having a nuclear-weapons capability, and Iran can work on them without violating the JCPOA,” she pointed out.

Interestingly enough, Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi recently admitted what Iran did regarding the Arak facility—that they poured cement into certain tubes while not disclosing the existence of other tubes they had already purchased.

Second, continued Landau, “what about all the information contained in the Iran nuclear archives that the IAEA has not even begun to check through inspections? How can the assessment be so sure about its conclusions when this information is not taken into account?”

“Finally, while the assessment does not say so explicitly, it implies, especially when taken together with its 2018 assessment, that if Iran is more or less upholding the terms of the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], then the Iran nuclear threat has been dealt with effectively.”

But compliance with the JCPOA is not the barometer for assessing Iranian intentions or ambitions, she added. Indeed, the reason that Iran has an interest in sticking to the deal is because it has major benefits for the regime, such as: “It gives Iran significant sanctions relief in return for minimal nuclear concessions.”

In other words, it enables Iran to keep its nuclear infrastructure, which is in line with its continued nuclear ambitions.

Nuances between North Korean and Iranian nuclear ambitions

On North Korea, the assessment notes all of the steps that have been taken over the past year in the direction of reducing tensions regarding its nuclear program, but then concludes that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons, which it deems essential for regime survival.

“It is true that North Korea will most likely not give up the capabilities that it paid such a high price to secure,” predicted Landau.

Still, regarding North Korea, even though steps have been taken, explained the Israeli expert, “they are brushed aside because of continued nuclear ambitions. But for Iran, which clearly continues to harbor nuclear ambitions, the assessment regards compliance with the terms of the JCPOA as evidence of lack of nuclear ambitions.”

These are very problematic conclusions—both for not recognizing the danger that Iran continues to pose in the nuclear realm and not giving enough credit to the significant reduction in American-North Korean tensions over the past year.

Albright said that “the archive makes clear Iran intended to continue its nuclear-weapons program after ending the AMAD program [that attempted to build nuclear warheads] in 2003.”

He went on to ask: “What does the Intelligence community think of that? How does it know that certain activities do not continue today, particularly given the IAEA has not visited many of the sites mentioned in the archives?”

A report by the Institute for Science and International Security in October 2018 and authored by Albright, Olli Heinonen and Andrea Stricker, stated the new documentation seized covertly by Israel from Iran’s nuclear archive “shows that in mid-2003, Iran was making decisions about how to decentralize and disperse the elements of its nuclear weaponization program, the AMAD program and its subsidiary Project 110, which included nuclear-warhead development.

“The archive documentation shows that rather than halting its nuclear weaponization work, Iran was carrying out an elaborate effort to break the AMAD program into covert and overt parts, where the overt parts would be centered at research institutes and universities, and any effort that could not be plausibly denied as civilian in nature was left as a covert activity,” the report continued.

So, posed Albright, how does the intelligence community “view Iran’s ongoing development of missiles that would be capable of delivering nuclear weapons? Several pieces of the assessment puzzle just weren’t there.”

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