The American intelligence threat assessment on Iran’s nuclear program

The U.S. intel report notwithstanding, are we supposed to believe that the Iranians aren’t working on key activities regarding the development of a nuclear device? Can we seriously accept that?

Dan Coats , U.S. director of national intelligence, testifies in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee about Iranian nuclear activity, Jan. 29, 2019.
Dan Coats , U.S. director of national intelligence, testifies in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee about Iranian nuclear activity, Jan. 29, 2019.
Yossi Kuperwasser
IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He formerly served as director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the research division of IDF Military Intelligence.

When presenting the American Intelligence Community annual threat assessment to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Jan. 29, Dan Coats, director of National Intelligence, referred to Iran’s nuclear program. Some of his statements are common knowledge, one sentence caused a sharp reaction from U.S. President Donald Trump, and some statements were controversial.

There were also many omissions that raise the question of why those issues were not mentioned, and on the whole, his remarks were vague regarding the overall situation. Many pundits have already addressed this presentation, but I will add additional perspective to what was said and what was not said by the DNI and discuss briefly the relations between the Intelligence Community and the decision-makers in this context.

First, let us address the disputed reference to the question of whether Iran is making progress in developing a nuclear device. Coats said:

While we do not believe Iran is currently undertaking the key activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device, Iranian officials have publicly threatened to push the boundaries of JCPOA restrictions if Iran does not gain the tangible financial benefits it expected from the deal.

Seven times in the director’s prepared remarks regarding North Korea, Turkey, Afghanistan, Mexico, Russia, Syria and ISIS, he used the irrefutable and conclusive statement: “We assess.” In his analysis of Iranian key activities, he used the indecisive and weak word “we believe,” which was only used in this one case. Coats did not explain what those key (the emphasis appears in Coats’s testimony) activities are or whether Iran is involved in other activities that are not considered key activities by the Intelligence Community (IC).

This parsing of the words “assess/believe” suggests that the basis of the IC information is poor and does not enable the IC to be more affirmative and conclusive about this crucial matter. Experience helps us realize that the American Intelligence Community has a very problematic track record in revealing on time nuclear weaponization efforts of many countries (e.g., North Korea, India, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq) including Iran itself, so one has to be very humble about this kind of assessment.

Indeed, it seems that U.S. intelligence knew very little about the Parchin complex, where Iran had conducted much of its efforts to gain critical knowledge about a nuclear device. Several of the facilities were discovered only via the information acquired from its nuclear archive, which most probably also included precious knowledge about the progress Iran managed to accomplish there by 2003.

Moreover, the IAEA inspection system irresponsibly approved by the American IC as part of the JCPOA provides the inspectors with zero ability to track and monitor the activities of the Iranian experts who are supposed to conduct the key activities, most of which can be performed in well-hidden facilities in Iran or, for example, in Syria.

‘We believe’ doesn’t cut it

In other words, this indecisive “we believe” seems to be based on lack of knowledge and not on the actual knowledge that such activities do not take place. The ability to say that the activities do not happen requires much better access than simply not knowing about their existence.

As a professional intelligence expert, I am really puzzled with the terminology used by the IC and the DNI. I hope that in the secret briefing this issue was clarified. The classified briefing may also include some uncertainties about this assessment and refer to different opinions within the IC that are lacking from the version presented in the open session.

It may be that this “belief vs. assess” is based on the assumption that for now, Iran abides by the JCPOA. Of course, they do, because even without the American contribution after the United States withdrew from the deal, this dangerous agreement—that the U.S. IC helped forge and approved—is the best thing that ever happened to the Mullahs’ regime. The JCPOA secures Iran’s path to a large arsenal of nuclear weapons in 12 years—a path that was blocked before the agreement.

So why would the Iranians threaten the deal at this early stage? This could be a reasonable assumption, but it has to be proven right, especially as all the other indications, including those mentioned in the IC report, indicate that Iran is preparing itself to leave the agreement at any given time, and uses for that purpose the huge holes left in the agreement by the American IC at the time.

The Iranians are working hard on all of the elements that are not part of the development of the device itself. They declared progress in processing raw uranium to yellow cake (U3O8), converting the yellow cake to Uranium Hexafluoride (UF6) in the Uranium Conversion Facility in Isfahan, developing advanced IR-8 centrifuges, and keeping IR-1 and IR-2 centrifuges ready to be reassembled in Natanz in a way that will enable them to produce the amount of fissile material they need for the first nuclear bomb within a few months. (The period required for producing this amount of highly enriched uranium is definitely much less than the one year the American IC report wrongly claims.)

They also admitted that they did not fill with cement the core of their heavy water reactor in Arak. Iranian leaders also boasted of moving forward with the development of the long-range missiles that are supposed to carry the nuclear warheads.

The Iranians also tried to hide the archive with all their relevant knowledge, kept the extremely well-protected facility in Fordow operational and bought advanced air-defense systems from Russia to protect their nuclear facilities. We know all that information on Iranian actions not from secret sources (except the archive, which was a secret up to a certain point). Yet we are supposed to believe that the Iranians are not working on key activities regarding the development of a nuclear device. Can we seriously accept that?

Wouldn’t it be more correct to say that the IC does not have real positive evidence that Iran carries out key activities necessary to produce a nuclear device, but in light of everything else the Iranians are doing, the IC cannot rule out the option that they do?

The IC threat assessment refrains from discussing quite a few “What Ifs” that may be relevant in the next year due to growing internal Iranian pressures (for example an Iranian decision to withdraw from the JCPOA or wide unrest in Iran with many casualties). But the most brow-raising omission in the report is that it ignores the Mossad’s massive intelligence haul of data from the Iranian nuclear archive in Tehran and the implications of this development.

The DNI report does mention some of the more important Iranian declarations regarding the nuclear program, but omits others. It refrains from presenting the inevitable conclusion that while Iran breached the JCPOA only marginally, it continues to develop the capabilities to produce a nuclear weapons arsenal using the weaknesses of the deal. Moreover, in sheer contradiction to its commitment to the agreement and the spirit of the deal, Iran remains determined and adamant to produce an arsenal of nuclear weapons as a tool to spread its ideology and hegemony in the Middle East and beyond (and not just to protect itself as the IC report alleges).

It is no wonder that President Trump took the liberty of criticizing the IC assessment. It may well be the case that he has a better understanding of the situation. Decision-makers should listen to intelligence briefings, but they do not have to adopt them. Definitely in a case where the IC has such a problematic record and where it was involved in the original sin—the JCPOA, when it provided to the previous U.S. administration the kosher stamp on this unworthy and dangerous deal.

Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center. He formerly served as director general of the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the research division of IDF Military Intelligence.

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1. Dan Coats, DNI, testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Jan. 29, 2019.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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