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July 14, 2010

When is a Nuclear Program Not a Nuclear Program? (UPDATE)

It should come as no surprise that, when dealing with a topic like nuclear weapons and Iran, there’s just a lot of wrong information out there. For example: take this Council on Foreign Relations overview of the Feb 18, 2010 IAEA report on Iran’s safeguards. These IAEA reports are pretty routine, and CFR is a renowned organization — and yet, from the CFR Essential Documents series:

The February 18, 2010 update of this IAEA document on Iranian nuclear activities reports that Iran has completed uranium enrichment to 20 percent, and that the country continued nuclear weapons involvement beyond 2004, in contrast to U.S. intelligence assessments that Iran had halted weapons activity in 2003 and had not begun anew.

The report simply doesn’t say that. From Section 43:

The Agency would also like to discuss with Iran: the project and management structure of alleged activities related to nuclear explosives; nuclear related safety arrangements for a number of the alleged projects; details relating to the manufacture of components for high explosives initiation systems; and experiments concerning the generation and detection of neutrons. Addressing these issues is important for clarifying the Agency’s concerns about these activities and those described above, which seem to have continued beyond 2004.

The Agency does not say Iran sought to build a weapon beyond 2004. It says that Iran’s lack of cooperation with inspectors makes them unable to verify that the ongoing activities are purely civilian in nature. Without greater cooperation, the Agency says, it is unable to declare the absence of a weapons program. (To say nothing of how hard it is to prove a negative).
One of the most fundamental yet often misunderstood facts about Iran’s nuclear program is this: developing nuclear technology is not the same as developing nuclear weapons. True, progress on a civilian nuclear program — up to a certain point — also brings you closer to a weapon. But CFR here makes the same mistake that policymakers continue to make day in and day out: the fact that Iran’s nuclear activities have continued does not negate the conclusions of the 2007 NIE.
The NIE judged with high confidence that in the Fall of 2003, Iran halted its active pursuit of nuclear weapons. Since that time, Iran’s nuclear program has continued, without an explicit decision to build a bomb. Does that mean that, since 2004, Iran has moved closer to a nuclear weapons capability? Yes. [I would argue, in fact, that Iran has had a nuclear weapons “capability” for some time, having mastered the process of enrichment, having the necessary materials available in large enough quantities, and having bomb designs readily available on the Internet. After that, all it takes is time and the decision to actually build the thing.]
To hear some policymakers talk about it, the 2007 NIE has been thoroughly discredited, yet that just proves how politics can so warp the conventional wisdom on an issue like this. In this case, politics prevailed in reinterpreting the written text of the NIE, which clearly defined “nuclear weapons program” as “Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.”
So there you have it. The NIE said Iran chose to stop pursuing a bomb in 2003, though not to stop its program entirely. The February IAEA report said Iran has not answered the Agency’s questions about certain activities, but it clearly stopped short of CFR’s overhyped conclusion.
Update: A reader writes to say that the IAEA report does in fact indicate an ongoing weapons program after 2004, pointing to the list of alleged activities that “seem to have continued beyond 2004.”  Apparently — as was my point in writing this post — two people can read the same document and draw widely divergent conclusions.
When the IAEA refers to “alleged activities,” it is talking about activities for which it has received some amount of evidence, but about which Iran has not provided enough information for the Agency to form a definitive conclusion.  Thus the use of the word “alleged.” And that, as I said originally, is the core problem with Iran’s nuclear program: there’s just not enough information.  Iran is not cooperating with the IAEA sufficiently to address all outstanding concerns, which breeds a never-ending amount of suspicion about their activities.
Does that mean the IAEA has some evidence to indicate weaponization work continued after 2004?  Yes.  But that evidence is not of sufficient quality, legitimacy or reliability to make an explicit declaration akin to the one CFR made.  (see here for further discussion of the “alleged studies,” and the man behind the intel, Olli Heinonen).  In fact, the US intelligence community  probably also has evidence of weaponization work after 2004, yet has judged that information not reliable or definitive enough to overturn the conclusions of the NIE — which again, was precisely my point.
These issues cannot be simplified based on a cursory reading of one paragraph of a report.  They’re much too complex for that.

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