Tel Aviv Notes No. 143 August 8, 2005
Intelligence Assessment and the Point of No Return:
Iran's Nuclear Program
Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies
According to an August 2 report in The Washington Post, a recent US
intelligence review has projected that Iran is about a decade away from
manufacturing the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon, roughly doubling the
previous estimate of five years, according to government sources with
firsthand knowledge of the new analysis. If the report is accurate, then
some time in the not-too-distant future, there will probably be a
Congressional hearing involving something like the following exchange:
Question: How long does it take for a country to build a military uranium
enrichment capability from scratch?
Answer: About ten years.
Question: Was Iran at square one when the intelligence estimate was
Answer: No. According to its own admissions and statements and IAEA
verification findings, it was much more advanced than that.
Question: How come, then, that the US intelligence estimate projected that
"Iran is about a decade away from manufacturing the key ingredient for a
Intelligence assessments of covert unconventional weapons production
programs are notoriously problematic, and recent experience with Iraq
inevitably prompts analysts to be even more cautious than before.
Nevertheless, the known facts of Iran's program, as reported by both the
IAEA and Iran itself, suggest that Iran is much less than ten years' away
from a military nuclear capability.
Analyses of the time-frame of any weapons program depend on technical
information and knowledge about the intentions of the country's leaders. In
this case, at least the technical question is fairly easy to address. Iran
is in the midst of a major project to establish a uranium enrichment
capability. The nuclear weapons plutonium production route is not being
considered here since it is longer, more complicated and probably more
vulnerable to outside disruption. But the Iranians have already made major
breakthroughs in the enrichment process; they have constructed and operated
a Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) and produced the first quantities of
feed stocks for the next stage of the project, the gas centrifuge enrichment
The Iranians have also illicitly obtained the centrifuge technology and have
manufactured, assembled and tested centrifuges at a concealed facility. By
their own admission, they have managed to enrich some quantities to low
levels. What remains is for them to assemble, test and run a few thousand
centrifuges with the feed stocks produced at the UCF. Should they choose to
do so, the Iranians could use the large underground facility at Natanz,
which is probably almost complete and will be ready in the near future to
host the relatively small number of centrifuges needed (the facility can
hold about fifty thousand machines). Once the machines are installed and
run-in, it is a matter of months, not years, before Iran could have the
necessary quantity of military-grade enriched uranium for its first nuclear
Thus, if Iran decides to withdraw from all existing agreements and
obligations, it could arrive at its destination within 2-4 years, assuming
that there is no outside interference with the program.
There are several ways that this process could be delayed. There could be
local technical problems or international interference with the procurement
of essential materials and equipment. Other delays could be induced by
international political and economical pressure; suspension of work in
response to international pressure has thus far been the most effective
cause of delay. But there are many unknowns in this equation. It is not
clear that a universal embargo on supplies for Iran's nuclear program can be
adopted and strictly enforced. And even if sanctions were approved by the
Security Council, it is not clear that they would have the desired effect,
because Iran may already have passed the stage of dependence on any foreign
That raises the possibility that the situation has gone beyond the "point of
no return," a term ordinarily used to imply that enough progress has already
been achieved to preclude the possibility of outsiders being able any longer
to stop the Iranians from achieving their goal of building nuclear weapons.
In fact, the history of military nuclear development shows that such a point
does not exist, because leaders' intentions are at least as important a
variable. Many states have stopped their nuclear development while the
program was still in its early stages. At the other extreme, South Africa
had already produced nuclear weapons and then decided to dismantle them.
The motivations for arresting or reversing weapons development programs have
ranged from realization that nuclear weapons were irrelevant to real
security needs to the fear that they could fall into the hands of
But whatever Iran might ultimately choose to do, it will quite clearly not
have to wait ten years in order to decide. That time-frame can only be
sustained by "creative analysis" and reliance on "alternative theories"
about known behavior (of the type usually supplied by defense attorneys)
whose plausibility depends entirely on acceptance of Iranian explanations of
past and current deeds and misdeeds. There are many telltale signs, from
missile development to the development of neutron initiators for nuclear
devices, which all point in the direction of a weapons program. Therefore,
according to the IAEA, the burden of proof for any other explanation of
Iranian activities now falls squarely on Iran.
It is entirely possible that the latest Iran estimate by the US was
influenced by the backlash against the Iraq WMD intelligence failure.
Moreover, such "optimistic" intelligence estimates about Iran lead to
strategic scenarios that relieve western policy-makers of the need to take
difficult decisions in the near term. "There is time," many will say, and
that will reduce the international pressure on Iran. But reducing the
pressure will only accelerate Iran's nuclear development, because it will
remove the last obstacle for a leadership bent on pushing ahead. And if the
more realistic assessment turns out to be correct, the consequences of this
intelligence failure could be at least as bad as those of the last one.
Tel Aviv Notes is published by
TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY
The Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies www.tau.ac.il/jcss/
& The Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies
through the generosity of Sari and Israel Roizman, Philadelphia
KEYWORDS: Iran, WMD