Intelligence and the Iranian nuclear program
Feb 14, 2014
February 14, 2014
Number 02/14 #02
With nuclear talks between Iran and the “P5+1” (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) set to resume next week, and Iran provocatively testing ballistic missiles in the meantime, this Update deals with verification concerns that are likely to plague the current 6-month interim nuclear deal and any final agreement eventually reached.
It leads off with national security expert Gabriel Schoenfeld raising questions about President Obama’s pledge to use diplomacy to seek a “a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful.” Shoenfeld notes that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other senior intelligence officials have essentially conceded that there is absolutely no guarantee that they can detect a covert nuclear bomb-building effort and that the problem of detecting one would be particularly acute in a huge country like Iran, even if inspectors were able to operate freely. For Schoenfeld’s knowledgeable analysis of why inspections and intelligence are not a reliable way to guarantee Iran will not build a nuclear weapon, CLICK HERE.
Making a similar point is Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, who builds his argument around a new report done by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board. This report not only says the ability of intelligence services to detect a nuclear breakout are not good, but suggests they are likely to deteriorate sharply in coming years, because “pathways to proliferation are expanding.” For Stephens’ discussion in full, CLICK HERE.
Finally, we bring you a good analysis of the state of play and balance of incentives before the next round of nuclear talks by Israeli proliferation expert Emily Landau. Landau argues that in a variety of ways Iran is strengthening its negotiating hand – by defining any talk of future sanctions in the event of failure as an immediate dealbreaker, through imposing its own definitions on the terms of the the interim agreement, through the weakening of sanctions, and through repeated unchallenged public announcements that there will be no Iranian compromises on key issues essential for a final agreement. For her complete argument, CLICK HERE. Landau also recently published, together with fellow proliferation expert Ephraim Asculai, a more technical discussion of the problems of implementing the terms of the interim deal. Meanwhile, Middle East Expert Raymond Tanter offers a similar analysis to Landau of the balance of incentives in projecting what a “post-mortem” on the failure of the Iranian talks would look like, if they do ultimately fail.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Reuel Marc Gerecht explores the Western gamble about Iranian calculations inherent in the interim nuclear deal, and makes a detailed case why it appears to be a long shot given the nature of the regime.
- Elliott Abrams argues that Cold War analogies that suggest a nuclear Iran can be “contained” are wrong. Abrams earlier wrote a piece questioning the extent to which an interim deal even exists given the vastly differing interpretations that Iran and the P5+1 are placing on its provisions.
- An interview about the Iranian deal with former senior International Atomic Energy Agency official Olli Heinonen.
- Jeffrey Goldberg finds some of the statements Iranian leaders are putting out to the West as part of their charm offensive hilarious given Iran’s actual behaviour. Plus, Ali Alfoneh and Reuel Marc Gerecht look at the Persian-language writings of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif – widely considered a moderate and a pragmatist – which appear to show that he is neither.
- Some detailed testimony from expert Mark Dubowitz on the extent to which Iran is benefiting from sanctions relief. More on European companies rushing to “speed date” Iran given the relaxation of sanctions here.
- How Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is using the large economic empire he controls via the “Setad” organisation to take advantage of the relaxation of sanctions.
- Iranian leaders boast that “The entire nuclear activity of Iran is going on” and they are continuing to increase their enrichment of uranium to 5%, despite the interim deal.
- Analysis of another recent provocative move by Iran, sending naval ships into the Atlantic to approach American maritime borders.
- Human rights advocate Daniel Keyes writes about the fate of Iranian poet Hashem Shaabani, hanged by the regime two weeks ago. Also, a discussion of the fate of Ayatollah Hossein-Kazamani Boroujerdi , reportedly near death after being sentenced to 11 years in prison and being subject to torture for advocating a separation of religion and state in Iran.
- Iran’s severe water and environmental problems discussed in the New York Times, beginning with the drying up of
- The Palestinian Authority announces new red lines for any peace which seem to be a major setback for any hope of an agreement – more here.
- Michael Curtis on Israeli humanitarian aid to victims of the Syrian civil war.
- Isi Leibler writes about those members of the Jewish people who, in his view, worship nihilism and vulgarity.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- AIJAC’s statement on the controversial ABC 4Corners program “Stone Cold Justice”, alleging Israeli mistreatment of Palestinian children, which aired on Monday, as well as parallel reports in The Australian.
- AIJAC executive director Dr. Colin Rubenstein’s analysis of the “4Corners” programs flaws, as published in today’s Australian.
- Ahron Shapiro’s view on the “4Corners” program – an extended version of his piece published in the Jewish News.
- Allon Lee looks at the massive pre-program publicity on the ABC in his “Media Week” column.
- Tzvi Fleischer details three factual problems with the program – with more AIJAC analysis promised to come.
- Michael Thurin discusses the significance of the latest advances in the expected deal to give Australia’s Woodside Petroleum a major role in exploiting Israel’s Leviathan gas field.
If Tehran breaks its promises, we’re unlikely to know.
Vol. 19, No. 21
President Obama is rushing to implement the six-month interim agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran that went into effect last week. Together with five other world powers, he is now working to negotiate a long-term agreement aimed at keeping Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. He regards his opening to Iran as a signature achievement of his presidency and has proudly declared that diplomacy opened a path to “a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.”
If we assume that negotiations do not collapse and some sort of long-term accord is struck, there will still be thorny questions. A preeminent one concerns Iranian compliance. How much confidence can we have that the ayatollahs will not press ahead with their nuclear program in clandestine facilities, as they have done in the past? And if they do press ahead, how much confidence can we have that our intelligence agencies will catch them?
Obama’s faith that “we can verify” Iranian compliance glides over the fact that the U.S. track record in unmasking covert nuclear programs is checkered at best. This is not because our intelligence agencies are incompetent—although sometimes they are—but because the task is exceptionally hard. Just last week, a three-year study by a Pentagon subunit, the Defense Science Board, concluded that U.S. intelligence agencies “are not yet organized or fully equipped” to detect when foreign powers are constructing nuclear weapons or adding to existing arsenals. What is more, their ability to find “small nuclear enterprises designed to produce, store, and deploy only a small number of weapons” is “either inadequate, or more often, [does] not exist.”
Past intelligence lapses in the nuclear realm go back to the dawn of the atomic age and include a failure to foresee the first Soviet A-bomb test in 1949, the first Soviet H-bomb test in 1953, and the first Indian nuclear test in 1974. After the first Gulf war, the U.S. intelligence community was astonished to learn that Iraq was only months away from putting the final screw in a nuclear device. In the run-up to the second Gulf war, the CIA blundered in the opposite direction, declaring with high confidence—“a slam dunk” in CIA director George Tenet’s notorious phrase—that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons. He was not. More recently, North Korea constructed a uranium enrichment facility that, despite intense scrutiny by American intelligence, went unnoticed until the North itself chose to reveal it.
The case of Syria is especially pertinent to our efforts to monitor Iran.
By the late 1990s, U.S. intelligence detected glimmerings that Syria might be embarking on some sort of nuclear project. But the agency had trouble making sense of the evidence it was gathering. It perceived that North Korea was helping Syria with a joint venture involving North Korean nuclear experts, but as a senior U.S. intelligence official explained in a briefing, we “had no details on the nature or location of the cooperative projects.” By 2003, U.S. intelligence had concluded that the activity involved work at sites “probably within Syria,” but they “didn’t know exactly where.” The fog of intelligence had set in: “We had this body of evidence, kind of almost like a cloud of, boy, there is something going on here but we can’t get a whole lot of precision about it.”
By 2005, the United States had made more progress in determining what was transpiring. Satellite photos revealed a “large unidentified building under construction” set in a canyon in eastern Syria near the Euphrates River at a juncture called al Kibar. But American intelligence analysts could not say much more. All they had was images of a structure that was “externally complete,” but it was “hard to figure out, looking at that building, what its purpose is.”
One problem was that “it certainly didn’t have any observable, externally observable characteristics that would say, oh, yeah, you got yourself a nuclear reactor here—things like a massive electrical-supply system, massive ventilation, and most importantly a cooling system.” Another problem was that though the structure closely resembled North Korea’s plutonium reactor at Yongbyon, America’s highly skilled photo-interpreters could not connect the dots between the two facilities. The oversight was not their fault; the Syrians had erected curtain walls and a false roof to disguise the building’s shape and conceal typical features of a reactor. The multibillion-dollar, ultra-high-tech tools of U.S. intelligence were foiled by one of the most low-cost and ancient techniques of warfare: camouflage.
Only in 2007, just as the reactor was ready to be loaded with uranium fuel, did U.S. intelligence conclude that Syria had built a gas-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor. It reached this judgment not by dint of its own collections efforts but thanks to incontrovertible evidence provided by Israel: photographs of the building’s interior. Under our eyes but without our seeing, the Syrians had come breathtakingly close to possessing an operational generator of the nuclear bomb ingredient plutonium.
“This was a significant failure on the part of U.S. intelligence agencies,” writes former defense secretary Robert Gates in his new memoir. Gates notes that “Syria for years had been a high-priority intelligence target for the United States” and that “early detection of a large nuclear reactor under construction in a place like Syria is supposedly the kind of intelligence collection that the United States does superbly well.” The failure clearly shook Gates and led him to ask President Bush: “How can we have any confidence at all in the estimates of the scope of the North Korean, Iranian, or other possible programs?”
That was the right question to ask in 2007 and it remains the right question to ask about Iran today.
It is especially significant that the CIA was undaunted by its own lapse. After Israel presented the United States with photographs of the interior of the building at al Kibar, the CIA told President Bush that while it now had high confidence that the structure was a nuclear reactor, it still had low confidence that Syria was engaged in a project to develop nuclear weapons. The reason for the low confidence estimate: It had scoured Syria and not been able to locate or identify any other components of a Syrian nuclear program. This was not a conclusion without consequences. In the wake of the WMD intelligence fiasco that precipitated the second Gulf war, President Bush was reluctant to strike the Syrian reactor without a rock-solid CIA judgment behind him. Israel was not so reluctant. It destroyed the reactor in an air raid on September 6, 2007.
What does all this mean for our dealings with Tehran? “With respect to Iran, the Syrian episode reminds us of the ability of states to obtain nuclear capability covertly,” is what U.S. intelligence itself has said about its own failure. But President Obama does not appear to take the reminder all that seriously. Even if inspectors were free to roam Iran at will, the ability of American intelligence to monitor a country whose territory is nearly 10 times larger than Syria’s would be in doubt. But under the preliminary agreement with Iran struck by President Obama in November, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors are not free to roam at will; it appears they will be confined to those nuclear facilities that the IAEA already knows about.
In any longer term agreement with Iran, far-reaching and highly intrusive verification provisions are going to remain crucial. But even in the unlikely event that the United States and its negotiating partners persuade Iran to grant inspectors unlimited access to all potential nuclear sites on its territory, our ability to detect violations will still be limited. It may be difficult to conceal a large structure like a nuclear reactor from the lenses of American satellites (although Syria found it easy enough for a time). It is far easier to conceal facilities housing centrifuges for uranium enrichment, which can be underground and do not require the kinds of cooling facilities that reactors demand. The leaders of our spy agencies may boast of the kinds of intelligence collection that they have been reputed to do “superbly well.” But history shows that their tools are limited and their record spotty.
For more than 20 years, Iran has violated IAEA safeguard agreements, developed covert nuclear facilities, and sought to mislead the West about the scope and pace of its activities. As the American people weigh the value of an agreement with a regime that has a consistent record of cheating on international accords—not to mention lying, inciting hatred, terrorizing, and murdering—they would do well to understand that if the agreement is violated, we may not find out until it is far too late to rectify our oversight, for at that point, Iran will already have achieved its terrible goal.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law and, most recently, A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign: An Insider’s Account.
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How will we know when Iran sprints toward a bomb?
Where do federal government reports go once they’ve been published and (lightly) chewed over by second-tier officials, congressional staffers and think-tank wonks? I picture them being packed into crates and stored in some vast warehouse, like the Ark of the Covenant in the last scene of “Indiana Jones.”
Every now and again, however, some of these reports are worth rescuing from premature burial.
So it is with the “Assessment of Nuclear Monitoring and Verification Technologies,” the soporific title given to a report published last month by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board. The report is long on phrases like “adaptable holistic methodologies” and “institutionalized interagency planning processes.” But at its heart it makes three timely and terrifying claims.
First, we are entering a second nuclear age.
Second, the history of nuclear proliferation is no guide to the future.
Third, our ability to detect nuclear breakout—the point at which a regime decides to go for a bomb—is not good.
On the first point, consider: Last year Japan and Turkey signed a nuclear cooperation deal, which at Turkish insistence included “a provision allowing Turkey to enrich uranium and extract plutonium, a potential material for nuclear weapons,” according to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. Japan, for its part, hopes to open a $21 billion reprocessing center at Rokkasho later this year, which will be”capable of producing nine tons of weapons-usable plutonium annually . . . enough to build as many as 2,000 bombs,” according to a report in this newspaper. The Saudis are openly warning the administration that they will get a bomb if Iran’s nuclear programs aren’t stopped: Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal speaks of the kingdom’s “arrangement with Pakistan.” Seoul is pressing Washington to allow it to build uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing facilities, a request Washington is resisting.
Think of that: The administration is prepared to consent to an Iranian “right to enrich” but will not extend the same privilege to South Korea, an ally of more than 60 years. It isn’t fun being friends with America these days.
On the second point, here’s the board’s discomfiting takeaway: “The pathways to proliferation are expanding. Networks of cooperation among countries that would otherwise have little reason to do so, such as the A.Q. Khan network or the Syria-North Korea and Iran-North Korea collaborations, cannot be considered isolated events. Moreover, the growth in nuclear power world-wide offers more opportunity for ‘leakage’ and/or hiding small programs.”
And that may not be the worst of it. At least A.Q. Khan was working for a Pakistani government over which the U.S. could exercise leverage. But what leverage does Washington have over “Office 99,” which handles Pyongyang’s proliferation networks? What leverage would we have with Tehran should one of its nuclear scientists go rogue?
In the Iranian nuclear negotiations the administration is assuming that a regime as famously fractious as the Islamic Republic will nonetheless maintain rigid controls over its nuclear assets. Why is that assumption good?
Finally, there is the matter of nuclear detection. In his 2012 debate with Paul Ryan, Joe Biden insisted that the Iranians “are a good way away” from a bomb and that “we’ll know if they start the process of building a weapon.”
The report junks that claim. “The observables are limited, typically ambiguous, and part of a high-clutter environment of unrelated activities,” it notes. “At low levels associated with small or nascent [nuclear] programs, key observables are easily masked.”
Bottom line: We are dancing in the nuclear dark.
Now the administration is pressing for an agreement with Iran based on the conceit that the intelligence community will give policy makers ample warning before the mullahs sprint for a nuclear weapon. That is not true. Iran could surprise the world with a nuclear test at least as easily as India did in 1998, when the intelligence community gave the Clinton administration zero warning that New Delhi was about to set off a bomb—and a South Asian arms race. That failure is especially notable given that India, unlike Iran, is an open society.
Yet even that’s not the essence of the problem. “You can’t correct for bad policy with excellent intelligence,” says Henry Sokolski of the Washington-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. U.S. intelligence may or may not be able to provide this administration with the necessary facts at the right time. But Joe Biden and John Kerry are not going to give this president the necessary will to do the right thing.
“The actual or threatened acquisition of nuclear weapons by more actors, for a range of different reasons, is emerging in numbers not seen since the first two decades of the Cold War,” the board warns. “Many of these actors are hostile to the U.S. and its allies, and they do not appear to be bound by established norms nor deterred by traditional means.”
How fitting that this is happening on the watch of Barack Obama, the man who chases the dream of a world without nuclear weapons.
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The nuclear deal’s final conditions are what really matters – but with companies lining up to do business with Teheran and little Western appetite for confrontation, Iran’s the only side gaining leverage.
The debate in the United States over the past few weeks on the Iranian nuclear issue has been focused primarily – indeed, almost exclusively – on one thing only: The fate of sanctions legislation circulating in Congress. This legislation’s new sanctions would only be triggered if Iran does not uphold the interim deal, or does not move to a comprehensive deal.
Despite this, the White House has framed the debate as one that pits ‘diplomacy’ against ‘war’. It has been equating Congressional support for more leverage in the next stage of negotiations with Iran as a call for war, and Democratic Senators that support the legislation have been denounced as warmongers.
But there is shaky ground beneath the administration’s fixation on rejecting sanctions legislation. A single intelligence report from December 2013 has been quoted as the evidence that supports the administration’s position: More sanctions will end negotiations.
Why? Well it seems that the reason is because the Iranians have said so. In particular, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif. This is the same foreign minister who, two weeks ago, put a wreath on the grave of arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh, responsible for the deaths of several hundred Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s, and who last week complained in an interview that the U.S. has mischaracterized the concessions made by Iran in the interim deal on dismantling centrifuges.
Still, the U.S. – who until now was steadfastly advocating that sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table – is now taking its cue from Iran on a legislative measure intended to strengthen its hand ahead of the next round of negotiations. How can it come as any surprise that Iran would emphatically claim that any new sanctions legislation will kill negotiations? This is a logical Iranian tactical bargaining position; the only question is why the United States would adopt this narrative as its own.
If it were based on popular opinion, the legislation could very well pass: A recent poll shows that a clear majority of the American public supports sanctions legislation.
But the bigger problem is that the sanctions debate has become an exclusive focus, almost an end in itself, with the effect of precluding necessary discussion on the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) itself.
Indeed, attention to America’s internal debate comes at the cost of playing down or ignoring altogether Iran’s reaction to the deal, and, most importantly, the new nuclear realities that are already being established on the ground. These are going ahead even though the deal was only meant to “freeze” the situation and allow time for further negotiations. While the administration has been hailing the new Iranian cooperation and the halt of enrichment to 20 percent, much more serious issues – such as Iran’s belief that the interim deal grants it an unfettered right to continue work on any aspect of research and development of more and more advanced generations of centrifuges, and continued work related to the Arak facility – barely find their way into media reports and commentary.
Of course, the problem with the leverage available to the P5+1 states in the talks with Iran relates not only to sanctions legislation, but also to the sanctions relief for Iran, a snowball that is already rolling as part of the interim deal.
Moreover, the claim that “if Iran cheats, sanctions will be reimposed” ignores the unfolding dynamic of how Iran has been able to maneuver in these negotiations for over a decade. Iran will probably never let a clear case of violation be determined – indeed, because everything will turn on interpretation, Iran will strongly resist any attempt to claim it has cheated. And with Iran part of the very Joint Commission to be set up as part of the JPA to oversee compliance, the chances of determining that it has not upheld the deal are obviously even lower still.
Of perhaps greater concern is the growing sense that the U.S. – and the P5+1 as a group – do not really want to find Iran in noncompliance with the deal. It is their keen desire that negotiations continue, no matter what. Therefore, like a chorus, they are all emphasizing what a positive development the JPA is, and how a path has now been established for moving forward to a final deal.
It would be well to note the bizarre juxtaposition of Rohani’s public pronouncements at the recent Davos summit. His speech there proclaimed the gospel of “constructive engagement” and the need to “transform animosities into friendship” as Iran opens its doors to lucrative energy deals. But in a separate interview to CNN he stated that there will be absolutely no dismantling of Iran’s enrichment capabilities in the context of a comprehensive deal. The P5+1, by the way, seem to think there is a need to dismantle something around the order of 15,000 centrifuges.
The P5+1 should be keeping their eyes firmly on the real action – what Iran is doing to push its interpretation of the JPA, to insult and embarrass the other side, and to ensure that the critical elements of its nuclear program – that will enable breakout to military nuclear capability – remain firmly in place. All the while, Iran will be trying to maneuver its way to getting as much sanctions relief as possible.
Dr. Emily B. Landau is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). She is the author of “Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation” (2012).