Intelligence services agree: Iran is not trying to develop a nuclear weapon


By David Morrison 


Asked about Iran’s nuclear programme on Face the Nation on CBS on 8 January 2012, US Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, replied:

“Are they [the Iranians] trying to develop a nuclear weapon?  No.” [1]

Viewers whose opinions on Iran’s nuclear activities have been formed by mainstream media in the West must have been amazed by this statement.  There, the impression is constantly given Iran definitely has an active programme to develop nuclear weapons, which will yield results in a year or two.  And that has been the impression for the last six or eight years.

One would never guess that it has been the considered view of the US intelligence services since November 2007 that Iran hasn’t got an active nuclear weapons programme.  This assessment was contained in a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) entitled Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities, key judgments of which were made public.  These stated, inter alia:

“We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program … We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007 …” [2]

An IAEA statement on 4 December 2007 in response to the NIE said:

“IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei received with great interest the new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate about Iran’s nuclear program which concludes that there has been no on-going nuclear weapons program in Iran since the fall of 2003. He notes in particular that the Estimate tallies with the Agency’s consistent statements over the last few years that, although Iran still needs to clarify some important aspects of its past and present nuclear activities, the Agency has no concrete evidence of an ongoing nuclear weapons program or undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran.” [3]

The NIE’s conclusions were a disappointment rather than a relief to President George W Bush, who complained in his memoir, Decision Points, that the news “tied my hands on the military side”, saying:

“But after the NIE, how could I possible explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?”

(Quoted in Urging Obama to Stop Rush to Iran War by ex-CIA analysts Ray McGovern and Elizabeth Murray, published by on 30 December 2011 [4])

Subsequent annual threat assessments of the US intelligence community given to the US Congress were not materially different from the conclusions of the NIE.  For example, the February 2011 assessment to the House of Representatives intelligence committee by the Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper stated:

“We continue to assess [that] Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.” [5]

So, when he expressed the opinion on 8 January 2012 that Iran hadn’t got a nuclear weapons programme, Defense Secretary Panetta was merely repeating the considered view of the US intelligence services for the past four or five years.

Do the Israeli intelligence services disagree with this assessment?  Not significantly, judging by quotations from key Israeli intelligence service personnel published in the Israeli media.

“Israel: Iran still mulling whether to build nuclear bomb” was the headline on an article by Amos Harel in Haaretz on 18 January 2012, just before a recent visit to Israel by the head of the US military.  The article said:

“Iran has not yet decided whether to make a nuclear bomb, according to the intelligence assessment Israeli officials will present later this week to General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“The Israeli view is that while Iran continues to improve its nuclear capabilities, it has not yet decided whether to translate these capabilities into a nuclear weapon – or, more specifically, a nuclear warhead mounted atop a missile. Nor is it clear when Iran might make such a decision.” [6]

This concurs with the view expressed in January 2011 by the head of Israeli military intelligence, Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi, just after his appointment to the post.

According to an Agence France Presse report, he told the Knesset foreign affairs and defence committee on 25 January 2011 that “Iran is not currently working on producing a nuclear weapon but could make one within ‘a year or two’ of taking such a decision” [7].  He added that Iran “would then need more time to develop an effective missile delivery system for it”.

He also said “it was unlikely that Iran which currently enriches uranium to 20 percent, would start enriching to the 90 percent level needed for a bomb, because it would be in open breach of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty exposing it to harsher sanctions or even a US or Israeli military strike”, adding that “at the moment, it’s not in Iran’s interest to move their programme ahead”.

Earlier in January 2011, Meir Dagan, who had just retired as head of Mossad, told the same Committee that he did not believe that Iran would be able to produce a nuclear weapon until 2015 (see Haaretz, 7 January 2011, [8]).  According to Haaretz, he said that “Iran was a long way from being able to produce nuclear weapons, following a series of failures that had set its program back by several years”.

So, whereas Israeli political leaders often assert that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is imminent, Israel’s intelligence services question whether Iran has made a decision to develop nuclear weapons.  In that, they appear to be at one with the US intelligence services.











By David Morrison, board member of Sadaka, January 2012.  He can be reached at

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