Iran Now Free to Achieve Its Military Nuclear Ambitions: An Israeli Perspective on the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate


Vol. 7, No. 28    January 9, 2008

  • After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the EU opened diplomatic negotiations in July 2003 to try to stop the Iranian nuclear program. By the end of that same year, in the wake of the U.S. victory in Iraq, Qaddafi had stopped Libya’s nuclear military program. It was in this context of Western detection of their nuclear program and the Iraq War that led the Iranians to halt their nuclear program across the board in 2003. The NIE indeed admits that the Iranian halt in its nuclear programs came about from the international scrutiny and pressure that resulted from “exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.”
  • Together with developing a nuclear weapon, Iran has been developing an appropriate long-range delivery system. Its Shihab 3 missile can carry a warhead of approximately 700 kilograms over a distance of 1,300-1,500 kilometers. These missiles are under the command of the Revolutionary Guard that reports to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, not President Ahmadinejad. Iranian missile exercises showed that the missiles are aimed at both Tel Aviv and Riyadh.
  • Paragraph C of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) summary report states that Iran made significant progress in 2007 installing centrifuges at Natanz. Based upon this finding, Israeli military intelligence estimates that late 2009 is the earliest possible date that Iran will be technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon.
  • In my view, any distinction between Iranian military and civilian nuclear programs is artificial. The enrichment of uranium, critical to both civilian and military uses, is continuing. Once they have enough enriched uranium, they will be 3-6 months away from building a nuclear bomb if they decide to do so.
  • The NIE has clearly weakened international support for tougher sanctions against Iran and has weakened Turkey and the moderate Sunni countries in the region that were seeking to build a coalition against Iran. So, ironically, the NIE opens the way for Iran to achieve its military nuclear ambitions without any interference.

Iran Caught Developing Nuclear Weapons Program

In August 2002, Iran realized that the Iranian opposition, the Americans, and the Europeans had obtained hard information about the clandestine military nuclear program it was developing under broad civilian cover. Iran’s military nuclear program was the responsibility of the Ministry of Defense, while the civilian program was the responsibility of Iran’s atomic energy agency.

After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 which toppled Saddam Hussein, the EU opened diplomatic negotiations in July 2003 to try to stop the Iranian nuclear program. By the end of that same year, in the wake of the U.S. victory in Iraq, Qaddafi had stopped Libya’s nuclear military program. It was in this context of Western detection of their nuclear program and the Iraq War that led the Iranians to halt their nuclear program across the board in 2003. The NIE indeed admits that the Iranian halt in its nuclear programs came about from the international scrutiny and pressure that resulted from “exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.”

A nuclear weapons program is comprised of three key elements: 1) a delivery system, requiring the development of surface-to-surface missiles; 2) the accumulation of fissile material through uranium enrichment and plutonium production; 3) weaponization – preparing a warhead from the fissile material and fitting it into a missile. Several of these elements in the Iranian nuclear program were in fact soon resumed.

At the beginning of 2003, the Iranians were concentrating all their efforts on the centrifuge program at their facility in Natanz, where they had managed to build a cascade with 164 centrifuges. Today, they have reached a capacity of 3,000 centrifuges. If parts of the nuclear weapons program were restarted, there is every reason to believe that all parts were reactivated as well. Indeed, Iran’s development of surface-to-surface missiles had never ceased, even when uranium enrichment had been temporarily halted.

At the same time, the Iranians were busy with procurement activities, with a focus on obtaining all the materials and components needed for uranium enrichment. At the beginning of 2004, we know that Iran was attempting to procure fast high voltage switches suitable for a nuclear weapons system. The Iranian Ministry of Defense was also supervising the mining of uranium in southeast Iran.

Developing the Missiles to Deliver a Nuclear Payload

Together with developing a nuclear weapon, Iran has been developing an appropriate long-range delivery system. Its Shihab 3 missile can carry a warhead of approximately 700 kilograms over a distance of 1,300-1,500 kilometers. These missiles are under the command of the Revolutionary Guard, not the Iranian military. The Revolutionary Guard reports to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and it is not under the authority of President Ahmadinejad. Iranian missile exercises showed that the missiles are aimed at both Tel Aviv and Riyadh.

Iran is continuing to develop even longer-range missiles with a range of 3,500-5,000 kilometers that could reach all of Europe (perhaps with the exception of Portugal), while those with a range of 6,000-10,000 could reach the east coast of the U.S. The original missile technology was delivered to the Iranians by North Korea, and the Iranians have made substantial efforts to improve their missile range. As we know, the Iranian ballistic missile program is part of the Iranian nuclear weapons program; Iran does not have a civilian space program and it is doubtful that it would develop ballistic missiles with a range of thousands of kilometers in order to carry conventional warheads alone.

European Reaction to the Iranian Missile Threat

As Director of IDF Military Intelligence, I briefed leaders in Europe about Iran’s nuclear military plans and met personally with decision-makers in Italy, France, the UK, and other European countries over a period of six months. Most of the European leaders understood the data about Iran’s nuclear plans, but their response was not encouraging.

The Europeans said they did not understand why Israel was trying to scare them with a nuclear military threat since they had lived with such a threat during the Cold War. They were also of the opinion that, in the end, if Iran did achieve a nuclear military capability, the U.S. and Israel would solve the problem, and I believe this remains their attitude today.

What Does the NIE Say?

The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate summary report says that in 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program, but the NIE’s headline finding is written in such a way that guarantees that its other conclusions will be misunderstood.

  • In Paragraph C, the NIE summary states that Iran made significant progress in 2007 installing centrifuges at Natanz. Based upon this finding, Israeli military intelligence estimates that late 2009 is the earliest possible date that Iran will be technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon.
  • Paragraph D of the NIE says that Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons if a decision is made to do so. Thus, Iran’s continuing civilian uranium enrichment program could produce enough fissile materials by the end of 2009 or 2010.
  • Paragraph F of the NIE notes: We assess that Iran probably would use covert facilities rather than its declared nuclear sites for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon.
  • Finally, Paragraph H of the NIE states: We assess that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.

All of this means that the Iranians will have enough fissile material no later than 2010 and that if they decide to build a nuclear military plant, no one can promise that we or the Americans will know about it, if they indeed actually did halt their nuclear weapons program in 2003. It would be a mistake to conclude that Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions have been halted on the basis of reading the first sentence of the NIE alone.

In my view, any distinction between Iranian military and civilian nuclear programs is artificial. The enrichment of uranium, critical to both civilian and military uses, is continuing. Once they have enough enriched uranium, they will be 3-6 months away from building a nuclear bomb if they decide to do so.

Pressure on Iran Dissipates after the NIE

After the NIE report was released, the declaration that Tehran had halted its nuclear weapons program was reported by all of the world’s major media without any contradicting information. Soon thereafter, Russia and Iran reached agreement on a schedule to complete the plutonium-based nuclear facility in Bushehr.

This was followed by an announcement that China and Iran had signed a $2.3 billion economic agreement related to energy that had been on hold for more than half a year. Prior to this, China had come to join the economic pressure on Iran. In addition, Ahmadinejad formally visited Riyadh, and a new Egyptian-Iranian relationship began to develop for the first time since Sadat’s assassination.

The NIE has clearly weakened international support for tougher sanctions against Iran, and it closes off any military option for the Bush administration. The NIE has sent a signal to Tehran that the danger of external sanctions has ended. Furthermore, the NIE has weakened Turkey and the moderate Sunni countries in the region that were seeking to build a coalition against Iran. So, ironically, the NIE opens the way for Iran to achieve its military nuclear ambitions without any interference.

*     *     *

Maj.-Gen. (res.) Aharon Ze’evi Farkash served as Director of IDF Military Intelligence from 2001 to 2006. He previously served as Head of the Technology and Logistics Division, and as Deputy Head of the IDF Planning Division. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on a special intelligence briefing at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on January 1, 2008.

Maj.-Gen. Aharon Ze'evi Farkash

Maj.-Gen. (res.) Aharon Ze'evi Farkash served as Director of IDF Military Intelligence from 2001 to 2006. He previously served as Head of the Technology and Logistics Division, and as Deputy Head of the IDF Planning Division.