U.S. Intelligence Assessment of Iran’s Nuclear Program: Essentials Remain the Same

By Greg Thielmann

DNI James Clapper Testifies at Jan. 31 Senate Intelligence Committee Hearing

The United States’ intelligence community’s judgments on Iran’s nuclear program have not fundamentally changed from those revealed in its controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate. In presenting the intelligence community’s annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” to the Senate Committee on Intelligence on January 31, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper used language identical to that used in recent years on a number of critical points:

  •  We continue to assess 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.
  • Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons, making the central issue its political will to do so. These [technical] advancements contribute to our judgment that Iran is technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon, if it so chooses.
  • We judge Iran’s nuclear decision making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran.

Clapper’s testimony acknowledged Iran’s additional accumulation of low-enriched uranium at both the 3.5 percent and 20 percent level and the start of enrichment at its second enrichment plant near Qom.

The senior intelligence officials also endorsed the November 2011 IAEA report as being the best public accounting to date of Iran’s nuclear activities, including information “relevant to possible military dimensions.”

However, the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of Iran’s post-2003 nuclear activities has apparently not convinced it that Tehran has decided to build a nuclear weapon.  Moreover, Clapper’s testimony suggests that Iran has the domestic capabilities eventually to do so, regardless of foreign actions taken against it. The “central issue” is thus affecting political will.

Senators at the public Congressional hearing did not press for an intelligence judgment on how growing threats of military action influence the Iranian regime’s political will.

But given that Iranian pride and nationalism exist across the domestic political spectrum, it would be foolish to conclude that Tehran will capitulate only in response to increased costs for defying the international community. If a negotiated agreement is possible, it will also have to include something that Tehran perceives as a benefit.

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