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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Washington Fails — Again — to Gauge Iran’s Nuclear Threat 

In sum, while the ODNI’s report paints a picture of a more capable Islamic Republic with an expanding nuclear program, policymakers’ motivation and ability to check this challenge will stem first and foremost from accurately understanding it. 

Iranian ballistic missiles. Image: Creative Commons.
Iranian ballistic missiles. Image: Creative Commons.

The U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) recently issued its latest worldwide threat assessment but fell short — as it has for several years — in characterizing the growing threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. This failure brings into question Washington’s preparedness to counter Tehran should the clerical regime move forcefully towards nuclear weapons.  

The ODNI’s annual estimate contains input from agencies across the U.S. intelligence community (IC) and describes a range of challenges to U.S. national security posed by America’s adversaries, including the Islamic Republic of Iran. The report includes classified and unclassified portions.

The latest unclassified version includes the oft-used finding, “Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities necessary to produce a testable nuclear device.” With little explanation for its basis, the ODNI has included a variation of this statement every year since 2019, just after the United States left the Iran nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). 

The IC appears to focus narrowly on whether it has detected Tehran carrying out so-called “weaponization” activities — a series of steps a country takes to assemble weapons-grade fissile material into an atomic weapon. 

This could be problematic. 

First, unless the IC has well-placed, high-level human intelligence sources or reliable signals intelligence capabilities in Iran, it must rely by default on a combination of national technical means and international monitoring to ascertain the nature and status of Iran’s atomic infrastructure. However, the Islamic Republic would likely carry out weaponization activities at highly secret and small underground military facilities, limiting the IC’s ability to detect such efforts and thereby assess categorically that Iran is not undertaking them. 

Troublingly, the IC missed Iran’s construction of large uranium enrichment facilities in the past: two sites at Natanz, revealed in 2002 by an Iranian opposition group and a non-governmental organization, and initially a site at Fordow, disclosed in 2009 by the United States, Britain, and France. Moreover, those facilities were more detectable than potential weaponization sites given that they involved significant above-ground construction and tunneling, as well as Iran’s illicit procurement of equipment for uranium enrichment. 

Thus, the IC’s ability to make such an unqualified declaration in their unclassified assessment about more difficult-to-find weaponization efforts should be taken with skepticism.

To that end, the IC’s statement might aim to imply that, to date, Tehran has not diverted fissile material from declared facilities to undeclared facilities, nor has the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) detected Iran enriching to weapons-grade at declared sites.

Only the IAEA has observed the latter. In January 2023, the agency found uranium particles enriched to nearly 84 percent — a stone’s throw from 90 percent, or weapons-grade — in equipment at the Fordow enrichment plant. Iran may have been practicing enrichment near 90 percent, but not created a final product, and gotten caught.  

Second, documentation seized by Israel in 2018 from a secret Iranian nuclear archive indicated that Tehran planned to continue progressing its weaponization efforts after 2003 when it halted a crash nuclear weapons program, the Amad Plan. The regime intended to continue the program in an unstructured fashion, dispersing activities to both military sites and civilian research institutions. 

The IAEA addressed this concern in reporting from November 2011, which stated, “There are [indications] that some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may still be ongoing.” To date, Iran has not assuaged this concern. In fact, after the IAEA in 2018 reopened its investigation into the possible military dimensions of Tehran’s program pursuant to the nuclear archive findings, Iran refused to cooperate despite the agency finding evidence of undeclared atomic weapons work.

It is unclear whether the ODNI considers the nuclear archive information in its finding about weaponization efforts in Iran, where the archive pointed to an unstructured program aimed at providing the Tehran with a future option to build nuclear weapons. 

Recent commentary by the former chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali-Akbar Salehi, that Tehran possesses all the components needed for nuclear weapons, should also ring alarm bells. 

In a recent interview, Salehi hinted that Tehran has surpassed “all the thresholds of nuclear science and technology.” “Here’s an example,” he said. “Imagine what a car needs; it needs a chassis, an engine, a steering wheel, a gearbox. You’re asking if we’ve made the gearbox, I say yes. Have we made the engine? Yes, but each one serves its own purpose.” Such statements appear to underscore that Iran maintains the infrastructure and knowledge for a weaponization effort. 

Third, the ODNI appears not to consider the impact of other, provocative Iranian nuclear advances as key to the development of a nuclear device: for example, the regime’s overt production in 2021 of uranium metal, a key material used in nuclear weapon cores. Nor does the assessment appear to view Iran’s amassing of huge stockpiles of 20 percent and 60 percent enriched uranium — the latter directly usable in a nuclear device — as indicative of a drive for atomic weapons. 

Instead, the ODNI notes, “Tehran down blended a small quantity of 60 percent enriched uranium and significantly lowered its rate of production from June to November 2023” — a concerning mischaracterization. Yet, in fact, Iran increased its production of the material during that time period, from 114.1 kilograms (kg) as of June 2023 IAEA reporting to 128.3 kg as of a November 2023 IAEA report. As of February 2024 IAEA reporting, Iran possessed enough enriched uranium to make weapons-grade uranium for up to 13 nuclear weapons in five months. 

The ODNI report does acknowledge that Iran is in a “better position” to “produce a nuclear device, if it chooses to do so.” The assessment lists the regime’s production of highly enriched uranium, stockpiling of enriched uranium, development and operation of advanced centrifuges, and curtailing of IAEA monitoring. The report cautions, however, that Iran could further escalate those activities if Washington pushed back against the program’s continued expansion. In so doing, the ODNI may have delved into policy recommendations by inadvertently cautioning against U.S. pressure as a tool of counterproliferation.

Fourth, the ODNI assessment is silent on the conditions under which Iran’s more recent and major nuclear advances took place. Specifically, the Biden administration has pulled punches and permitted sanctions to atrophy against Tehran’s nuclear program. It did so in a failed bid to restore the JCPOA or a lesser agreement. The result: Iran has made irreversible technical gains and stands at the threshold of atomic weapons. 

The omission of these finer points risks narrowly scoping or potentially mischaracterizing the Iranian nuclear threat. It also precludes a better understanding of all the forces that drive Iranian nuclear escalation. Policymakers need to see the full picture in order to benefit from analytical judgments found in the worldwide threat assessment or any other intelligence briefing.

Notably, earlier ODNI assessments were less circumspect about Iran’s intentions and activities. For example, all worldwide threat assessments prior to 2018 included no similar statement about Iran “not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities necessary to produce a testable nuclear device.” 

Instead, the 2006 estimate found, “We assess that Iran seeks nuclear weapons.” The 2009 report stated, “We do not know whether Iran currently intends to develop nuclear weapons, we assess Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop them.” The 2014 assessment said, “We do not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.” The 2017 estimate reported, “Iran is pursuing capabilities to meet its nuclear energy and technology goals and to give it the capability to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons, if it chooses to do so.” These estimates left much more room for concern and served to motivate action by policymakers.

Finally, the latest ODNI report also seems to take at face value Iranian declarations about seeking to revive or return to the JCPOA. This is despite an Iran-produced collapse of nuclear negotiations from demanding better terms in the face of an already sweetened deal. The ODNI also refrained from explaining what benefit a feigned interest in diplomacy might offer Tehran, such as running out a clock to prevent the reimposition of UN sanctions on Iran, which end in 2025, or impeding a more unified multilateral pressure policy against the regime. 

Unfortunately, this failure builds on a pattern of more selective IC attention to certain voices in Iranian domestic politics. For example, in the 2018 worldwide threat assessment, the ODNI spent considerable time overemphasizing the domestic contest between the purportedly “moderate” former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, under whose watch the JCPOA was agreed, and other factions as “a key driver in determining whether Iran changes its behavior in ways favorable to U.S. interests.” While Rouhani has come and gone, Iran’s capability and intent to engage in nuclear escalation and extortion has steadily grown.

In sum, while the ODNI’s report paints a picture of a more capable Islamic Republic with an expanding nuclear program, policymakers’ motivation and ability to check this challenge will stem first and foremost from accurately understanding it. 

Congress should follow up with the ODNI and the intelligence community on the inputs that fed into this assessment to better understand its logic and rectify existing Iran policy shortcomings. Otherwise, all may be caught flat-footed when Tehran draws on its secret weaponization program and presents the world with an atomic fait accompli.

About the Authors

Andrea Stricker is deputy director of the Nonproliferation and Biodefense Program and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow focusing on Iranian political and security issues.

Andrea Stricker is deputy director of the Nonproliferation and Biodefense Program and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow focusing on Iranian political and security issues.

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