‘US intelligence says Iran probably gave up nuclear weapons plans in 2003…..’

Published: 25 July 2008
Briefing Number 216

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Summary:US intelligence agencies recently published a report (‘the National Intelligence Estimate', or ‘NIE') on Iran 's nuclear programme which opened with a “high confidence” statement that Iran “halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003”.

That conclusion is constantly quoted in media commentary about the Iranian nuclear crisis.

In fact, the head of the NIE later expressed regret for how the NIE report had been worded, and effectively changed its key conclusion. This has been virtually ignored by commentators.

This issue is crucially important for Israel . The way the NIE conclusion is being reported undermines the basis for Israel 's concerns about Iran 's nuclear plans. That NIE conclusion is liable to be used to condemn Israel for ‘over-reacting' in the face of the intelligence assessment of its major ally, the USA . It is therefore vital to be aware of the NIE ‘rewrite'.

How journalists use the NIE report to pour ‘cold water' on fears about Iran

“ Iran says it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons, and a US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) has concluded that it probably gave up a nuclear weapons programme in 2003….”

- Paul Reynolds, BBC world affairs correspondent, BBC News, 4 July 2008

“The prospect of an American strike [on Iran ] diminished after America 's intelligence services published their inconvenient finding in December 2007 that Iran had stopped trying to design a nuclear weapon in 2003…”

- The Economist, editorial, 28 June 2008

These are two illustrations of how the NIE report of December 2007 is influencing public discussion about Iran 's nuclear ambitions.

The NIE's opening line is quoted constantly. Most of the rest of the report is ignored.

In fact, the head of the NIE, Admiral Michael McConnell, has expressed regret for the way it was worded, and has effectively changed its key conclusion. McConnell's statements were made in testimony in February 2008 before a US Congressional Committee, and reported in the Washington Post ( www.online.wsj.com ) on 8 February 2008 .

The two routes to acquiring a nuclear weapons capability

There are two main ways for a country to acquire nuclear weapons:-

•  Either it can implement a secret programme to design and build a nuclear weapon (which is referred to as ‘weaponisation');

•  or it can enrich uranium in a uranium enrichment plant in sufficient quantities and to a sufficiently upgraded level that, at relatively short notice, it could use that fissile material for making nuclear weapons.

The much-quoted first line of the NIE report only refers to the first route for acquiring nuclear weapons. When the NIE said that Iran had “probably given up nuclear weapons plans in 2003” this was only referring to so-called ‘weaponisation', but not the uranium enrichment route for acquiring nuclear weapons.

This key point was only explained in a small footnote to the NIE report. Yet it is the ‘enrichment' route which is the focus of much international concern. The NIE never said that that option had been “halted” in 2003.

The McConnell testimony – “I would change the way we describe the nuclear programme….”

On 7 February 2008 , Admiral McConnell stated before a Congressional Committee:

“I think I would change the way that we described the nuclear programme…. weapons design and weaponisation are the least significant portion of a nuclear weapons programme ….' [our emphasis added…]

The Washington Post reports that McConnell “expressed regret” that the report's authors had left it to a footnote to explain that the NIE's definition of “nuclear weapons programme” meant only ‘weaponisation', and excluded uranium enrichment.

McConnell added that even with regard to ‘weaponisation' the NIE findings of December 2007 were flawed. It had concluded, with “high confidence” that the nuclear weapons programme had stopped. But before Congress McConnell said: “it would be very difficult for the US to know if Iran had recommenced weaponisation work, and that “given their industrial and technological capabilities, they are likely to be successful in building a bomb….”

Silence over McConnell, high publicity for the original NIE

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described the original NIE report as a “victory” for Iran 's nuclear programme. It is not hard to see why. It took the prospect of an American military strike “off the table”. Commentators like the BBC's Paul Reynolds and The Economist's editors persist in quoting the first line of the original NIE report, and underplay subsequent developments. Such commentary is misleading, and undermines the basis of Israel 's concerns about Iranian's nuclear plans.

Other Beyond Images resources:

Iranian incitement to genocide of the Jewish people – Briefing 217, 26 July 2008