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Expert Sees U.S. Intelligence Testimony On Iran As 'Clarification'

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad announced Iran's successful enrichment of uranium in a special ceremony in the northeastern Iranian holy city of Mashhad on April 11, 2006.

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad announced Iran's successful enrichment of uranium in a special ceremony in the northeastern Iranian holy city of Mashhad on April 11, 2006.

Top U.S. intelligence officials told lawmakers in Washington this week that Iran has yet to decide whether to build a nuclear bomb. U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and Lieutenant General Michael Maples, the director of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, say Iran currently lacks the weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium needed to build such a device. Some observers say the testimony is a "clarification" of a recent statement by Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said he thought Iran had sufficient enriched uranium for a bomb. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz discusses the significance of the testimony with Shannon Kile, a nuclear-nonproliferation expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

RFE/RL: Why do you think U.S. intelligence officials are now saying that Iran has yet to decide whether to build a nuclear bomb?

Shannon Kile
Shannon Kile:
There needs to be a context to this. Last week, there was a [U.S. intelligence] statement that Iran had produced enough low-enriched uranium that it could produce a nuclear weapon at some point in the near-term future.

The clarification that is being made was to point out that, of course, low-enriched uranium is used for nuclear reactors; it is not used for weapons purposes. The point that came across very clearly was the U.S. intelligence community does not believe Iran has made a decision to produce highly enriched uranium -- that is to say, weapon-grade fissile material -- and that there is no evidence that Iran has restarted its nuclear weaponization program, which the [2007] National Intelligence Estimate believes stopped sometime in the autumn of 2003.

Consistent But Different...

RFE/RL: Could you explain in more detail the earlier U.S. intelligence statements and why they need to be clarified?

Kile: There was [an earlier U.S. intelligence] statement that Iran did have 1,000 kilograms approximately of low-grade uranium that it had produced. And, of course, that could be turned into a nuclear weapon. That is misleading because, of course, to do that, the uranium has to be enriched to highly enriched uranium; and to do that, Iran would basically have to kick out IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors; it would have to leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), probably.

It wasn't the case that Iran was on the verge of having a nuclear weapon. And I think that is the point that the [U.S.] intelligence chiefs were trying to get across [on March 10].

RFE/RL: Do these statements by Blair and Maples reflect a different approach to Iran by U.S. President Barack Obama's administration compared to that of the Bush administration?

Kile: There certainly is the case that the Obama administration has a different approach to Iran. On this particular instance, though, this is very much consistent with what the intelligence community was saying during the Bush administration. And the statements that were made [on March 10] were very consistent with the December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which was basically stating that Iran is probably looking to keep open the option of developing a nuclear weapon should it decide to do so at some later date, but it hasn't taken that decision.

Dennis Blair was very explicit in saying that Iran had not taken a decision to produce highly enriched uranium. And of course, it's [highly enriched uranium] that is needed to produce a nuclear weapon.

Rebutting Tel Aviv?

RFE/RL: Are there any other recent developments outside of the United States that may have led to these clarifications by U.S. intelligence officials?

Kile: To some extent, this is a rebuttal, if you will, to the statement that the chief of Israel's military intelligence (Major General Amos Yadlin) made over the weekend that was widely quoted, saying that Iran had reached a technical capability to produce a nuclear weapon and could do so in the near-term future.

It's probably the case that the Israelis and the Americans are operating on the same premise and the same evidence, but they have reached different conclusions about that. The Israelis are probably taking more of a worst-case scenario. The statement that was made by Blair and by Maples should be seen in that context as well -- that they are trying to tap down worst-case or alarmist scenarios.

RFE/RL: Do you think Iran now has the know-how to further enrich uranium to the level needed to build a nuclear weapon if it chooses to do so?

Kile: Iran would have enough low-enriched uranium. Certainly it has reached a critical point that if it wanted to move to a nuclear weapon program -- to weaponize that uranium and produce highly enriched uranium -- it could probably do so quickly because it already has this stockpile of low-enriched uranium.

'Breakout Scenario'

RFE/RL: Why do you doubt the claims of those who warn that Iran may try to used its low-enriched uranium stockpiles to create the more highly enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons?

Kile: I think that is misleading because it is basically a breakout scenario. That's the underlying assumption here -- that Iran is going to somehow take its stocks of low-enriched uranium, which is under IAEA containment and surveillance measures, and then basically kick out the IAEA inspectors and then move to re-enrich it to weapons grade. Quite frankly, I can't imagine that Iran would be able get away with that. The international community would react quite quickly and probably with military measures.

RFE/RL: So is it fair to say that you don't think Iran's low-enriched uranium stockpiles pose a serious threat insofar as Iran's building nuclear weapons?

Kile: I don't think that is the most likely scenario. I think what we should be more worried about is the possibility that Iran has undeclared nuclear activities under way in the country -- where they may have a secret centrifuge enrichment program, plants which haven't been declared to the IAEA and which the IAEA doesn't know about. And it seems to me that is more of a worry than the 1,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium that we know Iran has and that is under IAEA containment and surveillance measures.

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