Looking Beyond the Iraq/ISIS Crisis: The Iran Challenge

"Has U.S. policy on Iran transitioned to acceptance of a nuclear-armed Iran as 'inevitable'?"

During testimony earlier this year to the Congressional intelligence committees, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper addressed Iran’s extensive progress in expanding its nuclear and military infrastructure. Clapper detailed how “these technical advancements strengthen our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons. This makes the central issue its political will to do so.”

In 2012, when discussing the Iranian role in the attempted assassination of the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., DNI Clapper stated: “Iranian officials–probably including supreme leader Ali Khamenei–have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime.” Can the United States be certain the regime has not expressed the same feelings regarding nuclear weapons?

The focus on Iranian ‘will’ begs the question: which Iranian officials and factors are being evaluated? Are assessments based on Iranian statements or actions?

Which Iran is to be believed? The façade of moderation in the figure of Rouhani or the Iran that stones women and hangs dissidents and human-rights activists from cranes in the public square? Which statements are to be believed—those delivered in multilateral meetings or those for consumption by Iranian audiences? Is the use of relativism adequate in assessing an adversary’s intentions or ‘will’ when vital U.S. national-security interests are at stake?

We Won’t Trust, but We Can Verify

The additional narrative advanced by administration officials and other ‘experts’ to assuage concerns about the U.S. approach is that Iran would not be able to achieve final nuclear breakout capacity without being detected.

However, the Defense Science Board’s Task Force Report on Assessment of Nuclear Monitoring and Verification Technologies identified gaps in the United States’ global nuclear monitoring, where even “technologies and processes designed for current treaty verification and inspections are inadequate to future monitoring realities.” It noted “the nature of the problem is changing significantly in a number of dimensions,” including “security risks from threshold states” and “the consequences of failing to detect clandestine materials/capabilities.”

The United States, other Western nations, and the International Atomic Energy Agency failed to detect decades of Iranian covert nuclear activity until in 2002, an Iranian opposition group publicly unveiled the regime’s decades of deception. Since then, monitoring and verification have relied heavily on limited disclosure and access provided by Iran.

In this setting, do U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies assess with high confidence, moderate confidence, or low confidence that they will be able to detect—in time to counter—when Iranian officials have “decided” to pull the components together to build a nuclear weapon?

What is the level of confidence when considered alongside the international community’s record on Syria, for example?

The full extent of Syria’s nuclear work was unknown until Israel’s September 2007 attack on the al-Kibar nuclear facility, which was built with North Korean assistance. Sure, the U.S. intelligence community had expressed concerns about “Syria’s intentions regarding nuclear weapons” in National Intelligence Estimates on foreign missile programs. There had also been reports about Syrian outreach to illicit nuclear networks. Nothing, however, indicated Syria was so far along until the only viable option to prevent further escalation of the threat was a military strike.

With respect to Iran, is the current focus on ‘detection’ the Obama administration’s way of indicating support for the military option? What of undeclared or unknown Iranian nuclear facilities? Is the reference to detection and verification more of a nod to the North Korean case? Officials with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) assured in May that CTBTO can detect any new atomic explosion conducted by North Korea and inform member states. Cold comfort for U.S. allies within striking range.

Has U.S. policy on Iran transitioned to acceptance of a nuclear-armed Iran as “inevitable”?

Time to Change Course on U.S.-Iranian Approach