Underestimating Nuclear Capacity: The Right Analogy When Confronting Iran's Nuclear Ambitions Is India, Not Iraq

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In December 2007, the U.S. intelligence community released a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) confidently stating that Iran froze its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and would likely be unable to build a nuclear weapon by 2009. This optimistic scenario contradicts the findings of the 2005 NIE that asserted Iran was working rapidly to produce a nuclear weapon. The suspect 2007 NIE on Iran is the result of a recurrent flawed assumption that civilian nuclear power programs are distinctive and clearly discernible from weapons programs. It is also indicative of undue haste in the U.S. intelligence community to reverse course after recent misguided intelligence decisions.

In 2003, the United States overestimated Iraqi nuclear weapon capabilities. The U.S. intelligence community was roundly criticized for being insufficiently skeptical of Iraq's non-conventional weapons claims and of providing the Bush administration with analyses that supported its predetermined resolution to invade Iraq. In the run-up to the release of the 2007 NIE, the media reported a number of stories indicating that the U.S. intelligence community was interested in redeeming its image as an impartial evaluator of international security threats. However, the 2003 overestimation of Iraq's capabilities is probably less instructive on the Iranian situation than the United States' earlier underestimation of the military nuclear intentions of another up-and-coming nuclear power--India.

In the early 1970s, U.S. government intelligence, military, and diplomatic bodies tasked with analyzing India's nuclear intentions concluded that a nuclear test was unlikely. Yet, on 18 May 1974, India conducted its first self-described "peaceful nuclear explosion." U.S. intelligence was shocked by the unanticipated detonation. Most decision-makers assumed that the difficulties in diverting material from peaceful nuclear applications to military ones were so great, that the chances of the diversion being discovered were so high, and that the costs of getting caught were so painful, that no rational country would attempt to do so. The 1974 Indian nuclear test disabused the world of this notion, and in its wake, the United States spearheaded an international effort to close the loopholes in the nuclear nonproliferation regime that made the surprising detonation possible.

The Indian experience is highly analogous to today's Iranian context. Like the 2007 NIE on Iran, most official U.S. assessments of the Indian nuclear program estimated that nuclear weaponization was unlikely. In both cases, policy makers in the United States, Western countries, and in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) made a clear distinction between civilian and military nuclear programs. They believed that nuclear weapons programs possessed distinctive, perceptible "signatures," in terms of size, shape, auxiliary construction, and power usage, differentiating them from nuclear power programs.

Likewise, the conceptual failing of the 2007 NIE on Iran was its decision to ignore the link between the civil uranium-enrichment process and the use of highly enriched uranium in nuclear explosives. The most serious oversight was the apparent assumption that the technology for enriching uranium for nuclear power is wholly different from the technology for enriching uranium for nuclear weapons. On the NIE's first page, its authors conceded that Iran continues to make great progress in enriching uranium. However, in a footnote, they assert that they have excluded Iran's purportedly civilian uranium conversion and enrichment program from their assessment of its military program.

The former director of Israel's Military Intelligence, Major General (res.) Aharon Ze'evi Farkash, says, "Any distinction between Iranian military and civilian nuclear programs is artificial." This assertion is widely shared. Professor Richard L. …