The last U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program was from late 2010, several Iran experts said Friday.
The question over whether there is a new NIE on Iran arose this week after Israel’s Defense Minister told Israel Radio Thursday that a new U.S. intelligence assessment shares Israel’s sense of heightened urgency about Iran’s nuclear program. A U.S. intelligence report “making the rounds” in Washington “comes comes very close to our own estimate…It transforms the Iranian situation to an even more urgent one and it is even less likely that we will know every development in time on the Iranian nuclear program,” Ehud Barak told Israel Radio Thursday, CBS News reported. His comments echoed a report in Israeli daily Haaretz the same day that said the more alarming American assessment was contained in a new U.S. NIE on Iran.
But current and former American officials said that the Israeli claims are unduly alarmist.
“We have eyes, we have visibility into the program, and we would know if and when Iran made what’s called a breakout move towards acquiring a weapon,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told journalists Friday, AFP reported.
(Indeed, Israel’s Ehud Barak himself made much the same point in an interview with CNN last week, the Washington Post‘s Walter Pincus previously noted. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei “did not tell his people to start and build …a weapon,” Barak told CNN’s Situation Room July 30, Pincus reported. “We think that we understand why he does not give this order. “He [Khamenei] believes that he is penetrated through our intelligence and he strongly feels that if he tries to order, we will know it — we [Israel] and you [the United States] and some other intelligence services will know about it and it might end up with a physical action against it.”)
The last US NIE on Iran’s nuclear program was produced in late 2010 and may not have been issued until early 2011, said David Albright, a former weapons inspector who heads the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS).
“It was also very tight hold and difficult to learn about,” Albright told Al-Monitor by email Friday. The report generated its own degree of geopolitical calculations, he described.
On the one hand, he said, European governments and Israel were apparently satisfied that the 2010 NIE’s findings were more in line with their views about whether Iran may have pursued nuclear weapons-related research after 2003. The 2007 US NIE’s conclusion that Iran had halted its weapons program in 2003 and not restarted it since was criticized by “key European allies and Israel, which all assessed that Iran was likely continuing to develop its nuclear weaponization capabilities,” ISIS wrote.
But European governments apparently were not interested in the new US report’s findings being made public. “I was told that public revelations about the NIE would cause discord,” or undermine collective action, Albright said.
“Our European government sources also told me that the new NIE had changed enough from the 2007 NIE that their governments did not criticize this one, unlike the 2007 NIE, which they freely and frequently criticized,” Albright told Al Monitor. “One government told me that a public discussion, particularly an unclassified version of the NIE, was not in its interests. This government did not want to see a public discussion of the results of the 2010 NIE, which aligned with the US government interests.”
The New York Times reported on the 2010 NIE this past February, characterizing it as having basically reiterated many of the conclusions of the US’s 2007 NIE. “Recent assessments by American spy agencies are broadly consistent with a 2007 intelligence finding that concluded that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program years earlier, according to current and former American officials,” the New York Times’s James Risen and Mark Mazzetti reported February 24, 2012.
ISIS’s own subsequent March 2012 report, however, notably emphasized “important differences” between the 2010 and 2007 NIEs. Among those it noted:
“The new  NIE does not distinguish between declared and undeclared enrichment activities when considering Iran’s nuclear weapons capability,” the ISIS report states. Secondly, “the new NIE [co]ncludes that Iran could be furthering its development of components for nuclear weapons while reportedly assessing that not enough activity has occurred on weaponization to justify a determination that Iran has made a decision to restart its nuclear weaponization program or build a bomb.”
Several American former officials told Al-Monitor Thursday that they believed what Israeli officials may have been briefed on is not an NIE, but a smaller, more focused report on certain aspects of Iran’s nuclear program.
Non-proliferation analysts speculated that the new U.S. report could focus on one of the categories of continuing research activities listed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in its November 2011 report on Iran.
However, “carrying on scattered research activities does not amount to a full-fledged restart of an integrated weapons program,” Greg Thielmann, a former US intelligence analyst and senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, wrote in an ACA Iran Nuclear Threat Assessment brief (.pdf).
“As open source reporting indicates, the last NIE confirmed the 2007 finding that 1. the structured weaponization work stopped in 2003 (although some relevant activities continued, and 2. Khamenei had not yet made the final political decision to go for a bomb,” a former U.S. official told Al-Monitor Friday.
“We believe that there is time and space to continue to pursue a diplomatic path, backed by growing international pressure on the Iranian government,” a National Security Council spokesman told Reuters’ Mark Hosenball Thursday. “We continue to assess that Iran is not on the verge of achieving a nuclear weapon.”