TOPICS > Politics

Iran Halted Nuclear Arms Program in 2003, Report Finds

December 3, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate report released Monday found that Iran stopped developing nuclear weapons in 2003, but continues to enrich uranium and could still develop atomic arms in the future. Two intelligence experts discuss the findings and what they may mean for diplomatic relations between Iran and the U.S.
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GWEN IFILL: The new intelligence report released today contradicts an earlier, more pessimistic assessment made just two years ago. That 2005 report concluded with high confidence that Iran was determined to develop nuclear weapons.

But the revised consensus view of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies says Tehran halted its nuclear weapon program in 2003.

The unclassified portion of the report read, in part, “Tehran’s decision to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure.” And it suggests that it is “less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005.”

The key judgments also determined that Iran could probably not acquire enough material for a weapon before 2009 and probably could not produce a bomb before 2013. The NIE also concludes that “Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.”

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said the report showed the administration’s suspicions of Iran were correct.

STEPHEN HADLEY, National Security Adviser: On balance, the estimate is good news. On the one hand, it confirms that we were right to be worried about Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

On the other hand, it tells us that we have made some progress in trying to ensure that that does not happen. But it also tells us that the risk of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon remains a very serious problem.

GWEN IFILL: The new report comes just two months after President Bush issued this warning about Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: If you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.

GWEN IFILL: Hadley said today, even taking into account the new information contained in today’s report, the administration remains concerned about Iran’s nuclear intentions.

International pressure

Peter Rodman
The Brookings Institution
I think the administration is right to want to maintain the momentum of the current diplomacy.

GWEN IFILL: For more, we turn now to two experts who have been tracking this issue for some time. David Kay led the U.S. hunt to find Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. During the early 1990s, he was a nuclear weapons inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency. He's now a senior research fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, a nonprofit think-tank.

And Peter Rodman until last year served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. He's now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Welcome to you both.

David Kay, we just heard Stephen Hadley say, on balance, this is good news what we're learning about in this new report. What do you say?

DAVID KAY, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies: Well, I think it is good news and totally unexpected, apparently, from the administration. Look, Iran stopped, if you believe this report, its nuclear weapons program in 2003.

But the really good news is the conclusion they did it because it was concerned about the level of international scrutiny and potential impact of sanctions. So it shows that, look, Iran does respond to pressure. And I think that is extraordinarily good news for those of us, and I think it's almost everyone who would prefer a world in which Iran did not have nuclear weapons.

GWEN IFILL: What do you say, Peter Rodman?

PETER RODMAN, The Brookings Institution: I agree completely with David. There's a debate going on right now inside Iran, precisely because of the new pressures -- economic sanctions -- even some of the war talk, I think, has had a constructive purpose by stimulating some debate in Iran about, should they continue with enrichment, which they seem determined to do?

But I think the report -- and it's explicitly made in this intelligence report -- that Iran is susceptible to international pressures. And I think the administration is right to want to maintain the momentum of the current diplomacy.

Intelligence estimates

David Kay
Potomac Institute for Policy Studies
Iran is a very difficult country. It's one that was not a -- believe it or not, not a primary target for a number of years.

GWEN IFILL: Having been someone, David Kay, who's made some effort to look for these kinds of weapons, did it surprise you to discover that intelligence agencies could just two years later say, "Oh, look, we overlooked this detail that they had stopped producing these weapons, or moving toward producing these weapons" in 2003?

DAVID KAY: No, Gwen, it really didn't. I know how bad our intelligence is, in terms of our knowledge of what goes on in countries like Iran and North Korea.

Iran is a very difficult country. It's one that was not a -- believe it or not, not a primary target for a number of years. And so we've been slow to develop the assets that would allow us to understand it.

I think it is amazing that a program that was stopped in 2003, we didn't apparently know about and conclude until some time in early 2007, if you believe the commentaries given today, as the report was released.

That is pretty extraordinary. And it does raise some serious questions about how much we really do know of what's going on in Iran.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think about that, Peter Rodman?

PETER RODMAN: Iran is making it hard. I mean, one of the problems in the U.N. diplomacy is Iran is defying the international community's effort to find out more, to get them to stop enrichment, so it's what the intelligence community calls a "hard target." And it's their opacity that is part of the problem.

GWEN IFILL: Is there a credibility problem for the administration after they have pushed so hard for taking a tougher line against Iran?

PETER RODMAN: Well, I can't judge that. I mean, I think the rest of the world has the same intelligence. And I think it's to the credit of the intelligence community that, when they get new information, they tell the president and that we put it forward. I mean, it's the best we can do.

But David is right, that it is a little disturbing. And it's disturbing because I don't trust the Iranians. I mean, they are giving themselves the option of starting this up again. I mean, they're insisting on continuing their enrichment. So, hopefully, it doesn't take us four years to find out if they start it up again.

Continuing uranium enrichment

Peter Rodman
The Brookings Institute
I think the international community ought to continue this effort to keep the pressure on and try to persuade the Iranians to continue to back off, which, in this case, I think it would mean -- or at least the next issue is uranium enrichment.

GWEN IFILL: Given what the report found, do you believe, based on the conclusions -- and they have terms or art, highly confident, moderately confident, about different areas of this program -- do you believe that Iran is trying to pursue creating, building a nuclear weapon?

DAVID KAY: I think all you can, based on the evidence we have available, is certainly they did in the past. They pursued activities that were consistent only with pursuing a nuclear weapon.

GWEN IFILL: But isn't that what they said about Iraq?

DAVID KAY: Well, and Iraq, remember, in 1991 we discovered Iraq did, in fact, pursue a nuclear weapons program. And, you know, the great irony right now is that, in '91, I brought the news back of what we'd discovered.

The intelligence community, it was a surprise to them. They had assessed that Iraq didn't have a nuclear weapons program. And, consequently, they overcompensated in 2003, over-assessed it. And then we were surprised there.

What one worries about with intelligence is, because it is so difficult, all hard targets are the interesting cases. The easy targets aren't interesting. And it's really possible that you overcompensate and you really don't know what the -- and Peter's right. What if they restart the program? How long are we going to have to wait to determine that?

GWEN IFILL: Well, exactly. And how would we know?

DAVID KAY: How would we know?

GWEN IFILL: So, Peter Rodman, how can the administration or can the administration continue to make the case for even tougher sanctions? There has been a lively debate going on in Washington, as you know, about whether the Bush administration is marching to war in Iran.

PETER RODMAN: Well, the focus is diplomatic, and the U.N. Security Council has already passed two resolutions -- unanimously, I think -- demanding that Iran stop uranium enrichment. And uranium enrichment is one of the pivotal -- one of the crucial elements of giving themselves an option to have a bomb.

So I think the international community ought to continue this effort to keep the pressure on and try to persuade the Iranians to continue to back off, which, in this case, I think it would mean -- or at least the next issue is uranium enrichment. If they continue doing that, are they giving themselves the option to get a bomb?

DAVID KAY: But, Gwen, I think we ought to acknowledge, this report is going to make it very hard in dealing with the Chinese and the Russians, the two obstacles to harsher sanctions.

GWEN IFILL: Why would that be?

DAVID KAY: They will argue, "Look, since 2003 they've stopped their program. Why continue to increase the pressure?" And there's a great danger, the argument will be, that all you will do is reinforce the hard-liners who say, "We get nothing for this, and we should restart the program."

GWEN IFILL: And what do you say to that?

DAVID KAY: Well, what I say is, in fact, now that we know this, it is awfully hard to continue the State Department's line that we don't talk to people like the Iranians. I think, in fact, we need to talk to people who are engaged in programs like this and explain how dangerous they are, be sure they understand the risk they're running.

It shows in this case that the Iranians understood the risks they were running and decided to back off. We ought to go into that. And the report also speaks in there in a very opaque sort of way that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons for its own national interests and its own security and prestige interests. We ought to address its security interests in the Middle East.

Diplomatic implications

David Kay
Potomac Institute for Policy Studies
[W]e think of Iran as a closed society. It's actually in many ways not a closed society. It's the most cosmopolitan society in the Middle East.

GWEN IFILL: Is this an argument for talking to Iran, because this is evidence that external pressures have worked?

PETER RODMAN: Well, we have a lot of other issues with Iran, and that's a bigger subject. I'm just worried that if we relieve the pressures that gives the Iranians a free -- it opens the door for them to start this up again.

I think they want a bomb for domination in the gulf region. I'm not sure we can talk them out of it, so I'm not sure a conversation is going to help us right now.

GWEN IFILL: Why do you think that?

PETER RODMAN: I think this is an ideologically driven foreign policy. I mean, when that revolution took place in 1979, they defined us as their enemy. And I think that's -- and now you have a militant -- this is a revolutionary regime still in a militant phase. So I'm not sure a conversation is going to charm them out of their ambition.

DAVID KAY: The decision to stop in 2003 was not an ideological decision. The intelligence estimate, it says, this was not an ideological decision. It was a pragmatic decision on a cost-benefit analysis.

PETER RODMAN: Because we had raised the costs. And I'm afraid now that the world is going to relieve them of these costs and relieve them of these risks. And I don't trust them. That's the problem.

GWEN IFILL: Well, when you say "raise the cost," do you mean raise the cost because they didn't have the capability or raise the cost because diplomatically they were feeling too pressured?

DAVID KAY: I think they were feeling too pressured. They were worried about it.

PETER RODMAN: We had just overthrown Saddam Hussein, so I think that message reverberated.

DAVID KAY: Well, and we think of Iran as a closed society. It's actually in many ways not a closed society. It's the most cosmopolitan society in the Middle East. There are huge Iranian populations here and in France. I think they were worried -- and 65 percent of their population is under the age of 25.

Isolation is not politically appealing. And Ahmadinejad today in Iran is running into opposition from those who do not like the prospect of it. That's why I think our opening up, our talking to them, and expressing the dangers they are running are more likely to feed that cost-benefit, practical, non-ideological...

GWEN IFILL: Final word.

PETER RODMAN: Well, I worry that just the opposite will happen. If they see themselves relieved of pressures, then they may be tempted to go ahead anyway.

GWEN IFILL: Peter Rodman, David Kay, thank you both very much.