Nuclear Weapons - Western Assessments
The economic situation in Iran constrained the funding of military improvements generally, and was thought to have constrained Iran's nuclear weapons plans. American counter-proliferation efforts initially appeared to have limited Iran's options. The US had imposed sanctions prohibiting trade and investment in Iran. Tehran had attempted to portray US containment efforts as unjust, in an attempt to convince European or Asian suppliers to relax export restrictions on key technologies. Foreign suppliers have been discouraged by the risk of sanctions or political embarrassment because of US-led containment efforts.
By the mid 1990s Tehran's international debt exceeded $30 billion, although oil price increases in 1996 could have relieved the pressure at least temporarily. Despite severe economic distress, Iran's use of limited funds to procure new conventional weapons and suspected programs to develop weapons of mass destruction revealed a commitment to achieve Gulf preeminence. Russia, China, and North Korea supported the effort by selling T-72 tanks, Kilo-class submarines, and ballistic missiles.
Purchases of submarines and modern missile patrol boats, combined with reinforcement of the southern Arabian Gulf islands, bolstered the Iranian Navy's ability to interdict strategic sea-lines-of-communication and impose its control over these critical shipping passages. In the early 1990s it appeared that Iran planned to invest considerable resources in military procurement, including establishment of a new and larger Air Force, a new armored corps, and a revamped artillery corps. What actually happened was far below the predictions. Air Force modernization with new Russian planes had taken place in modest numbers. The acquisition of several hundred new tanks left Iran in an inferior position relative to Iraq.
Iran had aggressively pursued nuclear technology from both Western and Eastern sources. Russia and China provided assistance in developing nuclear energy capabilities. Since the early 1990's the Iranians had been purchasing dual-use nuclear equipment from Europe, China, Russia and third world countries. Some of this equipment could be used to enrich uranium, which in turn could be used for nuclear weapon development. Iran had also made extensive efforts in training nuclear personnel in Iran itself and in western universities.
Through the end of the 1990s unclassified assessments based on Iran's known nuclear infrastructure reflected a technology and production base inadequate to the task of producing nuclear weapons for many years. In April 1984, West German intelligence sources had leaked reports to the press that Iran's clandestine nuclear weapons program was so far advanced that it would be capable of producing a bomb "within two years," but these reports turned out to be greatly exaggerated.
Israel and the United States believed in 1992 that Iran would attain a military nuclear capability within eight to 10 years. In 1995 ACDA Director John Holum testified that Iran could have the bomb by 2003, though by 1997 he testified that Iran could have the bomb by 2005-2007. In the mid-1990's the view of the United States government was that Iran was implementing a military nuclear program that could achieve a weapons capability within five years, at the time meaning by the year 2000. As of 1998 the estimate of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) was that Iranian efforts could result in the development of a nuclear device by the middle of the next decade, that is, by the year 2005.
In a statement to the US public made 7 January 1998 and broadcast by Cable News Network, President Sayed Mohamad Khatami said, "we are not a nuclear power and do not intend to become one. We have accepted IAEA safeguards and our facilities are routinely inspected by that agency." Some western observers asserted that Khatami, a moderate cleric elected president of Iran in May 1997, had not taken charge of Iran's nuclear development program. Despite Khatami's emergence as a political figure, developments suggested that he was not in control of the military and security sphere.
In January 2000, marking a significant departure from previous assessments, the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that Iran might now be able to make a nuclear weapon. This evaluation was not based on evidence that Iran's efforts had achieved a breakthrough, but rather on the fact that the United States could not track with great certainty increased efforts by Iran to acquire nuclear materials and technology. Analysts at other intelligence agencies believed that Iran's efforts were still moving, albeit very slowly.
In an April 2004 speech, John R Bolton, the Bush Administration's primary policymaker on weapons of mass destruction, said: "If we permit Iran's deception to go on much longer, it will be too late. Iran will have nuclear weapons."
On 10 November 2004 the Wall Street Journal reported that European officials believed Iran was five or six years away from possessing nuclear weapons. The European goal in the proposed deal on suspension of Iran's uranium-enrichment activities was to ensure that Iran got no closer than that. Some American estimates were that as of late 2004 Iran was only one year away from a bomb, while others estimated that Iran could have enough material for one bomb in 1.5 to 2 years, meaning by early to mid-2005.
In January 2005 IDF Intelligence Branch chief Major General Aharon Ze'evi Farkash stated in a presentation at the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa that if Iran's uranium enrichment activities were not halted, it could develop its first atomic bomb at some point between 2007 and 2009. At that time, he said that Iran was six months away from enriching uranium, a step that had been described as the "point of no return."
On 16 February 2005 Vice Admiral Lowell E. Jacoby, US Navy, Director, Defense Intelligence Agency, testified that "Iran is likely continuing nuclear weapon-related endeavors in an effort to become the dominant regional power and deter what it perceives as the potential for US or Israeli attacks. We judge Iran is devoting significant resources to its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs. Unless constrained by a nuclear non-proliferation agreement, Tehran probably will have the ability to produce nuclear weapons early in the next decade."
In June 2005, Robert G. Joseph, undersecretary of state for arms control, was asked whether Iran had a nuclear effort underway, Bolton's successor, said: "I don't know quite how to answer that because we don't have perfect information or perfect understanding. But the Iranian record, plus what the Iranian leaders have said...lead us to conclude that we have to be highly skeptical."
On 1 August 2005 the The Jerusalem Post reported that the Israeli government estimated that Iran would be able to build an atomic bomb as soon as the year 2008, "if all goes well for it" in the words of a high ranking IDF commander. The new estimate indicated that Iran will "probably" have an atomic bomb by 2012. The anonymous Israeli military officer indicated that Israel's assessement, in contrast to earlier views, that Iran did not have a separate military nuclear program, and that Iran's nuclear weapons effort was entirely dependent on the overt civilian effort. The officer was quoted as saying "We no longer think that a secret military track runs independent of the civilian one... If it were, then they could acquire weapons in 2007... Now we think the military track is dependent on the civilian one. However, from a certain point it will be able to run independently. But not earlier than 2008." The "point of no return" was said to be within a few months to a year.
On 2 August 2005 The Washington Post reported a new US National Intelligence Estimate had concluded that Iran was about a decade away from acquiring nuclear weapons, doubling the previous estimate of five years. The NIE expressed uncertainty about whether Iran's leaders had made a decision to build a nuclear arsenal, though "it is the judgment of the intelligence community that, left to its own devices, Iran is determined to build nuclear weapons." The new estimate judged that Iran was unlikely to produce sufficient quantities of highly enriched uranium before "early to mid-next decade." The timeline was depicted reflecting a program "moving full speed ahead without major technical obstacles." As with the Israeli estimate, the new NIE concluded that it was improbable that Iran's military had covert enrichment effort separate from the overt effort.
In November 2007 another US National Intelligence Estimate was published. In it, it stated that revised intelligence suggested that Tehran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. It also said that the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a weapon was late 2009, but that this was very unlikely. There was moderate confidence Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame. This was widely recieved as evidence that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program and was not developing nuclear weapons at all. While the NIE stated that it did not set out to answer that question, it defined "nuclear weapons program" as Iran's nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work. Halting this process could also have meant that Iran had finished this work and was capable, after 2003, of construction nuclear weapons, simply lacking the nuclear material (HEU) to do so.
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