Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:23 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:23 | SYDNEY

Rethinking the Iran NIE


Sam Roggeveen


13 December 2007 13:46

I'd like to thank M. Sarkozy of Paris, France for his support of The Interpreter.

OK, so the French President didn't actually write in to us, but judging by this report, he clearly reads the blog. He's quoted putting a similar argument to one I made last week, that although the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear capability may have reduced the chances of a US strike, the Israelis could still try it:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned of a risk of a war with Iran if Israel considered its security seriously threatened by Tehran's nuclear drive in a magazine interview to be published Thursday. Sarkozy also said he was ready to travel to Tehran to discuss a civilian nuclear partnership if the country steps up its cooperation with the UN atomic watchdog.

"The problem for us is not so much the risk that the Americans launch a military intervention, but that the Israelis consider their security to be truly threatened," Sarkozy told Le Nouvel Observateur.

Sarkozy's assessment is consistent with some other revisionism emerging over recent days, which argues that although the NIE judged that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003, the issue is by no means resolved. And it's not just coming from right wing types like Daniel Pipes and Greg Sheridan. The more left-leaning Arms Control Wonk also reckons the NIE has been misread.

I have one bone to pick with Sheridan's analysis. He writes: produce nuclear weapons you need three things: weapons grade nuclear material, either plutonium or enriched uranium; a delivery system, normally ballistic missiles; and an actual weapon or trigger.

Of the three, by far the easiest to produce is the weapon itself. By far the hardest is the weapons grade nuclear material. Iran is going flat out to produce as much of this weapons grade nuclear material as it can. It is enriching uranium at maximum speed. It is producing nuclear fuel even though it has no nuclear power stations. It is also developing ballistic missiles which have no strategic purpose other than to carry nuclear weapons.

Iran may possibly have suspended the weaponisation program in 2003, and may even still have it suspended, because that will be the easiest part of the process to complete once it has the weapons material and missiles.

Sheridan seems to be arguing that the suspension won't make much difference to Iran's overall timeline for getting a weapon. I'm by no means a technical expert on nuclear weapons, but I'm pretty sure this is wrong. Building a very crude nuclear weapon that could fit in a shipping container is indeed relatively easy. But Sheridan is talking about a warhead that has to fit inside the nosecone of a ballistic missile, and that kind of minituarisation is really hard. If I'm right about this, then Iran's suspension of its weapons program has probably forced a slippage in the timeline. If they decided to restart the weapons program, it would take them longer to develop a missile-deliverable nuclear weapon than if they had not suspended. So the suspension is good news in that sense.