Q&A with the ACA’s Daryl Kimball about Iran’s Nuclear Program
Since 2001, Daryl Kimball has been the the executive director of the Arms Control Association, a private, non-profit membership organization dedicated to public education and support of effective arms control measures. Mr. Kimball’s expertise includes nuclear nonproliferation issues, the Nonproliferation Treaty and he is a frequent commentator on Iran’s nuclear program. He recently took the time to answer my questions regarding the political impasse between the United States and Iran. We discussed U.S. assessments of Iran’s nuclear program, U.S. policy on Iran and how the U.S. can move toward reaching a peaceful settlement with the Islamic Republic.
Q: What is the most authoritative U.S. assessment of Iran’s nuclear program?
Daryl Kimball: The most authoritative U.S. government report on Iran’s nuclear program is the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which is an all source, multi-agency assessment of Iran’s nuclear program. Each year the Intelligence Community prepares its annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment”, which includes any updates on Iran’s nuclear and missile capabilities. The key findings of the NIE still apply. In presenting the intelligence community’s annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” to the Senate Committee on Intelligence on January 31, Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper, used language identical to that used in recent years on a number of critical points:
- - “We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”
- “Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons, making the central issue its political will to do so. These [technical] advancements contribute to our judgment that Iran is technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon, if it so chooses.”
- “We judge Iran’s nuclear decision making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran.”
Clapper’s testimony acknowledged Iran’s additional accumulation of low-enriched uranium at both the 3.5 percent and 20 percent level and the start of enrichment at its second enrichment plant near Qom.
The senior intelligence officials also endorsed the November 2011 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report as being the best public accounting to date of Iran’s nuclear activities, including information “relevant to possible military dimensions.”
However, the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of Iran’s post-2003 nuclear activities has apparently not convinced it that Tehran has decided to build a nuclear weapon. Moreover, Clapper’s testimony suggests that Iran has the domestic capabilities eventually to do so, regardless of foreign actions taken against it. The “central issue” is thus affecting political will.
Q: If Iran made the decision to make nuclear weapons, what is the most authoritative estimate of how quickly it could do that?
Daryl Kimball: It is extremely difficult to accurately estimate how long it would take for Iran to make nuclear weapons if it decided to do so, in part because: a) estimates of the efficiency rates of its centrifuges are estimates; b) if Iran did decide to build nuclear weapons it might have a clandestine facility that could accelerate its progress; c) it depends on how many nuclear weapons we are talking about; and d) acquiring enough weapons grade fissile material for one bomb does not a nuclear arsenal make; in order to be able to build and deliver a small arsenal with confidence, a state must build up its supply of fissile material, assemble and possibly test its warhead design, and conduct tests involving its delivery system and the warhead design. At various stages along this path, a state runs a high risk that one of more of these activities are detected.
Taking all of these factors together, most independent experts estimate Iran is years not months away from building nuclear weapons if it chooses to do so. Nevertheless, we should not be complacent about the risk of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Q: Does Iran have a nuclear weapons program?
The November 2011 IAEA report underscores that Iran was engaged in a comprehensive nuclear weapons-related research program, which was halted in late 2003 after being exposed. Since then, some weaponization-related activities have resumed. Unless Iran cooperates with the IAEA regarding the outstanding questions about the past and possibly ongoing “studies” related to nuclear weapons and agrees to a work plan than can help verify that such activities have ceased, it is hard to say with confidence that Iran does not have an active nuclear weapons research and development effort.
Although the IAEA and U.S. intelligence findings show that Iran is slowly improving its uranium-enrichment capabilities and already has some of the expertise needed to build nuclear weapons, they also make it clear that a nuclear-armed Iran is neither imminent nor inevitable.
The bottom line is that Iran is pursuing activities that could shorten the timeframe to build the bomb once and if it makes that decision.
Q: How has Iran failed to live up to its IAEA obligations?
Daryl Kimball: Serious concerns about Iran’s compliance with its IAEA safeguards commitments first arose in late 2002 when the IAEA began investigating two secret Iranian nuclear facilities, a heavy-water production plant near Arak and a gas centrifuge uranium-enrichment facility near Natanz. Since that time, the agency has identified several clandestine nuclear activities and experiments, some of which violated Iran’s safeguards agreement with it. Much of Iran’s uranium-enrichment program is based on equipment and designs acquired through former Pakistani nuclear official A.Q. Khan’s secret supply network.
After the revelations of Iran’s clandestine nuclear activities, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom launched negotiations with Iran to address international concerns about the intent and scope of its nuclear program. These negotiations collapsed in 2005.
In response in 2006, the IAEA Board of Governors declared Iran in noncompliance with its safeguards obligations and referred the matter to the UN Security Council.
Since 2006, the Security Council has adopted a number of resolutions calling on Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment-related activities and cooperate fully with the IAEA investigation.
See the news report on the February 2006 IAEA resolution that outlines the basic concerns and the IAEA resolution itself online here.
Q: The U.S. officially states that Iran has not decided to build a nuclear weapon but there is constant talk about how the world can convince Iran not to build a nuclear weapon. Do we have evidence that Iran is considering that option? What do we know Iran is really doing vs. what people think it’s doing?
Daryl Kimball: What Iran’s leaders ultimately intend to do—to try to build nuclear weapons or not—is not clear. What is clear is that Iran seems to be keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. Even the U.S. intelligence community acknowledges “We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”
Q: Professor Daniel Drezner wrote in Foreign Policy last week that the “sanctions policy is pushing the United States into a policy cul-de-sac where the only way out is through regime change”. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen had said a day earlier that “there’ no sleep here for anyone” if Iran goes nuclear and “The ultimate remedy is Iranian regime change.” What is the Obama administration’s official policy with regard to Iran’s nuclear program? Do you agree or disagree that the sanctions policy against Iran is moving toward regime change and why?
Daryl Kimball: There are a lot of people in Washington who wish they were the Secretary of State. Thankfully they are not. The Obama administration is not seeking regime change, but is seeking to bring increasing international pressure on Iran in order to increase the cost of pursuing actions that could bring it closer to being able to build nuclear weapons and to encourage it to return to the negotiating table. The primary goal of U.S. policy appears to me to be to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
The UNSC-mandated sanctions directed at Iran’s nuclear and missile sectors have slowed Iran’s progress and are justified, but the harsher unilateral sanctions now being put in place by the United States and the EU run the risk of hurting the Iranian people and reinforcing Iran’s leaders’ determination to reject overtures and demands to restrain their nuclear program and to negotiate because the sanctions appear to them to be an attempt to destabilize the country and the regime.
Q: Do you think accuracy dominates in the media with regard to reporting facts about Iran’s nuclear program?
Daryl Kimball: Some reporters and editors are on tight deadlines, as well as politicians, and unfortunately they are not always accurate in their characterization of what we know about Iran’s nuclear activities and intentions.
The fact is that IAEA and U.S. intelligence findings show that Iran is slowly improving its uranium-enrichment capabilities and already has some of the expertise needed to build nuclear weapons, but they also make it clear that a nuclear-armed Iran is neither imminent nor inevitable.
On the other hand, there is good reason to be concerned about its nuclear ambitions. There is disturbing and credible evidence that Iran has engaged in activities that have nuclear warhead development applications and it is enriching uranium to levels that it cannot currently utilize for civilian purposes.
What is to be done? UN-mandated sanctions can buy time and improve negotiating leverage, but the time available must be used constructively. Sanctions alone will not turn Tehran around and could harden its resolve.
Moreover, talk of military strikes against Iranian nuclear and military targets is counterproductive and, in the long run, cannot prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. The “military option” would set back Iran’s program for no more than a couple of years, convince Iran’s leadership to pursue nuclear weapons openly, rally Iranian domestic support behind the regime, and lead to adverse economic and security consequences.
Ultimately, resolving the nuclear issue will require sufficient pressure and inducements to convince Iran’s current and future leaders that they stand to gain more from forgoing nuclear weapons than from any decision to build them.
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