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Iran, a middle-eastern nation which has long had a precarious and unpredictable relationship with the United States and its allies in the United Nations, is currently known to have a moderately advanced nuclear program, which began in Tehran during the mid-1950’s, nearly two decades after the discovery of nuclear fission by German physicists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, and Austrian physicist Lise Meitner. Ironically enough, Iran’s nuclear program was initially backed and supported by the United States (Burr, 2009), who provided a ‘start-up kit’ of sorts consisting of a 5-megawatt nuclear research reactor, a small amount of highly enriched uranium for use as fuel in the reactor, and plutonium for us as a ‘start-up’ in the reactor.
As a symbol of good faith, in August of 1963, Iran joined over 100 other nations in signing the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which aimed to forbid all test detonations of nuclear weapons except for those performed underground. While this treaty did not totally cease the spread of the arms race, it was successful in reducing the concentration of radioactive particulates in the atmosphere. A few years later, in 1967, after showing great strides in progress towards a self-sustainable nuclear program, Iran also joined in signing and later ratifying the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, subjecting the nation’s nuclear program to testing and verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The NPT’s main objective is, according to United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, “to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament” (2019, para. 1).
Following the Iranian Revolution of the middle-to-late 1970’s, the Iranian nuclear program was temporarily ‘frozen’ while most of the Western world pulled out of the region for purposes of facilitating in nuclear research amid ample U.S. intelligence reports expressing concern that Iran may be attempting to develop a nuclear weapons program in response to allegations of the presence and propagation of Israeli and Iraqi nuclear weapons programs (CIA, 1981). It is at this time that it could be confirmed that Iran’s nuclear program had been reestablished, and, during the following two decades, Iran’s nuclear program came under strict analysis by the United States’ and UN’s collective theories and trepidations that the nation’s upsurge in nuclear research and proposed expansion could potentially lead to the development of a nuclear weapons program, whilst Iran sought aid from such nuclear and atomic powerhouses as China, India, and the former Soviet Union for the purpose of conducting experiments associated with uranium conversion, heavy water production, and nuclear fuel fabrication.
The National Intelligence Council reported in 1986 that Iran was a threat in the production of nuclear weapons and that, according to Kerr, “Tehran was interested in developing facilities that could eventually produce fissile material that could be used in the production of a nuclear weapon” (2018, p. 6), albeit also claiming that Iran was not yet ready to effectively produce or use a nuclear weapon. The following year, according to a report published by the CIA states that “the advantage of long-range missiles to deliver warheads quickly, virtually without warning, and, unlike aircraft, without facing any defense” (CIA, 1986) as a factor that would influence Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, and, ten years later, an undisclosed U.S. intelligence report stated that, should Iran gain significant foreign aid for the purpose of nuclear weapons development, Iran may have the capability of producing nuclear weapons within a decade (CIA, 1995). Again, as a way to ease tensions, Iranian government officials assured the expansion on the nations reliance on nuclear power was in order to decrease the country’s demand for oil and gas consumption, allowing the country to export additional fossil fuels (Kamaali, 2008). The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene’I has stated that the Islamic religion is opposed to use of nuclear weapons and Iran does not have space in its defense doctrine to manufacture or store them (Kerr, 2018).
Current Nuclear Capabilities/Intentions/Actions
Regardless of the actions and advances taken to ease tensions regarding Iran’s nuclear program, the current public and political controversy that surrounds Iran’s nuclear program stems from 2002 reports from the National Council of Resistance on Iran (NCRI), an Iranian Exile Group, that revealed information that Iran had built nuclear facilities in Natanz and Arak that it had not previously revealed to the IAEA (Gary, 2019). Presently, to the knowledge of US intelligence, Iran has four nuclear research reactors in Tehran, Bonab, Parchin, and Gorgan. In addition to these four research facilities, Iran has three uranium conversion and enrichment facilities in Qom, Natanz, and Isfahan, two heavy water complexes in Khondab and Arak, one current light water reactor in Bushehr and one proposed in Darkhovin, three Uranium mines in Saghand, Narigan, and Gachin, and two yellowcake plants in Saghand and Gachin. (Bach, 2009).
Iran has cooperated, in varying consistencies, with the IAEA’s testing and verification processes, and the IAEA has confirmed on multiple occasions, that Iran has been in compliance and that none of the declared nuclear facilities and materials have been diverted for military operations. However, a large portion of the information provided was done so in an inconsistent and incomplete manner. As such, the IAEA has requested additional transparency and access to additional locations related to the manufacturing of nuclear centrifuges, research and development on uranium enrichment, and uranium mining. However, as required by the 2013 Joint Plan of Action, Iran has consistently denied access to documents outlining design information for new nuclear facilities. Iran has also recently refused IAEA officials access to conduct an inspection of the Arak reactor in order to verify initial design information that Tehran provided to the facility. It has also been found that Iran failed to notify the IAEA that it was constructing the uranium enrichment facility in Qom, again violating prior agreements to furnish the IAEA with any and all current or future plans for expanding or altering their current nuclear program. In the fall of 2009 the U.S., France and the United Kingdom had prior intelligence on the aforementioned covert construction, and also had intelligence implying that Iran originally intended to keep the construction of the enrichment facility private (Tenet, 2004). Under the requirements of the current Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), according to Kerr, Iran has begun to convert this enrichment facility into a, “nuclear physics and technology center” (2018, p. 18) in which no nuclear material will be present. The IAEA has also requested additional information about Iran’s production of heavy water, which in essence, is used to rapidly produce enriched and converted uranium.
According to Kerr, a November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report states, “that the intelligence community cannot rule out that Iran has acquired from abroad—or will acquire in the future—a nuclear weapon or enough fissile material for a weapon.” (2009, p. 8). However, with its current nuclear program, it is much more feasible for Iran to produce its own fissile material. The uranium enrichment facilities in place have the ability to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU), which is known as one of the two types of material used in nuclear weapons, the other being plutonium, which is separated from spent nuclear reactor fuel. Mentioned in a 2013 IAEA report, Iran had halted its enrichment and heavy water reactor programs during the negotiations leading up to the JPA, this froze the nuclear program and allowed time to negotiate the JCPOA. When the JPA went into effect in 2014, Iran had enough uranium hexafluoride containing up to 5% uranium-235, which, if further enriched, would have the potential to yield enough HEU for as many as eight nuclear bombs (Kerr & Katzman, 2018). However, pursuant to the JCPOA, Iran has restricted or dismantled various portions of its nuclear program, and, as far as the IAEA is aware, currently lacks enough HEU to produce a nuclear weapon.
Iran has three centrifuge facilities to enrich uranium; two of which are in Natanz, and one near Qom. The Natanz commercial facility was designed to hold approximately 50,000 centrifuges. In 2013, this facility alone had produced nearly 11,000 kg of LEU containing up to 5% uranium-235, which, again, was enough to potentially supply eight nuclear weapons (Kerr, 2018). However, following the JCPOA, that amount has declined due to ‘watering down’ and otherwise repurposing the materials. The other facility in Natanz began enriching uranium up to 20% uranium-235 in 2010. Iranian officials claimed that this enriched uranium was to be the source of fuel for Iran’s Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). Additionally, Iran began enriching uranium up to 20% uranium-235 in 2011 at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant in Qom (Kerr, 2018). However, under the JCPOA, this facility will be reconfigured into a ‘nuclear physics and technology center’ which will house no nuclear material and will instead modify two cascades for the production of stable isotope for medical and industrial uses. Iranian officials have indicated in the past that their goal was to construct at least 10 additional centrifuge plants (Kerr, 2012), furthering speculation that Iran’s ultimate goal, regardless of explanation, was to produce enough HEU to supply a nuclear weapons program. Furthermore, toward the 13th and 14th year of the JCPOA, Iran intends to ramp up production of HEU ‘20-fold’ in order to produce enough enriched uranium to fuel five or six nuclear reactors (Kerr, 2018).
More recent statements from the U.S. intelligence community (IC) has indicated that Iran does in fact possess the technical ability to produce nuclear weapons, if it chooses to do so. While it has been proven that Iran has the ability to produce sufficient amounts of fissile material to produce a nuclear weapon, it is not known whether the country has taken the additional steps necessary to do so. Although in 2008 IAEA report from Director-General El’Baderei indicates that the IAEA did not possess information on the actual design or manufacture of components for nuclear weapons (The Director General, 2009), a mere three years later, General Amano indicated that the IAES does in fact have credible information that Iran has carried out the activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device, including the acquisition of information related to the development of a nuclear device and the testing of components related to a nuclear device (Kerr, 2018). These reports state that these activities took place prior to 2003, and that there is no surmountable proof that the events have taken place since. Additionally, testimony from former Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan has confirmed that Iran has been provided with nuclear explosive design information (The Director General, 2008). All things considered, the fact remains that at least 17 years ago, Iran was exploring their ability to produce a nuclear device. While the United States has not officially verified or authenticated this information, it is cause enough for concern. Regardless of whether or not it has been verified that Iran has the ability to produce a nuclear weapon, it has been verified that Iran has taken steps since then to procure the materials for a nuclear weapons program. At last check, Iran’s nuclear program has been theorized to have the ability to produce enough HEU for one nuclear bomb in less than 12 months (Kerr, 2018).
The priority of the Intelligence Community:The United States should be concerned with the evidence indicating that Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon is more advanced than the Intelligence Community initially thought. Iran should be assumed to have the ability to build a nuclear weapon. According to Nuclear Threat Initiative, “currently, Iran has complete nuclear fuel cycle capabilities including uranium mining, milling, conversion, and enrichment facilities” (2019, para. 3) The complete nuclear fuel cycle can manufacture highly enriched uranium which is used to develop nuclear weapons. A nuclear armed Iran is a threat to the United States and its allies abroad. Iran is now the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism. Iran could, in theory, share its fuel cycle capability and know-how with radical groups hostile to the United States. Thee entirety of intelligence is required by August 31st, 2019. The intelligence will be provided in written reports and oral briefings with the President, select members of the IC, and White House staff.
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) requirement:Determine the Iranian ability to acquire or build a nuclear weapon, and the ability to successfully launch and detonate one against the United States or one of our European allies with foreign aid. The CIA is tasked to recruit sources or spies to attend the International Conference on the Safe Use of Nuclear Energy in Beijing to collect specific intelligence regarding the requirement. Before an asset is tasked overseas for the requested requirement, the CIA must ensure that the information has not been previously collected by analyzing all relevant databases (Lowenthal, & Clark, 2016). After validation of the requirement is met, the CIA will advise and meet with the asset at a set time and day to prioritize the nature of the requested information. Using human intelligence (HUMINT), the CIA must be able to collect and determine Iranian, Chinese, and Russian goals, nuclear weapon designs and intention plans, confirm the optimal range of their nuclear weapons systems, determine the ability Iran has to develop more long-range nuclear weapons, and to verify if nuclear weapons can reach the United States or its allies. Once the sufficient information is collected from sources or spies, the information should begin the processing and exploitation phase by the collection analyst. The collection analyst must determine the accuracy and reliability of the intelligence product through corroborating information (Lowenthal, & Clark, 2016). Corroborating information can be done using open source intelligence or, if required, a polygraph test on sources. If intelligence is deemed unreliable or inaccurate, the intelligence cycle process should begin again, and request the asset to collect more reliable information.
National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) requirement:Determine the Iranian ability to create nuclear weapons, and whether Iran, China, and Russian military show changes of military and nuclear structure. The NGA is tasked to conduct radar, spectral, and infrared imagery on the purported testing site near Shahrud. Information must be collected the weeks and months before and during the first week of September that the alleged tests are to take place. Using geospatial intelligence (GEOINT), the NGA is required to collect data using aircraft and satellites to describe, assess, and visually depict physical features and geographical changes to Iranian military forces and nuclear structure, military and nuclear capabilities and intentions, pinpoint nuclear weapon vulnerabilities of interested targets, and calculate nuclear weapon trajectories (The National Academics Press, 2019). The collected imagery must be real-time situation intelligence of high quality imagery of precise locations and targets. It is important that the analysts produce specialized products for the consumers, such as topographical and terrain maps, geophysical data, detection movement, and, perhaps most importantly, physical changes within the specified geographical area that would indicate nuclear weaponry testing (The National Academics Press, 2019). For the analysis, the NGA will perform all-source analysis, meaning imagery such as spectral and infrared may require imagery intelligence (IMINT) and measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT) to provide physical and geospatial phenomena. The NGA may require further assistance from the CIA to provide insight on the targets. Finished intelligence reports will be submitted to the NGA Enterprise Operations Directorate where it will then be disseminated and should include detailed reports for expert analysis.
National Security Agency (NSA) requirement:Determine whether Iran has or has had incriminating communication with China and Russia, as well as when and how often they are communicating and whether encryption is being utilized. The NSA’s mission is specifically limited to gathering information about international persons. The NSA is required to collect signals intelligence (SIGINT), communications intelligence (COMINT), foreign instrumentation signals intelligence (FISINT) and electronic intelligence (ELINT) overseas, by providing consumers with critical information on Iran’s nuclear weapon facilities. Collection must include electronic signals and systems used by foreign targets including but not limited to communications systems, radars, and weapons systems. It is vital that communication of human language is included, including face-to-face and telephone conversations, text messages, and online interactions to determine the intentions, capabilities, and actions of Brigadier General Mohsen Fakhrizadeh Mahabadi and Dr. Hassan Mohseni (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), who collectively run the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons program. It is also high priority to identify the design of any radars detected. CIA sources quote ballistic missile range is estimated at 1000 – 1500 miles. Telemetry should be used to confirm measurements and data on the altitude, speed, trajectory, and engine status (Lowenthal & Clark, 2016) of nuclear weapon capability in North Korea and Shahrud. After the intelligence is collected, it will be sent to the appropriate translators and cryptologists where the raw data is then turned into a product that can be disseminated to the CIA and NGA.
Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) requirement:Determine whether the Iranian government is in fact building a secret facility to test nuclear weapons. The DIA is tasked with collection of open source intelligence (OSINT). All electronic, print, photographic information that is publicly available to anyone through legal means as it pertains (Lowenthal & Clark, 2016) to enriched uranium facilities in Arak, Fordu, and Parchin. Television, radio broadcasts, books, magazines, and publicly available government documents should also be reviewed daily for indication of Iranian Government secret missile testing facility in the Dasht-e Lut and Dadht-e Kavir desert. As information is obtained, the OSINT must be evaluated and validated for its reliability. Any information containing geographical intelligence should be disseminated to the NGA to determine high-end or low-end intelligence. All other open source intelligence collected from the DIA should be disseminated to the CIA for further analysis. The CIA is responsible for collecting, producing, and promoting OSINT through its management of the DNI Open Source Center (Lowenthal & Clark, 2016).
Air Force System Command (AFSC) requirements:Determine what, if any, nuclear facilities in Iran are being used at storage, and whether there has been an increase in centrifuge research and development. The AFSC is tasked with monitoring Iran’s nuclear facilities and test sites, and identifying Iranian, Chinese, and Russian weapon yields and capabilities. Analysts are required to collect Radar Measurement and Signature intelligence (RADINT) to obtain images of Iran’s nuclear facilities and missile warheads. It is necessary to track trajectories on launches pertaining to the Iranian Government secret missile testing facility in Dasht-e Lut and Dadht-e Kavir desert. The concern for nuclear warhead testing should be determined using Radio Frequency Measurement and Signature intelligence (RF MASINT). The electromagnetic pulses should determine signatures from tested nuclear warheads (Lowenthal & Clark, 2016). To help locate the precise location of the purported Iranian Government secret missile testing facility, nuclear intelligence data is needed. Nuclear monitoring should be done remotely, and, if necessary, analysts may request data from the NSA, CIA, and NGA, but are required to provide missile warning and treaty monitoring for the CIA and the DIA.
- Bach, I. (2009, July 23). Iran’s Nuclear Facilities. Retrieved February 17, 2019, from https://ianbachusa.wordpress.com/2007/05/30/is-iran-playing-chess-or-checkers/1180575482-hr-294/.
- Burr, W. (2009). A Brief History of U.S.-Iranian Nuclear Negotiations. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 65(1), 21-34. doi:10.2968/065001004.
- CIA. (1981). Request for Review of Draft Paper on the Security Dimension of Non-Proliferation (pp. 1-19) (Central Intelligence Agency, Office of Program Assessment). Washington, DC: The Director of Intelligence.
- CIA. (1986). Iran-Iraq: Ballistic Missile Warfare and Its Regional Implications (pp. 1-24) (Central Intelligence Agency). Washington, DC: CIA.
- CIA. (1995). Weapons Proliferation Threat (pp. 1-20) (Central Intelligence Agency, Nonproliferation Center). Langley, VA: CIA.
- Gary, S. (2019). Iran’s Nuclear Program: Status (pp. 1-22) (Nonproliferation and Export Controls on the National Security Council). Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.
- Kamaali, M. (2008, June 30). Interview with Iran’s Ambassador to IAEA. Retrieved February 17, 2019, from http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Interview_with_Iran_s_Ambassador_to_IAEA.htm.
- Kerr, P. K. (2009). Iran’s Nuclear Program: Status (pp. 1-21). Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.
- Kerr, P. K. (2012). Iran’s Nuclear Program: Status (pp. 1-22) (Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division). Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.
- Kerr, P. K. (2018). Iran’s Nuclear Program: Status (pp. 1-69). Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.
- Kerr, P. K., & Katzman, K. (2018). Iran Nuclear Agreement and U.S. Exit (pp. 1-38). Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.
- Lowenthal, M. M., & Clark, R. M. (2016). The Five Disciplines of Intelligence Collection. Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press.
- Nuclear Threat Initiative. (2019). Iran. Retrieved February 18, 2019, from https://www.nti.org/learn/countries/iran/.
- Tenet, G. J. (2004, June 20). DCI Remarks on Iraq’s WMD Programs. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/news-information/speeches-testimony/2004/tenet_georgetownspeech_02052004.html.
- The Director General. (2008). Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (pp. 1-13) (IAEA Atoms for Peace). Board of Governors.
- The Director General. (2009). Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008) and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran (pp. 1-5) (IAEA Atoms for Peace). Board of Governors.
- The National Academics Press. (2013). Core Areas of Geospatial Intelligence. In Future U.S. Workforce for Geospatial Intelligence. Retrieved February 18, 2019, from https://www.nap.edu/read/18265/chapter/4#34.
- United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. (2019). Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) – UNODA. Retrieved February 19, 2019, from https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/npt/.
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