What We Don’t Know About Iran Could Hurt Us

Ilan Berman

To hear the Obama administration tell it, the framework nuclear accord agreed to between the P5+1 powers and Iran earlier this month in Lausanne, Switzerland is a good deal. The White House has pledged that the final agreement to be concluded in coming weeks, backed up by a robust monitoring and verification regime, will block Iran’s pathways to a bomb for at least a decade—and perhaps considerably longer.

But is this feasible? The Iranians, at least, appear to have other ideas. Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has declared that he will not sign off on a final nuclear agreement unless the country’s military facilities are declared off limits to Western oversight. Similarly, the deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Hossein Salami, publicly equated the idea of opening up the Islamic Republic’s military facilities to outside inspectors to a “national humiliation.”

That’s significant, given that a number of key Iranian nuclear sites—including Parchin in northwest Iran and the controversial uranium enrichment facility at Fordo—are known to be co-located with the regime’s military installations. Any inspection and verification regime that fails to gain access to these facilities would by definition be woefully inadequate. Yet, given the track record of the nuclear talks so far, there’s little reason to believe that the Western powers will stand firm on this demand in the face of continued Iranian intransigence.

Nor should we feel comfortable relying on traditional intelligence methods to gain an adequate picture of the scope and breadth of Iran’s nuclear activities. For more than half a century, the U.S. intelligence community has failed repeatedly to predict the emergence of nuclear capabilities among our adversaries.

The failures date all the way back to August of 1949, when the Central Intelligence Agency’s Office of Reports and Estimates was caught by surprise by the Soviet Union’s maiden test of a nuclear device, code-named “RDS-1,” on the territory of what is today the Republic of Kazakhstan. The situation was repeated a decade-and-a-half later, when, in October of 1964, the People’s Republic of China carried out its first atomic trial at the Lop Nur test range in Inner Mongolia, demonstrating a capability that conventional wisdom in Washington held Beijing did not yet possess.

The pattern repeated itself again and again in the decades that followed. India’s May 1974 nuclear test at Pokhran was not accurately predicted by the U.S. intelligence community, despite extensive American monitoring of India’s nuclear-related activities in preceding years. Neither was its testing of five nuclear weapons in May of 1998, a misstep that irate lawmakers on Capitol Hill termed at the time to be the greatest failure of U.S. intelligence “in a decade.” (U.S. intelligence agencies, having been put on notice, did a better job of tracking the subsequent tit-for-tat detonations of five nuclear carried out by India’s regional rival, Pakistan). And in October of 2006, when North Korea detonated its first nuclear device at its Punggye-ri Test Site, near southern China, it came as a shock to many in Washington, who—as a result of flawed intelligence estimates—lacked clarity about the DPRK’s true nuclear potential.

There is no reason to believe that things will be any different in the case of Iran. If the past experiences of the nuclear age are any indication, the Obama administration’s declarations of faith in our ability to accurately forecast Iran’s nuclear status—and to do so, in all likelihood, without complete and unfettered access to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities—aren’t just bad policy. They are also a dangerous misreading of history.


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