The evidence that Iran is building a nuclear weapons programme is strong; one of the many peices of evidence against this proposition is the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) which said that Iran had stopped its weapons programme. The estimate given in 2007 was talking about Iran’s programme in 2003. Iran did stop its programme in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war – as I’ve previously written about Libya doing the same thing. The Iraq War did change the “regional logic on WMD” as anticipated by MI6.
But this did not last, the mismanagement of the Iraq war and the rise of an insurgency meant that Iran did not feel as threatened. The NIE have since be classified however there are reports which show what the American intelligence community states in the estimates. According to the Washington Post, the 2011 NIE “a significant, if subtle, shift from the main conclusion of a controversial 2007 estimate that Iran had halted its weaponization work” and finds that Iran is conducting “early-stage R&D work on aspects of the manufacturing process for a nuclear weapon.” This was also the assessment of the CIA in 2010.
In any event, the U.S does not have a monopoly on intelligence and assessment. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has stated that it is “increasingly concerned” that Iran is working on a nuclear weapons programme. According to Haaretz, the IAEA has also seen evidence that “seem to point to the existence” of possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program. Yukiya Amano, the director of the IAEA also makes clear that Iran is not cooperating satisfactorily with the UN watchdog (nor was that the first time, in 2009 Iran deceived the IAEA about an enrichment facility in Qom which led them to say Iran was not being “transparent” with them).
The Sunday Times wrote about a 2011 report compiled for the United Nations Security Council which found that Tehran “sidestepped international sanctions in its programme to build intercontinental ballistic missiles and develop a nuclear weapon.”
Quite damning is the fact that Iranian documents acquired by The Times show that 2007 NIE estimate was now “worthless” because the documents show “Iran’s work in this field has no possible civilian application. It makes sense only for a programme to develop a nuclear weapon.”
In the documents obtained by The Times, Iranian military scientists suggest a way around the problem: by running surrogate tests that substitute titanium deuteride for the uranium compound. They suggest “continuing the work of replacement materials such as TiD2 [titanium deuteride] in order to avoid U [Uranium] pollution in the production of UD3”
UD3, according to The Times, “has only one application — to be the metaphorical match that lights a nuclear bomb.” In 2009, the Wall Street Journal also reported that the German intelligence agency, the BND, "showed comprehensively" that "development work on nuclear weapons can be observed in Iran even after 2003." This is also the conclusion of French intelligence and British assessments.
According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, Iran’s ambition to produce a nuclear weapon is “beyond reasonable doubt.” This of course does not make Iran gaining weapons inevitable, as the IISS says: “If it does decide to build nuclear weapons, this would likely be detected before it assembled a single weapon, much less the small arsenal that would be needed to make the risk worthwhile.”
The conclusion here is that Iran has serious ambitions for a nuclear weapon and that Iran has acted to this end in advancing a programme. The evidence here suggests that Iran is still not close gaining the bomb – but its intentions and scientists are serious enough to suggest its programme is a serious issue which must be countermanded before it does get what it seeks: a weaponised nuclear weapon. The distinction between a programme and a weapons system may seem trivial but its important: Iran does not have the bomb, nor in the assessment of the evidence is its emergence imminent - but its programme exists, is significantly advancing and has a clear goal. The policy recommendation is not military engagement at this point in time. I prefer the method suggested by John Sawers, the current head of MI6. He said in a speech given to the Society of Editors in 2010:
Stopping nuclear proliferation cannot be addressed purely by conventional diplomacy. We need intelligence-led operations to make it more difficult for countries like Iran to develop nuclear weapons. The longer international efforts delay Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons technology, the more time we create for a political solution to be found.
I will write another post at some point about why Iran getting nuclear weapons is something to be avoided. But assuming for now that it is something to be avoided, the means by which that is to be done at this moment in time, given the lack of imminence of a programme, is engagement and covert actions. I will provide more meat to these arguments in the aforementioned future post, this is merely just to address the Ron Pauls of the world who believe that 2007 NIE is sacred and there is no evidence for a programme when in fact, British, American, French, German, international and even Iranian evidence exists.