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No, U.S. Doesn't Have 'Absolute Knowledge' on Iran's Nukes

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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Contrary to the contention of Secretary of State John Kerry, leading lawmakers and other experts tell us the U.S. intelligence community does not have "absolute knowledge" about past military aspects of Iran's nuclear program.

During a video conference with reporters Tuesday, Kerry was asked whether Iran had to address outstanding questions about past nuclear weapons work from the International Atomic Energy Agency as a condition for the West lifting or easing sanctions.

With the deadline for concluding an Iran agreement less than two weeks away, the secretary's response raised eyebrows. "We’re not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another," he said. "We know what they did. We have no doubt. We have absolute knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged in."

Instead of dwelling on the past, Kerry said, the agreement he was negotiating would stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon in the future.  

Representative Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, was incredulous this week when asked about Kerry's remarks. He told us, "My only thought here is that the secretary misspoke or did not understand the question."

He added that he didn't understand what Kerry meant. "We clearly don't have the picture that we need of Iran's capabilities. It remains one of the big concerns with any agreement," he said.

Kerry's remarks are important because U.S. officials, including Kerry, have previously said that as a condition of sanctions relief, Iran would have to answer the IAEA's outstanding questions about efforts to test and develop a nuclear weapon.

On Wednesday, State Department spokesman John Kirby said this was still the U.S. position, but described that position in more conciliatory terms. "We’ve said we’re not looking for a confession," Kirby said, "We’ve already made judgments about the past. But the sanctions lifting will only occur as Iran takes the steps agreed, including addressing possible military dimensions."

Kirby's remarks represent a subtle but nonetheless important shift in the administration's position. Kirby said sanctions would be lifted as Iran takes certain measures. The Joint Plan of Action signed in November 2013 says Iran would address the outstanding questions about its program before a final agreement is reached.

"There would be additional steps in between the initial measures and the final step, including, among other things, addressing the U.N. Security Council resolutions, with a view toward bringing to a satisfactory conclusion the U.N. Security Council's consideration of this matter," the agreement says.  Iran's past work on nuclear weapons -- such as testing devices aimed at miniaturizing a nuclear explosion in a warhead -- is a delicate matter for Iran. The Iranians have repeatedly denied they are building a nuclear weapon. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has allegedly even issued a religious edict or fatwa banning them. Acknowledging past weapons work would expose Iran's duplicity.

Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, told Bloomberg on Thursday that requiring an Iranian confession would be a blow to the regime's credibility.

“Frankly, it allows us to make the case to the world that Iran's repeated assertion ... that this has always been a peaceful, civilian nuclear program, is just not true,” he said. “The Iranians will resist any confirmation that they were engaged in an illicit nuclear weapons program to the very end.”

Coons said that he and other senators would judge the quality of a final Iran deal in part on how the deal compels Iran to fess up about its past weapons work. The U.S. must understand the details of Iran’s past illicit nuclear weapons work to be aware of what capabilities they’ve already developed and rebut Iranian misinformation, he said.

The most recent unclassified U.S. intelligence estimate of Iran's nuclear program is from 2007. It said that until 2003, the U.S. intelligence community had high confidence that "Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons." But that report also acknowledges intelligence gaps and therefore only assesses with "moderate confidence" that the halt in 2003 to some activities "represents a halt to Iran's entire nuclear weapons program."

Since the end of 2007, U.S. spies have had some success in uncovering Iran's clandestine nuclear work. In 2009, for example, the Obama administration forced Iran to acknowledge an enrichment facility burrowed into a mountain near Qom known as Fordow.

One former U.S. intelligence official who worked on Iran proliferation told us that U.S. intelligence agencies today maintain lists of several suspected sites that may be part of Iran's undeclared nuclear infrastructure. Kerry himself acknowledged that the U.S. has a list of such facilities, in February during a hearing in Congress when he was queried about claims from a Marxist-Islamist Iranian opposition group about such an undeclared nuclear facility.

So if Kerry has acknowledged that the U.S. government suspects some sites may be part of an Iranian nuclear network, how could he claim the U.S. has "absolute knowledge" of Iran's past military activities?

One answer may be that he simply misspoke by claiming U.S. knowledge was absolute, but that Kerry was correct in stating that the U.S. and its allies have no doubt that Iran has the knowledge and capability to make a weapon. 

Thomas Fingar, one of the authors of the 2007 U.S. estimate, told us that he found Kerry's statement inelegant but defensible. "We know a lot about the history of the program, but the most important thing is that we know they have mastered the ability to create fissile material for a bomb," he said.

Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, told us that senior U.S. officials know a lot about past Iranian weapons work, but "I think 'absolute' is the wrong word."

But he also says the distinction between "a lot" and "absolute" should not end the negotiations. "Do we hold the deal up to obtain a more complete knowledge? No, we need a deal to make sure they do not continue those activities," Kimball told us.

Not everyone in Washington agrees. Many in Congress fear Iran will freely break its new agreements, if it never even had to admit to violating its old ones.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the authors on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net