IAEA Chief: ‘We Cannot Say That Iran Is Pursuing A Nuclear Weapons Program’

Discussing Iran’s nuclear program in an interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel, International Atomic Agency (IAEA) chief Yukiya Amano is careful not to suggest that the IAEA knows more than it actually knows:

SPIEGEL: According to the most recent estimates, Iran is only a year away from building a bomb.

Amano: I’m not so sure about that. Despite all unanswered questions, we cannot say that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

SPIEGEL: Because you lack the conclusive evidence, the “smoking gun?”

Amano: That’s not my choice of words. I’m talking about unanswered questions. What purpose do components for a highly explosive ignition system serve? What are neutron triggers needed for? Are there nuclear developments that suggest a military background? Iran must provide clarity on these issues. That’s the point.

Amano’s careful language is very much in keeping with U.S. intelligence community’s own public assessments. The CIA’s most recently released report, from March 2010, (pdf) stated:

We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to produce nuclear weapons, though we do not know whether Tehran will eventually decide to produce nuclear weapons. Iran continues to develop a range of capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so.

Now compare to this Washington Times’ lede yesterday on Israeli spy chief Meir Dagan’s statement that Iran will not be able to produce a nuclear bomb before 2015:

Israel and the United States recently revised their estimates of when Iran will field a nuclear weapon, reflecting difficulties inside Tehran’s program of building large numbers of centrifuges to enrich uranium.

I don’t mean to treat the Washington Times as representative here — irresponsibly hyping threats is, of course, central to that paper’s mission — only to point out that, given the stakes involved, and especially in light of very recent history, it’s important to speak carefully and accurately about what evidence we actually have in regard to Iran’s nuclear intentions.


“No one, absolutely nobody, perhaps not even Khamenei knows whether they will field a weapon, yet. Its all assumptions,” said Israeli analyst Meir Javedanfar, via email. “It will be a wait and see policy by the Supreme Leader. If by the time all is ready, his regime is weak both at home and abroad, he may test it, as a show of strength, especially at home.”

Iran may well eventually go for a nuclear weapon, at the very least it’s clear that they’re keeping that option open. As Secretary of State Clinton said in Abu Dhabi, the consequences of that could be grim, and, as Amano noted, the onus is on Iran to allay international concerns by cooperating more fully with the IAEA. But it’s also clearly irresponsible to assert more than we actually know.