In the eyes of some conservative media commentators, questioning whether Iran is bent on building nuclear weapons is tantamount to believing the moon landing never happened. But being skeptical of the prevailing Iran narrative isn’t just for loony conspiracy theorists – it’s the official assessment of the highest intelligence official in the United States.
Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on March 12, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reiterated the view of the intelligence community about Iran’s nuclear development: “[w]e do not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.” (Clapper also stated that if Iran did make that key decision,” Iran could not divert safeguarded material and produce a weapon-worth of WGU [weapons-grade uranium] before this activity is discovered.”). More specifically, he noted “Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons. This makes the central issue its political will to do so.” Contrary to some media reports that suggest a nuclear-armed Iran is inevitable, Iranian nuclear weapons are not a foregone conclusion.
To be clear: Clapper did not minimize the serious risks associated with Iran’s current strategic plans. He expressed concern about Iran’s ballistic missile program, whose progress has been a subject of extensive debate in recent years. Clapper said that Iran was “expanding the scale, reach, and sophistication of its ballistic missile arsenal,” and alluded to Iran’s interest in potentially developing ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles). However, he offered no specific timeline for when Iran might be able to develop an ICBM (last year, the Department of Defense predicted that Iran would not be able to flight-test an ICBM until at least 2015).
On balance, Clapper’s remarks suggested that Iranian ballistic missile development was farther along than public information suggests, prompting some questions from analysts about the disparity. (For more on this matter, see Greg Thielmann’s assessment here).
If anything, the ambiguity surrounding Iran’s missile development underscores the importance of using all available time and political space to influence Iran’s future course. Clapper insists that this can be done, maintaining that “Iran’s nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran.”
There has been skepticism in some corners about the extent of this international influence, given that the nuclear impasse has yet to be resolved. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) asked DNI Clapper if he agreed with the sentiment of Gen. James Mattis, head of US Central Command, who recently voiced a belief that the sanctions were not working.
“Not completely,” Clapper answered. He went on to explain that the sanctions “are having a huge impact on Iran” and that his agency sees “indications” of a shifting decision-making calculus, although it was true that “thus far the sanctions have not induced a change in Iranian government policy.” Sen. Collins concluded her questioning by maintaining, “The fact that they [sanctions] haven’t produced a change suggests that Gen. Mattis is correct in saying they’re not working.”
But this is the wrong standard by which to evaluate the effectiveness of sanctions. Sanctions are, as Clapper noted in his testimony, having a severe impact on Iran’s economy, but the only way we’ll know if they worked is if they are able to serve as leverage in the negotiation process (there is indication that the international community is now offering sanctions relief to Iran in exchange for limits on its uranium enrichment).
It’s important for policymakers not to view sanctions in a vacuum, but rather as part of a broader, multifaceted strategy aimed at breaking a dangerous stalemate. Otherwise, they risk losing sight of the need for flexibility later on, which will undoubtedly be needed to make sanctions an effective international policy tool.
All in all, this assessment by the top US intelligence official highlights the importance of being realistic about the status of Iran’s nuclear program. It should go without saying that US policy options should be determined by facts on the ground. The facts suggest the worst-case scenario is not imminent, and there’s time to find a workable compromise with Iran that forestalls a much more dangerous outcome.