Iran nukes: How would the world know? (CNN) Cable News Network) By Pam Benson / Blog 03/26/12)
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American officials are adamant. The U.S. will respond - possibly with
military force - if Iran crosses a red line and decides to actually
make nuclear weapons.
But will the U.S. know with an degree of certainty that a line has
The decision itself to push ahead really comes down to one person,
according to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Clapper
told a Senate hearing recently that any decision would be based
on "the supreme leader´s world view and the extent to which he thinks
that would benefit the state of Iran or, conversely, not benefit."
Clapper was referring to Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the supreme leader
"It´s Khameini, period, full stop, end of sentence," agreed Kenneth
Pollack, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution.
But trying to read one person´s mind is no easy thing, observed
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently, noting how Iraq´s Saddam
Hussein was misread by U.S. intelligence.
"People sometimes say and do things that are at variance with what
one might expect," the secretary of state said. "It´s still quite
bewildering to me why Saddam Hussein wanted everyone to believe that
he had chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons of mass
destruction when apparently he did not."
Ephraim Asculai, a retired Israeli nuclear scientist, said there are
three ways the world will know if Iran has decided to break out and
make a dash to nuclear weapons: Iran tells everyone, the the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discovers it, or the
intelligence community figures it out. But he is not terribly
confident any intelligence service - whether it´s the United States´
or Israel´s or some other nation´sĖ will discover it.
"Depending on the intelligence community - this is not very good,"
Even though the weaponization program may be stopped, Iran continues
to push ahead with the more difficult component of a potential
nuclear weapons program, the manufacturing of fissile material.
The IAEA is able to keep tabs on Iran´s uranium enrichment efforts.
Although Iran is not believed to be enriching to weapons-grade, it is
churning out stockpiles of lower-enriched uranium that could be
rather quickly - within two to three months - enriched to the 90%
needed for a weapon.
Current and former intelligence officials agree that IAEA inspectors
play an instrumental role.
CIA Director David Petraeus recently told a Senate hearing: "I
believe their past report was a very accurate reflection of reality,
of the situation on the ground. I think that is the authoritative
document when it comes to informing the public of all the countries
in the world of the situation there."
By just about anyone´s account, Iran is one of the toughest
Kenneth Pollack from Brookings, said the Iranians are "deliberately
secret, but it´s also a very hard target because Iran is secretive by
nature." He called the Iranian system "utterly byzantine and opaque"
which will make it difficult to determine if the supreme leader,
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has given the green light to produce nuclear
But former Defense Department official Colin Kahl said the
intelligence community doesn´t have to hear the order from Khamenei.
"We would likely detect the effects of a decision by Khameini to go
for a bomb even if we didn´t detect or intercept the order," Kahl
He also said there would be some telltale signs of Iran´s intentions.
"Convincing evidence the supreme leader had decided to for a bomb
would include enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade level or a
decision to kick out IAEA inspectors - both actions we would detect,"
Without getting specific, U.S. intelligence officials have said they
are using everything in the spy toolbox to figure out what Iran may
be up to. There are numerous technologies and assets that are likely
Satellites are taking snapshots of known and suspected facilities in
Iran looking for signs of construction, movements and any other clues
which suggest a weapons program.
Hyperspectral imagery from satellites as well as sensors placed near
facilities are able to collect information along the electromagnetic
spectrum to detect emissions coming from the building and compounds
in the soil that could help determine if there are any radiological
materials or other elements associated with nuclear weapons.
A CIA stealth unmanned aerial vehicle recently crashed inside Iran.
And although the U.S. government said it was on a mission in
Afghanistan near the Iran border, U.S. military officials told CNN
the Sentinel drone was on a surveillance mission of suspected nuclear
sites in the country.
Intercepting communications coming in and out of Iran falls under the
purview of the National Security Agency.
Human intelligence is much tougher for the United States. The lack of
diplomatic ties for more than 30 years means there has been no
embassy for intelligence officers to use as cover.
But there are signs of human assets on the ground although it is
unclear who they might be working for.
Over the past several years, five Iranian scientists associated with
nuclear activities have been killed in similar fashion.
Who employed the assassin or assassins is unknown, although many
people suspect the Israelis were behind the operations. The Israelis
have been mum on any role they might have played.
The unexplained explosions at three sensitive Iranian facilities
could suggest a possible sabotage campaign. And cyberexperts say
someone with deep knowledge of Iran´s enrichment program contributed
to the Stuxnet computer virus that disabled a number of Iran´s
centrifuges. Again, who orchestrated the attack is not known.
Then there is the mysterious case in 2010 of the Iranian scientist
who defected to the United States, seemed to have second thoughts and
ended up returning to Iran. It´s unclear why Shahram Amiri went back
to his country, but a U.S official said Amiri had received
approximately $5 million for providing the U.S. government
with "valuable, original information" on Iran´s nuclear program.
But it does raise the question whether there are other scientists in
Iran working for the west.
Other intelligence services have also contributed to the knowledge
about Iran according to the IAEA. Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia to
name just a few have a vested interest in stopping a potential
Iranian nuclear weapons program. Unlike their American counterparts,
they have a better ability to blend into Iranian society.
The Iranian opposition group known as MeK, which took credit for
publicly disclosing Iran´s then-secret nuclear facilities in 2002, is
a question mark. The MeK is on the State Department´s terrorism list
and many U.S. intelligence officials are skeptical about how much the
group really knows. But it does have supporters in Iran and as one
U.S. official put it, "It´s important to consider all leads in
assessing Iran´s nuclear program and the MeK clearly tries to keep a
close eye on it."
The Israelis reportedly work closely with the MeK.
Overall, former CIA Director Hayden does not consider the MeK "a
critical part of the narrative" of Iran.
Open source information such as Iranian research papers and academic
studies can provide potential clues to Iran´s nuclear knowledge.
And keeping an eye on commercial and industrial goods coming into the
country not only gives insights into what Iran needs, but also opens
the door to the opportunity to sabotage materials critical to a
But in the end, it comes down to whether all of those intelligence
assets will paint an accurate enough picture of Iran´s activities to
help President Barack Obama make what could arguably be the most
critical decision of his presidency.
In a commentary on cnn.com last week, Hayden wrote, "The challenge
for American intelligence now is to inform the president of an
Iranian decision to weaponize its nuclear stockpile with sufficient
confidence and in sufficient time for him to decide to launch a pre-
emptive war in one of the world´s most sensitive and volatile
regions." (© 2012 Cable News Network 03/26/12)
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