There have been several unexpected CIA windfalls, including the defection of a senior Iranian scientist.
The National Intelligence Estimate on Iran due from the Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, last autumn is now six months overdue, and there is speculation that the delay has been caused by the need to keep making last-minute changes in the assessments. The new evaluations have been prompted by several unexpected CIA windfalls, including the defection of a senior figure from within Tehran’s scientific community.
In June 2009 Shahram Amiri, a thirty-two year-old physicist employed by Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, defected to the CIA while on a pilgrimage to Mecca. His information, which includes details of the uranium enrichment plant at Qom, is considered crucial to developing a comprehensive picture of Iran’s current capability and future potential in the nuclear weapons research field.
Amiri’s decision to seek political asylum is one of several taken by individuals who, until recently, have been closely associated with the current regime. In 2007 the trend was started by General Ali Reza Asgari, the deputy defence minister and commander of the Revolutionary Guard who defected while on a visit to Turkey, and most recently Mohammed Reza Heydari, a senior diplomat based in Oslo.
Some analysts believe that the murder of Professor Masoud Ali Mohammadi, by a motorcycle bomb outside his house on 12 January, was intended as a warning from the regime to other potential dissidents who were contemplating either fleeing the country or leaking sensitive information to the opposition group that in 2003 disclosed the first details of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. The professor had already received several threats, had been raided by the secret police, and experienced other harassment from officials.
There is considerable pressure on Blair to produce an NIE that will withstand the criticism of the last document which will have a declassified summary available for public consumption. The 2007 NIE, which the Department of Energy declined to endorse, attracted much adverse comment because the executive summary was misinterpreted by some as suggesting that Iran had ceased work on building a viable nuclear warhead.
This led to some commentators accusing the Bush administration of having exaggerated the risk from Tehran, but they had failed to spot that the key contributor, being the Department of Energy, had not signed off on the NIE. Since the DoE is the lead intelligence agency responsible for monitoring nuclear proliferation, this was a fatal deficiency.
In fact the 2003 NIE simply noted that immediately following the Coalition’s invasion of Iraq in March 2003 there was some evidence, in the form of confidential computer records acquired by the CIA, that Tehran had suspended warhead research, but there was then no indication whether the suspension was temporary or permanent.
The latest analysis, submitted to Congress in April 2010, concluded that “Iran is developing technological capabilities applicable to nuclear weapons and, at a minimum, is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.” The updated NIE is scheduled for release sometime in August and is likely to offer policy-makers a much more detailed picture of Iranian progress, largely based on defector debriefings.