“We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know” on Iran’s Nuclear Program

James Phillips /

The Pentagon’s top intelligence official this week indicated that although Iran has been developing the means to build nuclear weapons, his agency has discerned no sign that Tehran has made a final decision to do so. Lt. General Ronald Burgess, the chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Voice of America in an interview that “We have not seen indication that the government has made the decision to move ahead with the program. But the fact still remains that we don’t know what we don’t know.”

Given Iran’s long history of deception on the nuclear issue, it already may have decided to finish the job but concealed that decision, as it has much else in its nuclear program. But it is difficult to take seriously the proposition that Tehran will permanently refrain from building a nuclear weapon, given its extravagant multi-billion dollar investment in a nuclear infrastructure that is far more extensive than what it needs to sustain its tiny civilian nuclear program. Moreover, it is unlikely that it would be willing to pay an increasingly high price in terms of international isolation and U.N. Security Council sanctions for its failure to fully cooperate with IAEA inspectors, not to mention the growing risk of a war with Israel, if it wasn’t determined to ultimately attain its long-held ambition of becoming a nuclear weapons state.

Although Lt. General Burgess candidly admitted that Iran’s murky decision-making process makes it difficult to obtain precise information on Iranian intentions, it is disconcerting that he reaffirmed the “bottom line assessments” of the controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that concluded Iran had halted some parts of its nuclear weapons program in 2003. This assessment has been dismissed by Britain, France, Germany, Israel and other allies.

Moreover, Iran continues to make extensive efforts to acquire technologies, materials, and equipment useful for making a nuclear weapon. Yesterday the Los Angeles Times reported that three Iranians were indicted for trying to smuggle sophisticated industrial components from the U.S. to Iran that could be used to develop a nuclear weapon. Such nuclear-related smuggling efforts do not jibe with the complacent conclusions of the 2007 NIE. As a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement told the L.A. Times: “These are not sewing machines, after all.”