Seymour Hersh and Iranian Nukes: A Primer

Seymour Hersh’s new piece in the New Yorker has generated a fair amount of buzz, so much so that Iran hawks have quickly leaped into action to try to discredit it. Virtually none of the criticism of Hersh’s piece has actually addressed the substance of his article, however, and since the article is subscription-only, it’s possible that not many people have actually gotten a chance to read it. It may therefore be worthwhile simply to spell out what Hersh’s piece actually says.

By far the most significant revelation in the piece concerns the recently-completed 2011 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). NIEs represent the consensus judgments of the 16 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community, and as such their findings frequently have major political ramifications. The 2007 NIE was particularly important (and contested), for it concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and found no evidence that the program had resumed.

Predictably, the 2007 NIE elicited howls of outrage from hawks who have been pushing military action against Tehran, and in the years since they have constantly attempted to discredit it. It’s worth making clear, however, just what the NIE did and didn’t say. It found no evidence of an active Iranian nuclear weapons program — that is, a nuclear program with elements that had no conceivable civilian uses (e.g., nuclear warhead design). The NIE never claimed that Iran had halted its nuclear program entirely, only that none of the nuclear program’s projects were unambiguously military in scope. Thus, to point to the fact that Iran continues to enrich uranium as evidence that the 2007 NIE has been discredited, as the Iran hawks have frequently tried to do, simply misses the point; the NIE did not suggest that Iran had stopped enriching uranium.

Nor did the NIE claim that it’s inconceivable that the Iranian regime ultimately seeks a nuclear weapon. It’s quite plausible that the regime does (not least, to deter U.S. or Israeli military action). What the NIE claimed was that there was no hard evidence or smoking gun proving that this was the case. Thus the relevant question is not whether we believe in our heart of hearts that Iran is seeking nukes, but whether there is any incontrovertible evidence that it is. This question is particularly salient in the wake of the Iraq war intelligence fiasco. In the runup to war, most people (including many war opponents) suspected that Saddam Hussein had WMD programs of some kind, but the U.S. would have been better served to put less weight on such suspicions and more weight on the actual evidential record.

So what does the Hersh piece actually say? The biggest revelation is that despite four years of intense political pressure from Iran hawks pushing the intelligence community to renounce the 2007 NIE, the just-released 2011 NIE continues to find no clear evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. According to Hersh, analysts at the military’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in particular have pushed back against this political pressure; in fact, the DIA analysts suggest that Iran’s nuclear weapons program was primarily directed at Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, not Israel, and was abandoned following the fall of Saddam.

Typically, a declassified version of the NIE is released for public consumption. This has not been done with the 2011 NIE, however, for reasons that are unclear. It’s possible that the Obama administration fears a political backlash along the lines of the 2007 version, or that it is worried that publicizing the new NIE would undercut its relatively hard-line stance on Iran. Regardless, the fact that an declassified version of the NIE has not been released means that Hersh’s piece is the first time the public is hearing about it.

In light of this, it is obvious that most of the criticism of Hersh’s piece completely ignores its central contention. The issue, once again, is not whether we should believe in our heart of hearts that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon. The issue is whether the U.S. intelligence community has found any incontrovertible evidence that this is the case. If Hersh’s account of the 2011 NIE is correct, the intelligence community has not, and this is a fact that surely deserves to be mentioned in discussions of the Iranian nuclear issue.

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. “incontrovertible evidence?”

    Sy Hersh’ piece quotes Elbaradai as saying he has not seen so much as a “shred of evidence.” Words matter. “In case of (nuclear) safeguards, absolute proof is not needed,” IAEA’ Amano said today.

    So according to Sy Hersh what is missing? incontrovertible evidence, or a single shred of evidence? Lack of the former plausibly leaves IAEA just shy of “absolute proof”, while absence of the latter puts IAEA in a rather embarrassing spot.

  2. Sanctions-regime unjustified then.

    Is this the reason that this report is not made public?

    I want to conclude by expressing my disbelief that Seymour Hersh continues to write for a magazine that charges money, and not a dedicated, and free, internet-mdedium, like — say — huffington Post. But perhaps it was part of the deal — that gave him access to the report — that his findings should be kept for a restricted audience?

    If that’s the case, then I suppose we should be grateful for the little we’ve got, but it is certainly a worrying trend.

    If Sy is right, that this means that Iran have been dealt a great injustice and insult by being subjected to all those sanctions. We know that the sanctions of Iraq and Iran in the 80’s costed more than 400.000 iraqie children their lives – but how many Iranian ones have lost their lives due to the sanctions – thats what I want to know.

    And you bet that this is the reason why this report is not made public, and that they hope that too few will learn of its content. The Israel lobby is afraid that its hysterical wrongdoings vis-a-vis Iran and the terrible toll that the sanctions puts on ordinary iranians will be exposed

  3. Daniel gave good analysis of the arguments, but few facts. Perhaps he can help out. As I understand it, and it has gotten fuzzy but Nuke bombs require over 90% refined purity, Iran’s centrifuges were only able to get to 20% purity. That is an 8 fold difference.

    As to Iraq, remember the worrisome aluminum tubes? They were ordered through the UN, approved by the US dept of energy, had an iodized coating that Condi insisted was perfect for particle accelerators; while the Nuclear Physicists said the opposite, and the DoE approval of those tubes would suggest they were correct. Sometimes numbers and figures make the argument better than logical analysis.

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