Written by Emily B. Landau
Assessing Nuclear Activity in Syria and Iran: The Elusive Smoking Gun
INSS Insight No. 54,
May 4, 2008.
Emily B. Landau
On April 24, US officials briefed lawmakers on Syria's covert nuclear reactor. They explained their "high confidence" that what was destroyed last September in Syria was in fact a nuclear reactor for the production of plutonium, and that it was built with the long-term and sustained assistance of North Korea. In contrast to this certainty, a central aspect of their estimate regarding Syria's nuclear plans adopted a vaguer tone: when asked whether the material to be produced by the reactor would be used in a nuclear weapons program, the Intelligence officials accorded this only a "low confidence" level.
Interestingly and rather surprisingly, the officials acknowledged that a low confidence estimate did not concur with what they actually believed to be the case. In fact, on the basis of their overall analysis of the situation, it was their belief that the reactor was intended to produce nuclear weapons. Indeed, they found no other reasonable explanation for the reactor: it was clearly not for producing electricity, and it was ill-suited to be a research reactor. Moreover, Syria had acted suspiciously in other regards, such as rushing to destroy the remains of the reactor after the attack. But due to the lack of "additional clinical evidence of other activities" – most importantly, the absence of a reprocessing facility – they could not accord this assessment the level of confidence that they actually believed to be the case. As one of the Intelligence officials at the briefing tried to explain: "there's a difference between evidence and an assessment."
This episode underscores the problematics involved when decisions regarding nuclear proliferation activities are expected to be grounded in clear-cut evidence of a "smoking gun" – namely, in some physical or clinical evidence that proves beyond a doubt the illegal and dangerous nature of the nuclear activity in question.
Generally speaking, smoking guns – although packaged by those who seek them as the epitome of proof based on hard evidence – are actually subject to interpretation, and can prove to be quite elusive. In realty, there are no clear-cut criteria for smoking guns. Short of producing evidence of a nuclear bomb, is any piece of evidence truly iron-clad? If someone is not interested in finding a state guilty of illegal nuclear activity, then with regard to most evidence – again, short of a nuclear bomb – a more benign interpretation can generally be manufactured. In the final analysis, much depends on the ability of the presenter to convince others that the facts exposed do or do not constitute incriminating evidence.
Moreover, the history of the past five and a half years of dealing with Iran's nuclear activities demonstrates that the ongoing search for a smoking gun can result in the loss of valuable time in confronting a determined proliferator. Throughout 2003 the search was on for a smoking gun in Iran, which was never found. But in late 2007, the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concluded that for most of that same year – as well as for close to 20 years before that time – Iran had actually been engaged in an active nuclear weapons program. If in 2003 states had acted upon what they sensed and believed to be the case in light of Iran's long history of deception in the nuclear realm – rather than focusing on finding a smoking gun – things might have evolved differently.
This leads to another problem with smoking guns: determined proliferators are well aware of the fact that states are looking for this kind of evidence, and they put tremendous efforts into hiding it. Therefore, the difficulties that are encountered in finding a smoking gun should come as no surprise, and the inability to find one due to states' concealment efforts should be factored into assessments. According to the NIE, Iran stopped one aspect of its nuclear program in the fall of 2003: weaponization. It continued with the other two activities that are essential for nuclear weapons: production of fissile material (uranium enrichment), and development of long-range ballistic missiles. The decision to stop the weaponization program had a double logic for Iran: first, this was the part of its program that could be achieved in the least amount of time, and thus it was the easiest to suspend temporarily while Iran continued to work on the other two prongs. Second, this was the only part of the program that Iran believed it would be hard pressed to account for, if discovered. Uranium enrichment in Iran has been conducted openly for the past several years and Iran steadfastly continues to insist that it is for civilian purposes, and long-range missiles can be explained as intended for conventional warheads. But designs for a nuclear warhead suggest a different narrative that would be more difficult to explain.
All of this leads to the conclusion that connecting the dots of weapons-related nuclear activity should be carried out in the realm of strategic analysis, where hard evidence of so-called smoking guns is but one important component (but not a sine qua non) in an overall, intricate picture. Something is amiss when Intelligence officials have to bend over backwards to explain an estimate that doesn’t concur with what they believe to be the actual nature of a state's nuclear activity based on their overall analysis and powers of deduction. Moreover, there is the real risk that media articles will pick up the line that there is "low confidence" that nuclear activity is intended for weapons, and forget the broader, more complex message that was presented. The sound bytes that appeared in the media following publication of the NIE – and the damage that they caused to efforts to confront Iran – are a case in point.
Comprehensive and logical assessments with regard to nuclear proliferation obviously need to include as much hard evidence as possible, but in the interest of non-proliferation, they should not be held hostage to the absence of a smoking gun.