Would The U.S. Really Know if Iran Goes Nuclear? Two Contrasting Case Studies

on December 16 | in CIA, Intelligence Collection, surveillance

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The Iran nuclear agreement has recently entered the implementation stage, yet the agreement’s critics nonetheless continue to argue Tehran could secretly build nuclear weapons despite the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) monitoring efforts. Hence, the ability of the United States intelligence community’s role to observe and monitor Iran’s compliance remains critical.

But is the IC up to the challenge? After all, no rx it has had mixed success with collecting data on foreign nuclear activities: during the 1970s, it missed most of India’s covert nuclear weapons program, but was able to detect Taiwan’s efforts.

Both examples demonstrate U.S. intelligence has the capability to assess whether a state is covertly developing nuclear weapons—as long as it also has the will and an open mind to do so. However, it also requires American policymakers to keep nonproliferation at the top of their national security agenda.

India: Analytic Biases Have Consequences

Delhi has twice successfully avoided U.S. intelligence efforts to detect its nuclear tests. When India first detonated a nuclear device in the west of the country on May 18, 1974, U.S. Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan did not learn about it until 30 minutes after the detonation.

Yet prior to the test, the U.S. had been monitoring Indian nuclear progress for almost three decades. The effort consisting of “open sources, diplomatic reporting, communications intelligence, and satellite photography” should have detected the abnormal activities of the Indian nuclear development program, according to Jeffrey Richelson, the author of Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea. Unfortunately, it was overshadowed by a strong and misleading assumption the country had little intension of acquiring nuclear weapons.

This seemed to have been a long-held belief within the IC. As far back as 1958, CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence assessed India’s nuclear development was intended for peaceful uses only. A 1961 national intelligence estimate (NIE) entitled Nuclear Weapons and Delivery Capabilities of Free World Countries Other Than the US and UK highlighted India’s facility upgrades and interest in producing uranium, but later argued India had no political aim to advance its nuclear program to build weapons. In 1964, a CIA report noted “although India had the ability to produce an atomic bomb quickly, it did not plan to do so ‘as yet.'” Despite the warning signs pointing in one direction, a special NIE in 1972, commissioned by Henry Kissinger, estimated the chance of India deciding to test its nuclear explosive device was “roughly even.”

After failing to warn the U.S. government in advance about the 1974 test, the intelligence community produced an after-action assessment of its lackluster performance. In this report requested by CIA deputy director Lt. Gen. Daniel O. Graham, analysts noted the “inadequate priority against an admittedly difficult target,” and the “lack of adequate communication among collectors and producers of the community” were two of the IC’s most fundamental problems.

Yet the IC missed the warning signs again a little over two decades later. In 1998, after the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had advocated for India to “come out of the nuclear closet,” won 250 seats in parliamentary elections and successfully formed a government, India conducted five more weapons tests that again surprised the U.S. intelligence community. The preparation for these nuclear weapons tests were covered up by a “campaign of duplicity” on the part of Indian leaders and, once again, “lack of attention” from the intelligence community

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Even though Delhi’s denial and deception (D&D) campaign muddled the early warning waters, U.S. satellite images that clearly captured increased activities at the Pokhran test site were left unanalyzed. Furthermore, had CIA (or the State Department, for that matter) dispatched its officers to nearby villages, the U.S. could have discovered India’s intentions, since it had been an open secret in the area.

India’s D&D efforts were well executed. Delhi’s understanding of U.S. surveillance capabilities enabled it to effectively avoid satellite monitoring since the U.S. frequently informed their Indian counterparts by confronting them with satellite imagery. These photos then became a manual for Delhi to hide its actions. Hence, the Indian military shifted the U.S. attention from the Pokhran site to the Chandipur missile test range by moving testing equipment and creating the impression it was testing ballistic missiles there. Indian officials’ continuous denials about preparing for nuclear tests also contributed to the campaign of deception.

However, India’s nuclear tests in 1998 were not a foregone conclusion, as the United States had previously deterred India from testing atomic bombs through the internal collaboration of intelligence collecting and diplomatic leverages.

For example, in May 1982, American KH-8, KH-9, and KH-11 satellites discovered India’s plan to modernize its nuclear weapons program and to conduct another nuclear test. The most advanced overhead technology at the time, the KH-9 HEXAGON satellite, also known as “Big Bird,” was equipped with panoramic ‘optical bar’ imaging cameras that “rotated as the swept back and forth” and covered 370 nautical miles.

This information advantage proved decisive. Just hours after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi approved further testing, U.S. Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger met with Indian foreign secretary Maharaja Krisna Rasgotra and told him, “ there would be major unfavorable consequences should India test [its nuclear devices].” As a result, Gandhi called off the tests within 24 hours of approving them.

Intelligence and diplomacy succeeded again in dissuading India from conducting a nuclear test in 1995. A total of six satellites captured what seemed to be Delhi’s preparation for another nuclear test. The U.S. Ambassador to India, Frank Wisner Jr., called a meeting with A. N. Varma, personal secretary of the Indian Prime Minister Narasihma Rao, warning “a test would backfire and bring sanctions.”

Had U.S. policymakers continued to prioritize nonproliferation and had the IC stayed at the top of its game, the world might have averted another Indian test – and perhaps a subsequent Pakistani one. Had the imagery analysts stayed alert or if the intelligence agencies had appropriate human assets in the area, perhaps there would have been an opportunity to provide early warning to the policymakers.

And that’s where intelligence must flow: to the decisionmakers. After all, continuous intelligence and diplomacy efforts were the keys to preventing states from developing and testing nuclear weapons.

Taiwan: Human Intelligence As the Critical Factor

After leaving the United Nations in 1974, the Republic of China in Taiwan, no longer a member of the IAEA, set out to build a nuclear weapon using materials from a research reactor it purchased in 1969 from Canada. Since then, Taiwan was able to hide its uranium enrichment program under the guise of researching atomic energy at the Institute for Nuclear Energy Research (INER).

When IAEA General Inspector Rudolf Rometsch visited the INER site in May 1976, he sensed suspicious activities and inconsistencies with Taipei’s information regarding the quantity of its fuel rods. A year later, IAEA inspectors found a trapdoor at the INER facility that was not documented in its design blueprint. Although these suspicious findings suggested Taiwan might have been trying to acquire nuclear weapons, there was no direct evidence of such action.

In the mid-1970s, CIA recruited a Taiwanese military cadet, Col. Chang Hsien-yi, who later became INER’s deputy director. Chang stayed in the dark for so long CIA thought he had defected. It was not until the early 1980’s that Chang began to provide information on the Taiwanese nuclear program. Chang became a crucial source of information and remained so throughout the late 1980s.

In 1988, Chang took a “vacation” to the United States. He brought stacks of documents that ultimately proved the Taiwanese had, in fact, been pursuing nuclear weapons. After great pressure from the U.S., Taipei shut down the program. The intelligence collection strategy that led to the success of nuclear disarmament in this case was primarily based on Chang’s human intelligence.


So where does this leave Iran? The U.S. intelligence community, with the help of IAEA inspectors, should have the capability to generally detect if Iran fails to comply with the nuclear agreement. CIA Deputy Director David Cohen has expressed his confidence that the various agreements “gives [the CIA] a good ability to detect Iranian deviation from the limitations on enrichment and the other specific elements.” Furthermore, Robert Cardillo, head of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, echoed Cohen’s assurance: “I think we’ve got a very good capability to do that, of course with the IAEA’s assistance.”

Certainly, critics of the “Iran deal” argue the IAEA inspectors’ access is insufficient for intelligence agencies to catch Iranian deception in time should the country decide to pursue nuclear weapons. However, it would be naïve to think that the U.S. solely relies upon exchanging information with the IAEA. It has its own unilateral methods,  not to mention the most sophisticated spy satellite technology in the world. As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, said:

“[The intelligence community is] fielding some independent capabilities that I can’t go into despite my protestations about transparency- that will enable us, I think, to have some good insight into the nuclear-industrial enterprise of Iran.”

Hence, the most difficult task for the U.S. in stopping nuclear proliferation is not assessing whether a state wants to build weapons — but rather how to go about forcing that state to cease doing so.


Iris Hsu is a graduate student at American University with particular interests in arms control and intelligence studies. She previously interned at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and Human Rights Watch.

photo:  Satellite Image Of Tehran, Iran On 31st Anniversary Of Iranian Revolution, GeoEye satellite image (Creative Commons)

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