CIA Hints at Secret Means to Stop an Iranian Bomb

In an interview with Fox News on Sunday, CIA Director John Brennan hinted that the United States has secret means to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  Asked about a “breakout” scenario in which Iran might race toward the bomb, Mr. Brennan said: “There are a number of things that the United States has available to it to prevent Iran from getting a bomb.”  He did not describe those capabilities, but he warned the Iranians that “there will be tremendous costs and consequences and implications if they were to decide to go for a breakout.”

The CIA interview comes on the heels of a Los Angeles Times report from March 16 about a top-secret site in the United States built to replicate Iranian uranium enrichment facilities.  According to the report, U.S. technicians have modeled the workings of Iranian centrifuge cascades to understand how quickly Iran could convert uranium to bomb fuel.  The report speculated that the Obama administration may use the technical data gained from the modeling to sell a nuclear deal with Iran to the public.  Taken together, the CIA interview and the disclosures from the L.A. Times appear to be part of a domestic campaign to pre-empt technical criticism of a nuclear deal.

The Obama administration has said that any nuclear agreement would have to ensure that Iran would need at least one year to produce enough fuel for a nuclear weapon in a “breakout.”  The research at the secret U.S. site could buttress the case that the restrictions placed on Iran would achieve that goal.

The secret site was first disclosed in the New York Times, when it reported on the Stuxnet computer worm in 2011.  According to the Times, U.S. nuclear experts at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee built a replica of Iranian cascades using a cache of P-1 centrifuges obtained from Libya after Muammar Gaddafi gave up his nuclear program in 2003.  Wired reporter Kim Zetter, in her 2014 book on Stuxnet, Countdown to Zero Day, wrote that the secret centrifuge plant at Oak Ridge was first used simply to understand Iranian capabilities and gauge the progress of Iran’s enrichment program.  Research soon turned, however, to assessing the vulnerability of the centrifuges to various forms of attack, including the Stuxnet computer virus.

The CIA interview suggested that the United States has yet additional means, perhaps similar to Stuxnet, at its disposal should Iran attempt a “breakout.”  Mr. Brennan also touted the CIA’s “robust” intelligence capabilities and expressed confidence that “we have a good understanding of what the Iranian nuclear program entails.”  These statements appear designed to support the claim that a nuclear agreement with Iran would be verifiable.

President Obama, in an interview with the Huffington Post on March 21, acknowledged the challenge of selling an agreement with Iran to the American public and the Congress.  He said he would have “to show not just the American people or the Israeli people but the world that, in fact, we have mechanisms in place that will prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon.  And that the deal that is made not only is verifiable, but it also makes it much less likely that Iran is able to break out than if we have no deal at all.”