Hayden: U.S. Intelligence Likely Could Not Detect Iranian Bomb

Former NSA and CIA director expresses concerns about inspections of Iranian nuclear program amid ongoing talks

Hassan Rouhani
Hassan Rouhani / AP
November 20, 2014

Former top George W. Bush administration official Gen. Michael Hayden said on Thursday that unless Iran provides the West with extensive access to its suspected nuclear facilities—a concession the Islamic regime has strenuously refused—U.S. intelligence agencies will be unable to detect its development of a bomb.

Hayden, who previously directed the National Security Agency (NSA) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under Bush, said at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that verification is always the toughest aspect of any nuclear agreement, whether with Iran or North Korea. The latter eventually obtained nuclear weapons despite international negotiators’ attempt to prevent such an outcome.

"Absent an invasive inspection regime, with freedom to visit all sites on short notice, American intelligence cannot provide adequate warning of Iranian nuclear developments," Hayden said.

Six countries are currently negotiating a deal with Iran that aims to curb its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Officials said on Thursday that the deadline for an agreement, which had already been extended for six months, could be delayed again until March.

The head of the United Nations nuclear agency also announced that Iran has yet to reveal details about its suspected atomic bomb research. Tehran’s lack of disclosure could scuttle any potential deal.

Hayden noted that Iran’s once secret uranium enrichment facility at Fordow had undergone significant development before it was discovered. The status of Iran’s program to weaponize enriched uranium into a bomb remains unclear.

Iran is likely to produce highly enriched and bomb-capable uranium at an unknown facility, rather than Fordow or Natanz, Hayden said.

"They’re not going to do this at Natanz," he said. "They’re doing this somewhere else about which we don’t know."

Additionally, Hayden discussed the regional implications for security in the Middle East if Iran obtained a nuclear weapon. Tehran would likely feel emboldened to continue supporting terrorist groups, and adversaries such as Saudi Arabia would seek their own nuclear guarantee of security. Any future American intervention in the region could become more risky with more nuclear-armed states.

"This is not about deterring them," he said. "This is about deterring us."

A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers continues to raise grave concerns about a potential Iran deal. More than 40 Republican senators sent a letter to President Barack Obama on Wednesday and called the prospective agreement "weak and dangerous."

They vowed to impose even tougher sanctions on Iran, a step that the White House has vehemently opposed. Administration officials have even suggested that Obama could unilaterally lift some sanctions passed by Congress to reach a deal.

Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, warned that the Obama administration could undermine its economic leverage over Tehran if it prematurely removed sanctions in phases. So-called "snapback" sanctions, in which economic restrictions are reapplied if Iran violates the agreement, are unlikely to work as more companies seek long-term business deals with the regime.

"The message to Iran is, when there’s a comprehensive agreement, you can cheat incrementally," he said.