Powell’s Nuclear Disclosures On Iran Unverified

Powell’s information on Iran unverified (ABC News)

A US newspaper has accused the US Secretary of State Colin Powell of making unsubstantiated claims about Iran’s nuclear capabilities. The Washington Post says the intelligence Mr Powell used alleging Iran’s nuclear activities is unverified and based on an “unvetted, single source”. The Washington Post says the intelligence could be significant if true, but an embarrassment if not.

The article in the newspaper draws parallels with Mr Powell’s United Nations speech about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction which was “based on dubious intelligence” and which, so far, has proved untrue.

Nuclear Disclosures On Iran Unverified (WaPo, A01)

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell shared information with reporters Wednesday about Iran’s nuclear program that was classified and based on an unvetted, single source who provided information that two U.S. officials said yesterday was highly significant if true but has not yet been verified. Powell and other senior Cabinet members were briefed last week on the sensitive intelligence. The material was stamped “No Foreign,” meaning it was not to be shared with allies, although President Bush decided that portions could be shared last week with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, officials said.

According to one official with access to the material, a “walk-in” source approached U.S intelligence earlier this month with more than 1,000 pages purported to be Iranian drawings and technical documents, including a nuclear warhead design and modifications to enable Iranian ballistic missiles to deliver an atomic strike. The official agreed to discuss the information on the condition of anonymity and only because Powell had alluded to it publicly. But U.S. intelligence officials have been combing the information carefully and with a wary eye, mindful of the mistakes made in trusting intelligence information alleging that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Powell, who announced earlier this week that he would not stay on for a second term, presented that intelligence in a February 2003 speech to the U.N. Security Council that was meant to convince the world that Saddam Hussein needed to be forcefully removed from power. Much of his presentation turned out to be based on information provided by unreliable sources.

If the information on Iran were confirmed, it would mean the Islamic republic is further along than previously known in developing a nuclear weapon and the means to deliver it. The documents included a specific warhead design based on implosion and adjustments aimed at outfitting the warhead on existing Iranian missile systems. U.S. intelligence has known since at least 2002 that Iran was capable of enriching uranium, the key ingredient in a nuclear bomb. Iran also has a successful missile program. But U.N. nuclear inspectors who have been investigating Iran for nearly two years have found no evidence that Tehran possesses a nuclear warhead design or is conducting a nuclear weapons program.


The information provided by the source, who was not previously known to U.S. intelligence, does not mention uranium or any other area of Iran’s known nuclear program, according to the official with access to the material. It focuses instead on a warhead design and modifications to Iran’s long-range Shahab-3 missile and a medium-range missile in its arsenal. The Shahab-3 has a range of 800 miles and is capable of hitting Israel. The official said the CIA remains unsure about the authenticity of the documents and how they came into the informant’s possession. A second official would say only that there are questions about the source of the information.

Officials interviewed by The Washington Post did not know the identity of the source or whether the individual is connected to an Iranian exile group that made fresh accusations about Iran at a news conference Wednesday in Paris. The National Council for Resistance in Iran charged that Iran was enriching uranium and will continue to do so despite the pledge made Sunday to European foreign ministers.

Obviously, it would be embarrasing to go public with claims based on dubious intelligence, only to later be proven wrong. What’s odd, though, is that WaPo’s basis for the story is an unidentified source who admittedly doesn’t know anything about the source of Powell’s intelligence. That’s rather shaky ground, to say the least, for such an explosive charge.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    This is deja vu all over again. Let’s see, wasn’t there a story about an unvetted walk in source talking about Saddam’s WMD program? Pretty scary stuff it was. Do you think the press is going to be just a little more skeptical this time around?

  2. McGehee says:

    Do you think the press is going to be just a little more skeptical this time around?

    Well, DCL — given this from James’ actual post…

    WaPo’s basis for the story is an unidentified source who admittedly doesn’t know anything about the source of Powell’s intelligence.

    …apparently not.

    Oh — you were referring to claims by actual administration officials, not to claims by anonymous (and for all we know, non-existent) sources seeking to undercut everything the administration tries to do.

  3. Davod says:

    Powell was just on the news and said something which is known to many who read the international news. The Iranians have admitted to being in the process of developing a nuclear capable long range missile. Why would the Iranians be developing such a missile if it was not going to use its nuclear facilities to develop weapons grade materials.

  4. Davod says:

    PS. This boils down to a simple question. Do you believe the Iranians when they say the they will/have developed a nuclear capable missile and intend to use it on Israel and Europe.

    Or do you wait until you get rock solid information to confirm what they say. Of course this information would only be acceptable if it originated from our own CIA assets on the ground.