The U.S. intelligence community is reporting to the White House that Iran has not restarted its nuclear-weapons development program, two counterproliferation officials tell NEWSWEEK. U.S. agencies had previously said that Tehran halted the program in 2003.
The officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said that U.S. intelligence agencies have informed policymakers at the White House and other agencies that the status of Iranian work on development and production of a nuclear bomb has not changed since the formal National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's "Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities" in November 2007. Public portions of that report stated that U.S. intelligence agencies had "high confidence" that, as of early 2003, Iranian military units were pursuing development of a nuclear bomb, but that in the fall of that year Iran "halted its nuclear weapons program." The document said that while U.S. agencies believed the Iranian government "at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons," U.S. intelligence as of mid-2007 still had "moderate confidence" that it had not restarted weapons-development efforts.
One of the two officials said that the Obama administration has now worked out a system in which intelligence agencies provide top policymakers, including the president, with regular updates on intelligence judgments like the conclusions in the 2007 Iran NIE. According to the two officials, the latest update to policymakers has been that as of now—two years after the period covered by the 2007 NIE—U.S. intelligence agencies still believe Iran has not resumed nuclear-weapons development work. "That's the conclusion, but it's one that—like every other—is constantly checked and reassessed, both to take account of new information and to test old assumptions," one of the officials told NEWSWEEK. It is not clear whether U.S. agencies' confidence in this judgment has grown at all since the 2007 statement.
This latest U.S. intelligence-community assessment is potentially controversial for several reasons, not the least of which is that it is at odds with more alarming assessments propounded by key U.S. allies, most notably Israel. Officials of Israel's conservative-led government have been delivering increasingly dire assessments of Iran’s nuclear progress and have leaked shrill threats about a possible Israeli military attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright, an atomic-weapons expert who follows Iranian nuclear developments closely, said the U.S. government's current judgments will continue to provoke contention and debate. "People are looking at the same information and reaching different judgments," he said. "Given all the developments in Iran, these assessments are hard to believe with any certainty. Nobody's been able to bring total proof either way."
Israel is not the only American ally that has circulated assessments that contradict the U.S. intelligence conclusion that Iran is not currently pursuing nuclear-bomb development. According to German court documents released earlier this year, Germany's foreign intelligence service, known as the BND, reported in 2008 that “development work on nuclear weapons can be observed in Iran even after 2003."
A European counterproliferation official, who also requested anonymity, said that assessments like the one provided by the BND relied significantly on information collected by German and other intelligence agencies about efforts by suspected Iranian agents and front companies to purchase hardware and technology from Western firms that can be used to design or build nuclear weapons. Such equipment and know-how often has "dual uses"—both peaceful and military applications. But some Iranian purchases have appeared highly suspect. German authorities have been pursuing criminal charges against a German-Iranian businessman who allegedly tried to purchase for Tehran ultrahigh-speed cameras and radiation sensors that are built to withstand extreme heat—equipment that experts believe would be quite useful for nuclear-weapons development, though it could also be used for more benign purposes. The Institute for Science and International Security, run by Albright, recently published a paper on the German investigation.
When it first was made public, the November 2007 NIE was criticized by American and Israeli hardliners for playing up conclusions about Iran's having stopped work on nuclear-weapons development while playing down Iranian advances in its efforts to produce highly enriched uranium, which is the most critical, but difficult to manufacture, element of a primitive nuclear bomb. The NIE said that even though Iran had halted its nuclear-weapons program, it had made "significant progress" during 2007 in installing centrifuges used in uranium enrichment, though U.S. analysts believed that, as a result of technical problems with these machines, Iran probably could not produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb before 2010 at the earliest. The Iranians have consistently claimed that they are enriching uranium only for civilian purposes. Low-enriched uranium, which is all that Iran has made so far, is a common fuel for civilian power plants.
U.S. and European counterproliferation experts believe that Iran's centrifuge program has already produced enough low-enriched uranium, an essential precursor to the production of bomb-grade material, to provide feedstock to produce enough highly enriched uranium to make a bomb. However, that is an arduous and technically complicated process. Many U.S. and European experts say that Iran is still experiencing technical problems with centrifuges it would use to produce bomb-grade uranium, which could delay any Iranian bomb program for years.
An Obama administration official says that top policymakers are being told that there is no significant disagreement among U.S. intelligence agencies and experts about the latest assessments regarding Iran's nuclear effort. That may encourage the White House's efforts to continue to try to engage Iran in diplomatic dialogue, including discussion of Iran's nuclear ambitions. A spokesperson for National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair's office, which is responsible for producing NIEs and updates on Iranian nukes, had no comment.