Coming Around On Iran

U.S. intelligence agencies are quietly revising their widely disputed assertion that Iran has no active program to design or build a nuclear bomb. Three U.S. and two foreign counterproliferation officials tell NEWSWEEK that, as soon as next month, the intel agencies are expected to complete an "update" to their controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that Tehran "halted its nuclear weapons program" in 2003 and "had not restarted" it as of mid-2007. The officials, who asked for anonymity to discuss sensitive information, say the revised report will bring U.S. intel agencies more in line with other countries' spy agencies (such as Britain's MI6, Germany's BND, and Israel's Mossad), which have maintained that Iran has been pursuing a nuclear weapon.

Yet two of the U.S. sources caution the new assessment will likely be "Talmudic" in its parsing. They say U.S. analysts now believe that Iran may well have resumed "research" on nuclear weapons--theoretical work on how to design and construct a bomb--but that Tehran is not engaged in "development"--actually trying to build a weapon. "The intelligence communityis always reluctant to make a total retreat because it makes them look bad," says the third American.

This distinction between research and development is unlikely to satisfy hardline critics, who say the intel agencies, burned for overestimating Saddam Hussein's weapons-of-mass-destruction program, have underplayed Iran's bomb-building efforts. But the U.S. officials insist it's an accumulation of fresh intelligence, not political or diplomatic pressure, that prompted the reconsideration. Revelations that Iran excavated a secret underground nuclear-enrichment facility near Qum may have heightened alarm about Tehran's intentions. America and its allies, say the U.S. and foreign officials, have also been poring over documents that purport to show Iranian research on a "neutron initiator," a device most often used for bombs--not electricity, which the Iranians insist is their nuclear program's goal.

While the update will cause a stir in Washington, it's unlikely to have an immediate impact on the White House's Iran policy. The administration already bases its cautious diplomatic approach on the assumption that Iran has, in fact, been pursuing a bomb, despite intel agencies' reservations. Some officials also warn it's still possible that the update--a highly classified, on-again, off-again proposition for months--could be spiked at the last moment if the often-fractious intel bureaucracy can't agree on what it should say. The office of the national intelligence director, which would issue the update, had no comment.