Iran's Nukes: Why Europe and U.S. Split Over Intel

The United States and its allies seem unified in their desire to use diplomacy and the threat of sanctions to press Iran to abandon any nuclear-weapons program it may have. But they appear to differ on whether that program exists or not.

Three European counterproliferation officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, confirmed to NEWSWEEK that British intelligence agencies believe that Iran is actively pushing ahead with a nuclear-bomb program. One of the officials said that U.K. intelligence outfits—led by MI-6—are "skeptical" of suggestions, most notably by U.S. intelligence agencies, that Iran stopped work on a military program to design and build a nuclear weapon in 2003.

The U.S. position is contained in a controversial National Intelligence Estimate, produced in 2007. This document said that U.S. agencies "judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program" and that "the halt lasted at least several years." The 2007 NIE also said that American agencies assessed "with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons."

As NEWSWEEK reported last month, U.S. intelligence agencies today still stand by the 2007 assessment. So the American position would appear to be at odds with the U.K.'s expression of "skepticism" that Iran stopped work on nuclear weapons in 2003.

U.S. officials acknowledged this week that there do seem to be differences between Washington and some of its closest allies—including Germany and Israel—when it comes to assessing Iran's progress on weapons development. However, one U.S. intelligence official insisted: "The public reports of differences are, to some degree, exaggerated. Our judgments on the Iranian nuclear program—like all the judgments we reach—are subject to reassessment in light of new information, which comes in constantly. But you have to weigh and test each piece, running tough traps on everything from sourcing to assumptions."

Several U.S. and European officials said they were confident that the allied agencies—including CIA, MI-6, Germany's BND and Israel's Mossad—were working from the same raw information. In other words, neither the United States nor any of the allies have secret, unilateral sources of intelligence which would lead them to different conclusions about Iran's bomb efforts, the officials maintain.

Two of the European officials suggested that the American assessment is very cautious because U.S. intelligence analysts still feel burned by their mistakes in the run-up to the Iraq War, when faulty intelligence was used by Bush administration officials to justify military action. Among the errors: that Saddam Hussein maintained an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, including an effort to develop nukes. Evidence gathered by U.S. intelligence after the American invasion established that Saddam had no WMD stockpiles and that he had abandoned most of the research on such weapons years before the invasion. (Some European agencies also wrongly assessed Saddam's WMD efforts.)

European and U.S. officials also note that in the run-up to the Iraq War, some analysts inside U.S. agencies felt they were under political pressure to produce alarming assessments of the threat Saddam posed to the world. By contrast, the American and European officials say, there are no signs that Obama administration policymakers are putting political pressure on U.S. intelligence agencies regarding their conclusions about Iran's nuclear program.

So why are American and European analysts coming to different conclusions? One possible reason is that the Europeans regard evidence of Iranian progress on uranium enrichment—including the discovery that Iran has been constructing a secret underground enrichment facility on a military base near the holy city of Qom—as evidence that Iran continues actively to develop nuclear weapons. By contrast, the official U.S. analysis—while acknowledging that Iran is moving ahead with uranium enrichment, the most difficult part of building a bomb—does not regard this as part of the research and development of an actual bomb and the mechanism to explode the uranium.

American agencies agree with European counterparts that the Qom facility is highly suspicious. This is not only because the Iranians built it underground and concealed it from the world for years. Western intelligence agencies also note that the facility is designed to accommodate enough centrifuges to enrich uranium to bomb-grade, but too few centrifuges for the large-scale enrichment needed to generate electrical power. Still, some U.S. counterproliferation officials point out that the Qom facility is still being built, and that centrifuges have not yet been installed there—leaving open the possibility that the Iranians could be telling the truth when they insist that the facility is being built for peaceful purposes.

Some U.S. officials also say Iran has made some positive pledges in recent days. If Iran allows inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency into the Qom facility, for instance, then whatever military potential the facility might have had will effectively be neutralized. So long as inspectors have access to the facility, these officials say, Iran will not be able to use it for development of nuclear bombs.

The Germans seem to share the British view that Iran's nuclear weapons work never ceased. The views of Germany's BND, or Federal Intelligence Service, were cited during an attempt by German authorities to prosecute a German-Iranian businessman for shipping potentially-nuclear-related equipment to Iran, including high-speed cameras and radiation detectors built to withstand high temperatures. German judges quoted a BND assessment that "development work on nuclear weapons can be observed in Iran even after 2003." However, a European official says that some German experts believe that Iran may not actually be building a bomb, but only assembling the necessary equipment and technology. This would enable the Iranians to be in a position to assemble a bomb quickly without actually becoming a nuclear-armed state.

Israel, according to U.S. and European officials, takes the most alarmist view of Iranian nuclear progress. Its analysts argue that even if Iran is not actively building a bomb, once it assembles the capability to do so, Israel's existence could be threatened. The officials say Israeli analysts believe Iran is dangerously close to acquiring this capability.

Despite disagreements over how to read the intelligence on Iran, U.S. and European officials insist that their governments are in agreement on policy. In current negotiations with the Iranians, said a European official, officials from the Obama White House (who are political appointees rather than career intelligence officers) are operating on the assumption that Iran is moving ahead with a bomb-development program, even though the advice they are getting from U.S. intelligence agencies is more cautious.

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