New Iran Nuke NIE Still Not Ready

In an ABC News interview Sunday, CIA Director Leon Panetta alluded to a fact that was reported by NEWSWEEK months ago: U.S. intelligence agencies have revised their widely disputed 2007 conclusion that Iran had given up its efforts to design or build a nuclear bomb. That shift is expected to be reflected in an update of the controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which was supposed to have been completed months ago, but according to three counterproliferation officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, the formal update still is not finished and may be delayed for months to come. Even when it's done, officials have said, the Obama administration is expected to keep the revised report's contents officially secret—unlike the White House of George W. Bush, which published key portions of the 2007 nuke assessment, to the dismay of many of that administration's most hardline supporters.

As we reported back in January, the revised U.S. Iran nuke assessment, which is being prepared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and is supposed to represent a consensus of all relevant U.S. intel agencies, is expected to bring the Americans' judgment of Iran's program closer to the views of other countries' spy agencies (such as Britain's M.I.6, Germany's BND, and Israel's Mossad), which have maintained all along that Tehran was pursuing a nuclear weapon. But the new report also is expected to make what some officials call a "talmudic" distinction between conducting "research" on nuclear weapons—which U.S. agencies believe is now occurring—and actually building a bomb, which U.S. agencies believe the Iranians have not yet made a decision to do.

In an interview on ABC's This Week program with correspondent Jake Tapper, Panetta made just this distinction: "I think they continue to develop their know-how. They continue to develop their nuclear capability." Tapper then asked the CIA chief whether he believed the Iranians were trying to build a weapon. Panetta responded: "I think they continue to work on designs in that area. There is a continuing debate right now as to whether or nor they ought to proceed with the bomb. But they clearly are developing their nuclear capability, and that raises concerns."

The CIA director went on to say, "We think they have enough low-enriched uranium right now for two weapons," but he added that the radioactive material would have to be processed to a considerably higher level before it could be used for a bomb. He said that at the very least, enriching the uranium to bomb grade would take another year, and it would take at least another year for them "to develop the kind of weapon delivery system in order to make that viable." Panetta added that the Iranians have continued to encounter "problems with regards to their ability to develop enrichment"—problems that and European counterproliferation efforts could further delay the Iranians's efforts to put together a bomb for years further, if they make a final decision to do so.

Panetta did not directly confirm that the controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iranian nukes, was under revision. But other officials have confirmed to Declassified that an update has been in the works since late last year. They say its completion has been postponed several times while agencies evaluate new intelligence reporting which has surfaced over the last few months. At least some of that fresh input is believed to have come from one or more Iranian nuclear insiders, including Shahram Amiri, an Iranian nuclear scientist who disappeared about a year ago while on a religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. Earlier this year, ABC News reported that Amiri had defected to the United States. Although government sources have acknowledged to Declassified that they are aware of Amiri's defection and of information that he might have provided, they do not confirm that he defected to the U.S.