Talk About Iran Attack Seems Very Overheated

An article in The Atlantic reports that Iran may be nearing the "point of no return" in its pursuit of an atomic bomb. Therefore, says author Jeffrey Goldberg, there is a "better than 50 percent chance" Israel will launch an attack against Iranian nuclear sites by "next July." The Times of London suggests that some key arrangements for such an attack are already in place. According to the paper, Saudi Arabia has already told the Israelis they can overfly Saudi airspace in any assault against Iran's nuclear infrastructure. Moreover, The Times quotes a "U.S. defense source" saying that Saudi overflight permission has been endorsed by the U.S. State Department.

But U.S. and European national-security and counterproliferation officials tell Declassified that speculation about a possible Israeli attack on Iran—and alleged signals from Washington offering direct or indirect support for such an operation—are premature and exaggerated, if not untrue. Two U.S. officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said suggestions that the Obama administration has endorsed alleged Saudi plans to allow Israeli attackers to overfly Saudi territory are false. A European official described recent reports about these and other alleged preparations for an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities as "rumors" similar to other speculation that has surfaced, then died, then resurfaced on several occasions over recent years.

U.S. officials say that American government experts believe the Iranians are still encountering serious technical problems with the equipment they're using to enrich uranium for possible use in a bomb. The New York Times has reported on several occasions that the U.S. and its allies have mounted secret efforts to slow down the Iranian nuclear program by tinkering with materiel the mullahs buy from foreign suppliers, and by long-distance monkeying with electrical power and computer systems the Iranians use in their nuclear program. In a story entitled "Operation Sabotage," Eli Lake reported in The New Republic (subscription required) that what one U.S. Jewish leader described as "black ops stuff to screw up the Iranian program" had long been central to American policy on Iranian nukes.

As Declassified has reported over the last year in stories like this one, this one, and this one, U.S. intelligence agencies have been working on an update to a 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 long-delayed update is expected to move U.S. agencies closer to the view of allied intelligence services, with an assessment 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" of an actual weapon.

Two U.S. officials, who are familiar with the most up-to-date government reporting and analysis on the issue, say that U.S. agencies appear confident that while bomb-related research may well be moving forward, Iranian leaders still have made no decision to start building an atomic bomb. In an interview with ABC News in June, CIA Director Leon Panetta summed up the current U.S. assessment of Iranian leaders' nuclear weapons policy: "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." U.S. officials say there has been no significant change in this analysis.

U.S. officials say hysterical headlines last week about a move by Russia to start loading fuel into a civilian Iranian reactor, which officials believe has nothing to do clandestine Iranian efforts related to nuclear weapons, have helped to fuel speculation about imminent Israeli moves against Iran—or, alternatively, about Israeli efforts to somehow goad the Obama administration into launching an attack. But the officials say the United States and many of its allies still believe that Iran is at least a year away from the "point of no return" in its efforts to design and actually assemble a bomb. For the moment, the officials say, this means that current talk about a forthcoming attack on Iran is greatly overheated.