U.S. Downplays Iran Nuke Threat

The U.S. intelligence community on Monday threw some cold water on the much-heated debate over Iran's alleged efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Iran, it turns out, may not be actively working on getting nuclear weapons--or, at least, may be years away from reaching that point. The new National Intelligence Estimate may weaken the urgency of the Bush administration's case for tough diplomatic actions against Iran and undercut the claims by some hawks who have been pressing for military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. It's likely to be a PR bonanza for Iran's leaders, who have been hammered by the Bush administration over the nuclear issue.

The report, a definitive assessment by the nation's various intelligence agencies, reports with "moderate confidence" that Iran has not restarted efforts to develop nuclear weapons. The report says that the agencies have "high confidence" that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program under international pressure in 2003 and that "we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons."

That language conflicts with, for instance, President Bush, who in his State of the Union address last January referred to Iran's "pursuit of nuclear weapons." Both he and Vice President Cheney have pressed the case for international sanctions, and perhaps military strikes, to stop what they have said was Iran's drive to acquire nuclear weapons within a few years.

The full report is classified. A portion of the "key judgments" was made public.

The NIE says with "moderate-to-high" confidence that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapon. "Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear program suggests that it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005," said an unclassified portion of the report. The 2005 assessment judged with "high confidence" that Iran was determined to develop nuclear weapons.

The report also notes Iran's controversial uranium enrichment efforts, which could produce fuel for a nuclear power reactor or, at high enrichment levels, for a nuclear bomb. Those efforts are continuing, the report s says, although apparently hindered by "significant technical problems." Iran has defied the U.N. Security Council demand that it suspend its enrichment activities.

The intelligence agencies think that Iran may have imported "at least some weapons-usable" fissile material but has "moderate to high confidence" that it has not obtained enough for a bomb. The agencies have "moderate to high confidence" that Iran doesn't currently have nuclear weapons and with "high confidence" that Iran has not succeeded yet in producing enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a bomb.

How soon could Iran produce enough HEU for a bomb, essentially the red line for possible military action? The report says the earliest date would be 2009. But that is "very unlikely." Iran may be technically capable of producing HEU for weapons in the 2010-2015 time period, according to the consensus view of intelligence agencies. The State Department's intelligence office, which had earlier correctly raised doubts about Iraq's nuclear program, says that Iran is unlikely to achieve the HEU capability before 2013.

"All agencies recognize the possibility that this capability may not be attained until after 2015," the report adds.

The report says that Iran continues to develop a range of technical capability that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so. The NIE notes that Iran did suspend its weapons program in 2003 under international pressure, which suggests that Iranian leadership can be influenced by "some combination of international scrutiny and pressures."

By Terry Atlas