“It could have the opposite effect from what’s intended,” he said, “and impel the Iranian leader to decide, ‘We’re going to build that nuclear weapon.’ We’ve thought of that.”
Although not advocating such a course, the official said that obtaining a nuclear weapon “actually might temper [Iran’s] behavior,” enabling the United States to warn that it, too, has nuclear weapons. “It puts them on an even playing field, where they might not want to be,” he said of the Iranians.
Although Obama has declined to rule out a military strike against Iran’s nuclear sites to prevent the Islamic Republic from building a nuclear weapon, the president has emphasized international diplomacy, which has helped build broad allied support for stringent economic sanctions against Iranian officials, key businesses and now the nation’s central bank.
Those measures are already producing economic hardship in Iran and pressure on the Iranian government, which has responded with threats to close key shipping lanes vital to international oil exports.
Although Iran has continued to develop its nuclear infrastructure — including a recently revealed second uranium-enrichment facility — the “pause” in the nation’s direct march toward a weapon continues, the intelligence official said.
“Our belief is that they are reserving judgement on whether to continue with key steps they haven’t taken regarding nuclear weapons,” he said.
“It’s not a technical problem,” he said, adding that Iran already has the capability to build a bomb.
Israel, the intelligence official said, has “a different opinion. They think [Iran] has already made the decision.
The possibility that Israel will take action on its own to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions is “a very serious concern,” the intelligence official said. If the Israelis attack, he said, “it is very clear that Iran will retaliate” against Israel and ultimately hold the United States responsible.
“In the end,” the intelligence official said of Israel, “they’re a sovereign country. . . . How much notice they might give us, I don’t know.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report on Iran, in November, cited evidence suggesting a resumption of weapons research after 2004, including work on triggering devices as recent as 2007. Officials for the nuclear agency have acknowledged in interviews that the evidence is ambiguous.
“The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device,” the nuclear agency said in its report. “The information also indicates that prior to the end of 2003, these activities took place under a structured programme, and that some activities may still be ongoing.”
Although different countries and agencies are looking at the same evidence, U.S. officials have tended to be conservative in their interpretation, in what some of the European counterparts regard as a reaction to the U.S. intelligence missteps before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
“It is clear to everyone that, early in the last decade, a decision was made by Iran to close the ‘formal’ program,” said one European diplomat involved in internal IAEA discussions about Iran. “The question is whether the work is still being carried on, and to what end. It is harder to pin that down with exactitude.”
Staff writer Joby Warrick contributed to this report.