The intelligence community is conducting a broad review of its Iran assessments, including a new look at the country's nuclear program, the future of its ruling clerics and the impact of the Iraq war on Tehran's powerful position in the region, according to administration officials and congressional sources.
Two separate reports -- a wide-ranging National Intelligence Estimate and a second memo focusing exclusively on Tehran's chemical, biological and nuclear capabilities -- will reflect an updated consensus within the intelligence community. The documents are meant to guide the Bush administration as it continues to deliberate on a policy for dealing with Iran and its nuclear ambitions.
This week, Vice President Cheney said that although Iran claims its move to uranium enrichment is for peaceful purposes only, "there's some evidence to suggest that they have military aspirations and they're trying to acquire nuclear weapons." He joined other U.S. officials in urging Iran to halt its nuclear program.
(Fox News Sunday)
The review, which began last month, comes after several weeks in which President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have challenged Iran to halt an alleged nuclear weapons program. The pattern and tone of the administration's comments have struck some as similar to claims made in 2002 about weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Five months before the invasion of Iraq, the administration produced a National Intelligence Estimate that listed among its key findings that Hussein was reconstituting his nuclear weapons program, one of several errors in the intelligence community's prewar assessments.
Now, the intelligence community's past assessments on Iraq -- as well as its judgments on Iran and North Korea -- are under review by a presidential commission studying U.S. intelligence, and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence recently warned CIA Director Porter J. Goss that it also will review the intelligence being gathered on Iran.
A senior administration official said yesterday that there will be "a rigorous scrubbing of the intelligence" before the new Iran assessment is complete, and that "extreme care" will be taken in reaching conclusions.
The last published intelligence report on Iran's program, released publicly in November, said that "Iran continued to vigorously pursue indigenous programs to produce nuclear, chemical and biological weapons." It went on to say, "The United States remains convinced that Tehran has been pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons program in contradiction to its obligations as a party to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty."
But it stopped short of concluding Iran has nuclear weapons, and did not include any details to clarify how the assessment was reached. Iran has maintained that its nuclear program was built for civilian energy purposes, not weapons.
The upcoming intelligence assessment was ordered by David Gordon, acting chairman of the National Intelligence Council, according to a senior administration official. The council, a group of government and academic intelligence experts, taps senior analysts from the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and other components of the intelligence community to work on National Intelligence Estimates.
Administration officials said the intelligence estimate on Iran will be conducted without any input from Bush administration policymakers. "The policy people can't even look at until it's a finished product," one U.S. official said.
Bush administration officials are avoiding taking detailed public positions on Iran until the papers are completed and the administration decides on a policy, officials said. This is one reason, they said, that Rice last week refused to directly answer questions from reporters in Europe about whether the United States favors regime change in Iran.
According to officials, all of whom discussed the classified process on the condition of anonymity, the new estimates will examine the strength of Iran's clerical regime, the nation's economic strength and nuclear issues.
There is no deadline for the report's completion, but several officials said they expect the comprehensive review to be ready by March. The second document is also expected to be completed in the coming weeks. Known as a "memo to holders," it will focus only on Iran's weapons capabilities and will be for limited circulation among the most senior officials.
"It will reassess the timeline for getting nuclear weapons, reassess Iran's motivations and what it would take to make them give up fissile material capability," said one official.
Since 2003, Britain, France and Germany have been negotiating with Iran toward a deal to ensure that its nuclear energy program is not used for developing weapons. The United States has declined to join those talks.
Administration officials have increasingly questioned Iran's nuclear capabilities and intent. Cheney said on Fox News last Sunday that the Iranians claim their move to uranium enrichment is "only for peaceful purposes, although there's some evidence to suggest that they have military aspirations and they're trying to acquire nuclear weapons."
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a physicist who has studied the Iran program, said yesterday that much is known about Iran's nuclear efforts from inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency but that "there is no direct information on a decision to build nuclear weapons."
"They want a capability, but it's all inferential that they are building a weapon," he said. He went on to point out that much of the intelligence about Iraq having a nuclear program "was also inferential."
Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.