Iran Is Judged 10 Years From Nuclear Bomb
Tuesday, August 2, 2005
A major U.S. intelligence review has projected that Iran is about a decade away from manufacturing the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon, roughly doubling the previous estimate of five years, according to government sources with firsthand knowledge of the new analysis.
The carefully hedged assessments, which represent consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies, contrast with forceful public statements by the White House. Administration officials have asserted, but have not offered proof, that Tehran is moving determinedly toward a nuclear arsenal. The new estimate could provide more time for diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. President Bush has said that he wants the crisis resolved diplomatically but that "all options are on the table."
The new National Intelligence Estimate includes what the intelligence community views as credible indicators that Iran's military is conducting clandestine work. But the sources said there is no information linking those projects directly to a nuclear weapons program. What is clear is that Iran, mostly through its energy program, is acquiring and mastering technologies that could be diverted to bombmaking.
The estimate expresses uncertainty about whether Iran's ruling clerics have made a decision to build a nuclear arsenal, three U.S. sources said. Still, a senior intelligence official familiar with the findings said that "it is the judgment of the intelligence community that, left to its own devices, Iran is determined to build nuclear weapons."
At no time in the past three years has the White House attributed its assertions about Iran to U.S. intelligence, as it did about Iraq in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion. Instead, it has pointed to years of Iranian concealment and questioned why a country with as much oil as Iran would require a large-scale nuclear energy program.
The NIE addresses those assertions and offers alternative views supporting and challenging the assumptions they are based on. Those familiar with the new judgments, which have not been previously detailed, would discuss only limited elements of the estimate and only on the condition of anonymity, because the report is classified, as is some of the evidence on which it is based.
Top policymakers are scrutinizing the review, several administration officials said, as the White House formulates the next steps of an Iran policy long riven by infighting and competing strategies. For three years, the administration has tried, with limited success, to increase pressure on Iran by focusing attention on its nuclear program. Those efforts have been driven as much by international diplomacy as by the intelligence.
The NIE, ordered by the National Intelligence Council in January, is the first major review since 2001 of what is known and what is unknown about Iran. Additional assessments produced during Bush's first term were narrow in scope, and some were rejected by advocates of policies that were inconsistent with the intelligence judgments.
One such paper was a 2002 review that former and current officials said was commissioned by national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, who was then deputy adviser, to assess the possibility for "regime change" in Iran. Those findings described the Islamic republic on a slow march toward democracy and cautioned against U.S. interference in that process, said the officials, who would describe the paper's classified findings only on the condition of anonymity.
The new estimate takes a broader approach to the question of Iran's political future. But it is unable to answer whether the country's ruling clerics will still be in control by the time the country is capable of producing fissile material. The administration keeps "hoping the mullahs will leave before Iran gets a nuclear weapons capability," said an official familiar with policy discussions.
Intelligence estimates are designed to alert the president of national security developments and help guide policy. The new Iran findings were described as well documented and well written, covering such topics as military capabilities, expected population growth and the oil industry. The assessments of Iran's nuclear program appear in a separate annex to the NIE known as a memorandum to holders.
"It's a full look at what we know, what we don't know and what assumptions we have," a U.S. source said.