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Iran Is Judged 10 Years From Nuclear Bomb

Until recently, Iran was judged, according to February testimony by Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, to be within five years of the capability to make a nuclear weapon. Since 1995, U.S. officials have continually estimated Iran to be "within five years" from reaching that same capability. So far, it has not.

The new estimate extends the timeline, judging that Iran will be unlikely to produce a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium, the key ingredient for an atomic weapon, before "early to mid-next decade," according to four sources familiar with that finding. The sources said the shift, based on a better understanding of Iran's technical limitations, puts the timeline closer to 2015 and in line with recently revised British and Israeli figures.

The estimate is for acquisition of fissile material, but there is no firm view expressed on whether Iran would be ready by then with an implosion device, sources said.

The timeline is portrayed as a minimum designed to reflect a program moving full speed ahead without major technical obstacles. It does not take into account that Iran has suspended much of its uranium-enrichment work as part of a tenuous deal with Britain, France and Germany. Iran announced yesterday that it intends to resume some of that work if the European talks fall short of expectations.

Sources said the new timeline also reflects a fading of suspicions that Iran's military has been running its own separate and covert enrichment effort. But there is evidence of clandestine military work on missiles and centrifuge research and development that could be linked to a nuclear program, four sources said.

Last month, U.S. officials shared some data on the missile program with U.N. nuclear inspectors, based on drawings obtained last November. The documents include design modifications for Iran's Shahab-3 missile to make the room required for a nuclear warhead, U.S. and foreign officials said.

"If someone has a good idea for a missile program, and he has really good connections, he'll get that program through," said Gordon Oehler, who ran the CIA's nonproliferation center and served as deputy director of the presidential commission on weapons of mass destruction. "But that doesn't mean there is a master plan for a nuclear weapon."

The commission found earlier this year that U.S. intelligence knows "disturbingly little" about Iran, and about North Korea.

Much of what is known about Tehran has been learned through analyzing communication intercepts, satellite imagery and the work of U.N. inspectors who have been investigating Iran for more than two years. Inspectors uncovered facilities for uranium conversion and enrichment, results of plutonium tests, and equipment bought illicitly from Pakistan -- all of which raised serious concerns but could be explained by an energy program. Inspectors have found no proof that Iran possesses a nuclear warhead design or is conducting a nuclear weapons program.

The NIE comes more than two years after the intelligence community assessed, wrongly, in an October 2002 estimate that then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was reconstituting his nuclear program. The judgments were declassified and made public by the Bush administration as it sought to build support for invading Iraq five months later.

At a congressional hearing last Thursday, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, deputy director of national intelligence, said that new rules recently were imposed for crafting NIEs and that there would be "a higher tolerance for ambiguity," even if it meant producing estimates with less definitive conclusions.

The Iran NIE, sources said, includes creative analysis and alternative theories that could explain some of the suspicious activities discovered in Iran in the past three years. Iran has said its nuclear infrastructure was built for energy production, not weapons.

Assessed as plausible, but unverifiable, is Iran's public explanation that it built the program in secret, over 18 years, because it feared attack by the United States or Israel if the work was exposed.

In January, before the review, Vice President Cheney suggested Iranian nuclear advances were so pressing that Israel may be forced to attack facilities, as it had done 23 years earlier in Iraq.

In an April 2004 speech, John R. Bolton -- then the administration's point man on weapons of mass destruction and now Bush's temporarily appointed U.N. ambassador -- said: "If we permit Iran's deception to go on much longer, it will be too late. Iran will have nuclear weapons."

But the level of certainty, influenced by diplomacy and intelligence, appears to have shifted.

Asked in June, after the NIE was done, whether Iran had a nuclear effort underway, Bolton's successor, Robert G. Joseph, undersecretary of state for arms control, said: "I don't know quite how to answer that because we don't have perfect information or perfect understanding. But the Iranian record, plus what the Iranian leaders have said . . . lead us to conclude that we have to be highly skeptical."

Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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