U.S. Finds That Iran Halted Nuclear Arms Bid in 2003
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
A major U.S. intelligence review has concluded that Iran stopped work on a suspected nuclear weapons program more than four years ago, a stark reversal of previous intelligence assessments that Iran was actively moving toward a bomb.
The new findings, drawn from a consensus National Intelligence Estimate, reflected a surprising shift in the midst of the Bush administration's continuing political and diplomatic campaign to depict Tehran's nuclear development as a grave threat. The report was drafted after an extended internal debate over the reliability of communications intercepts of Iranian conversations this past summer that suggested the program had been suspended.
"Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005," a declassified summary of the new National Intelligence Estimate stated. Two years ago, the intelligence community said in contrast it had "high confidence that Iran currently is determined to have nuclear weapons."
The new estimate, prepared by the nation's 16 intelligence agencies, applied the same "high confidence" label to a judgment that suspected Iranian military efforts to build a nuclear weapon were suspended in 2003 and said with "moderate confidence" that it had remained inactive since then.
Even if Iran were to restart its program now, the country probably could not produce enough highly enriched uranium for a single weapon before the middle of the next decade, the assessment stated. It also expressed doubt about whether Iran "currently intends to develop nuclear weapons."
Iran put a stop to weapons-related activities, including efforts to study warhead design and delivery systems, shortly after U.N. inspectors began probing allegations of a clandestine nuclear program. The timing of that decision, according to the intelligence estimate, "indicates Tehran's decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs."
National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley told reporters yesterday that the new conclusions validate the administration's long efforts to pressure Iran, most recently through economic sanctions. Democrats countered that the findings rebutted Bush's portrayal of Iran as an imminent nuclear threat.
Senior officials said the latest conclusions grew out of a stream of information, beginning with a set of Iranian drawings obtained in 2004 and ending with the intercepted calls between Iranian military commanders, that steadily chipped away at the earlier assessment.
In one intercept, a senior Iranian military official was specifically overheard complaining that the nuclear program had been shuttered years earlier, according to a source familiar with the intelligence. The intercept was one of more than 1,000 pieces of information cited in footnotes to the 150-page classified version of the document, an official said.
Several of those involved in preparing the new assessment said that when intelligence officials began briefing senior members of the Bush administration on the intercepts, beginning in July, the policymakers expressed skepticism. Several of the president's top advisers suggested the intercepts were part of a clever Iranian deception campaign, the officials said.
Intelligence officers then spent months examining whether the new information was part of a well-orchestrated ruse. Their effort included "Red Team" exercises in which groups of intelligence officers tried to punch holes in the new evidence, substantially delaying publication of the NIE.
The estimate noted that Iran continues to enrich uranium for a civil nuclear energy program. But the intelligence experts said they did not consider this a weapons program because it is being done at openly declared facilities under international supervision.