By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Iran has not produced the highly enriched uranium necessary for a nuclear weapon and has not decided to do so, U.S. intelligence officials told Congress yesterday, an assessment that contrasts with a stark Israeli warning days earlier that Iran has crossed the "technological threshold" in its pursuit of the bomb.
Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair said that Iran has not decided to pursue the production of weapons-grade uranium and the parallel ability to load it onto a ballistic missile.
"The overall situation -- and the intelligence community agrees on this -- [is] that Iran has not decided to press forward . . . to have a nuclear weapon on top of a ballistic missile," Blair told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Our current estimate is that the minimum time at which Iran could technically produce the amount of highly enriched uranium for a single weapon is 2010 to 2015."
The five-year spread, he explained, is a result of differences in the intelligence community about how quickly Iran could develop a weapon if it rekindled a weapons program it suspended in 2003.
Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate panel that Iran is "keeping open that option."
Iran recently announced its first space launch and said Sunday that it had successfully tested an air-to-surface missile with a 70-mile range. Maples said the launch of the Safir space vehicle "does advance their knowledge and their ability to develop an intercontinental ballistic missiles," but he and Blair said there may be no connection between the country's development of missiles and any ambition to have nuclear weapons.
"I believe those are separate decisions," Blair said. "The same missiles can launch vehicles into space. They can launch warheads, either conventional or nuclear, onto . . . land targets, and Iran is pursuing those -- for those multiple purposes. Whether they develop a nuclear weapon which could then be put in that . . . warhead, I believe, is a . . . separate decision which Iran has not made yet."
Israeli officials have a different view of Iran's goals.
"Reaching a military-grade nuclear capability is a question of synchronizing its strategy with the production of a nuclear bomb," Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, Israel's chief of military intelligence, told cabinet ministers, according to a senior Israeli official briefing reporters in Jerusalem. "Iran continues to stockpile hundreds of kilograms of low-level enriched uranium and hopes to use the dialogue with the West to buy the time it requires in order to move towards an ability to manufacture a nuclear bomb."
Blair said Israel was working from the same facts but had drawn a different interpretation of their meaning.
"The Israelis are far more concerned about it, and they take more of a worst-case approach to these things from their point of view," he said.
A similar difference of opinion surfaced last week, when Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen said he thought that Iran had enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said on the same day that Iran was "not close to a weapon."
Blair was asked about the Chinese military and specifically a weekend incident in the South China Sea involving a U.S. ocean surveillance ship and five Chinese vessels in international waters. The intelligence chief called it the most serious episode between the two nations since 2001, when tensions rose over a collision between Chinese fighters and a U.S. surveillance aircraft in roughly the same region.
"They seem to be more militarily aggressive," Blair said, adding: "I think the debate is still on in China whether, as their military power increases, they will be used for good or for pushing people around."