(by Bill Gertz and Jon Ward, Dec. 4, 2007, WashingtonTimes.com) – Iran halted a secret nuclear-weapons program in 2003 under international pressure but still can produce a nuclear bomb by 2010 to 2015, according to a new U.S. intelligence estimate released yesterday.
The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a consensus of analysts at the CIA and 15 other agencies, reverses a 2005 estimate that said Iran was bent on building nuclear arms.
“We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear-weapons program,” a brief summary of the formerly classified estimate said.
Senior U.S. intelligence officials who briefed reporters on the Iran nuclear estimate said it is “plausible, but not likely” that Iran’s suspension is part of a “strategic deception” operation, because of continued Iranian government “denial and deception” efforts.
“We do not know if Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons but assess with moderate to high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons,” said one official involved in drafting the more-than-140-page document.
However, a second official said that there is a stronger feeling among analysts this year, compared with 2005, that “Iran had a covert nuclear-weapons program, one that they have continued to deny, and to this day refuse to admit that they ever had.”
The earliest Iran could have a nuclear weapon is late 2009, based on the amount of highly enriched uranium that is being produced in the centrifuges that Iran’s government claims are for a peaceful nuclear-power program.
The new estimate is likely to limit current policy debates on whether the U.S. will take military action to destroy Iran’s nuclear program in the next several years.
Release of the new intelligence estimate also takes place as U.S. intelligence analysts seek to restore credibility in the aftermath of the 2002 estimate that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons, and was a year from having a nuclear weapon. The wrong estimate was one of several reasons for U.S. military intervention in 2003.
The senior officials said the new judgment, which reverses a key Bush administration policy claim, was based on new information and analysis that has been carried out over 18 months and was completed in the past three months.
“The center of gravity of this is new information, which caused us to challenge our assessments,” the second official said.
Officials would not say what new evidence led to the change, but press reports from the Middle East indicate a senior Iranian official, Ali Rez Asgari, defected to the West during a visit to Turkey in February and disclosed new information about the program.
A lack of solid intelligence led two U.S. agencies, the Energy Department intelligence unit and the National Intelligence Council, to suspect that the halt of the Iranian nuclear-arms program is limited and that some activities continue.
President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were briefed on the report last week, but knew of its findings over the past several months.
“On one hand, it confirms that we were right to be worried about Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons,” National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley told reporters. “On the other hand, it tells us that we have made some progress in trying to ensure that that does not happen.”
Mr. Bush said as recently as his Oct. 17 press conference that a nuclearized Iran would lead to World War III – a remark that Mr. Hadley said was intended to muster international support for putting more pressure on Iran to suspend uranium production.
Mr. Hadley said some states [countries] will probably use the estimate as pretext for criticizing the U.S. but added that the estimate supports administration efforts to pressure Iran into “diplomatic isolation” through U.N. sanctions, financial pressure and the option of negotiations.
He said the new intelligence estimate does not mean that spy agencies were wrong.
“These are challenges that are ongoing against very hard targets that lie, that try [to] prevent things from becoming public, and that try [to] mislead,” he said.
A former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John R. Bolton, who worked at the State Department on stopping nuclear proliferation, said he views the estimate as political backtracking by an intelligence community still smarting from its failure on Iraq’s program.
The release of the key judgments “does not serve the public’s interest,” he said, noting that it is “the politicization of the intelligence community by the intelligence community.”
If classified supporting data cannot be made public, then conclusions should remain secret or there is a risk they will be misconstrued, Mr. Bolton said in an interview.
“This is going to have a very unfortunate effect, because people are going to misunderstand it,” Mr. Bolton said. “The tragedy is that they’re saying with modest confidence something is not happening. But the consequences of being wrong on that are more than modest. They’re very severe.”
The Bush administration has pursued diplomatic approaches to Iran’s nuclear program, including the efforts of Britain, Germany and France to press the Iranians to end uranium enrichment not permitted under International Atomic Energy Agency controls. Financial and business sanctions also have been applied since 2002, when new information on the Iranian nuclear program emerged, mainly from an Iranian exile group with sources inside the country.
The estimate states that Tehran’s announced decision to suspend known uranium enrichment and sign an additional protocol to the nuclear safeguards agreement “was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.”
“The NIE makes clear that international pressure has had an effect on Iranian behavior,” the first official said.
Copyright 2007 News World Communications, Inc. Reprinted with permission of the Washington Times. This reprint does not constitute or imply any endorsement or sponsorship of any product, service, company or organization. Visit the website at www.washingtontimes.com.
1. What is the NIE?
2. How did the NIE report released yesterday differ from the 2005 NIE?
3. What did two senior U.S. intelligence officials involved in writing the NIE say about Iran’s intent to develop nuclear weapons?
4. Enriched uranium is needed to build a nuclear weapon.
a) For what reason does the Iranian government say they are enriching uranium?
b) Based on the amount of uranium being produced in Iran, how soon could Iran have a nuclear weapon?
5. What is the new NIE conclusion based on?
6. What led two U.S. agencies (the Energy Department intelligence unit and the National Intelligence Council) to suspect that the halt of the Iranian nuclear-arms program is limited and that some activities continue?
7. a) Who is Stephen Hadley?
b) How does Mr. Hadley view this new NIE report?
8. How does Mr. Hadley explain the different conclusion made in the latest NIE report as opposed to the 2005 report?
9. a) Who is John Bolton?
b) Read Mr. Bolton’s reaction to the new NIE in paragraphs 20-23. Do you agree with Mr. Bolton’s assertions? Explain your answer.
10. CHALLENGE QUESTION: The U.S. has nuclear weapons. What is the big deal about Iran obtaining nuclear weapons?
BACKGROUND ON THE ARTICLE: Iran’s 20 year secret nuclear program was discovered in 2002. Iran says its program is for fuel purposes only, but it has been working on uranium enrichment which is used to make nuclear bombs. Under the NPT (Non Proliferation Treaty) countries are not allowed to make nuclear weapons. In September 2006, the U.S. attempted to get the UN’s IFEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) to refer Iran to the UN Security Council with the hope that if Iran did not stop their work, the Security Council would impose sanctions on Iran to force them to comply with the NPT. The UN did eventually impose some sanctions on Iran.
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