Iran Halted Nuclear Weapons Development in 2003
YOSSI MELMAN / Haaretz (Israel) 4dec2007
Iran halted its nuclear weapons development program in the fall of 2003 and the program remains on hold, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment released Monday.
"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," states the summary of the report.
The findings are a change from two years ago, when U.S. intelligence agencies believed Iran was determined to develop a nuclear capability and was continuing its weapons development program.
U.S. intelligence officials pointed to the findings as evidence that international pressure on Iran was working. "It suggests that Iran is susceptible to diplomatic pressure," the official said.
"This is good news in that the U.S. policy coupled with the policies and actions of those who have been our partners appear to have had some success. Iran seems to have been pressured," one of the officials said. "Given that good news we don't want to relax. We want to keep those pressures up."
The National Intelligence Estimate, which represents the consensus view of all 16 American spy agencies, states that Tehran's ultimate intentions about gaining a nuclear weapon remain unclear, but that Iran's "decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs," the New York Times reported.
Despite the suspension of its weapons program, Tehran may ultimately be difficult to dissuade from developing a nuclear bomb because Iran believes such a weapon would give it leverage to achieve its national security and foreign policy goals, the assessment concluded.
Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell decided last month that the key judgments of NIEs should as a rule not be declassified and released. The intelligence officials said an exception was made in this case because the last assessment of Iran's nuclear program in 2005 has been influential in public debate about U.S. policy toward Iran and needed to be updated to reflect the latest findings.
To develop a nuclear weapon Iran needs a warhead design, a certain amount of fissile material, and a delivery vehicle such as a missile. The intelligence agencies now believe Iran halted design work four years ago and as of mid-2007 had not restarted it.
But Iran is continuing enrich uranium for its civilian nuclear reactors. That leaves open the possibility the fissile material could be diverted to covert nuclear sites to make enough highly enriched uranium to make a bomb.
The amount of fissile material Iran has is closely linked to when it can produce a weapon. Even if the country went all out with present enrichment capability, it is unlikely to have enough until 2010 at the earliest, the officials said. The State Department's Intelligence and Research office believes the earliest likely time it would have enough highly enriched uranium would be 2013. But all agencies concede Iran may not have sufficient enriched uranium until after 2015.
Iran would not be capable of technically producing and reprocessing enough plutonium for a weapon before about 2015, the report states. But ultimately it has the technical and industrial capacity to build a bomb, if it decides to do so, the intelligence agencies found.
According to Israel's intelligence assessments, Iran could produce a nuclear bomb as early as 2010. The difference in the American and Israeli assessments is derived not from different information but rather different approaches - Israel focuses on the worst case scenario, while the U.S. approach assumes that, once acquiring the necessary technology, Iran will still have difficulty implementing it in order to produce the bomb.
This national intelligence estimate was originally due in the spring of 2007 but was delayed because the agencies wanted more confidence their findings were accurate, given the problems with a 2002 intelligence estimate of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program. They also got a late influx of new data that caused changes in their findings.
"There was a very rigorous scrub using all the trade craft available, using the lessons of 2002," a senior official said.
At the White House, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said the findings confirm that the risk of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon remains a serious problem.
"The estimate offers grounds for hope that the problem can be solved diplomatically without the use of force as the Administration has been trying to do," Hadley said. "And it suggests that the president has the right strategy: intensified international pressure along with a willingness to negotiate a solution that serves Iranian interests, while ensuring that the world will never have to face a nuclear armed Iran."
"The bottom line is this: for that strategy to succeed, the international community has to turn up the pressure on Iran with diplomatic isolation, United Nations sanctions, and with other financial pressure and Iran has to decide it wants to negotiate a solution," Hadley added.