By Ray Locker and Richard Willing
12/03/07 “USA TODAY“
Iran ceased its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and has not resumed work toward building nuclear weapons, a National Intelligence Estimate released Monday said.
The estimate, reflecting the collective judgment of the nation’s 16 intelligence agencies, also concludes that Tehran likely is “keeping open the option” to develop nuclear weapons in the future by continuing to build missiles and pursue a civilian nuclear power program.
The estimate reverses claims made two years ago that Iran appeared “determined to develop” a nuclear weapons program.
“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,” the report said. “Our assessment that the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously.”
President Bush was briefed on the findings Wednesday. The Bush administration, which has vigorously claimed Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, called the estimate good news, although it undercut some of the administration’s claims.
“Today’s National Intelligence Estimate offers some positive news,” national security adviser Stephen Hadley said in a prepared statement. “It confirms that we were right to be worried about Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons. It tells us that we have made progress in trying to ensure that this does not happen.”
The estimate also concluded with “moderate-to-high confidence” that Iran has not obtained enough materials from abroad to build a nuclear weapon. Iran, the report said, has probably imported some “fissionable” material, such as uranium, to develop a weapon.
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly insisted that his nation’s nuclear program is aimed only at developing a power source for civil society.
The report also said:
— The earliest Iran could assemble enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb is late 2009, although that is “very unlikely.”
— Iran would be capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb in the 2010-2015 time frame.
— Iran is developing the scientific capabilities to create a bomb if it chooses to do so. For example, its “civilian uranium enrichment program” is continuing.
— Iran retains the “scientific, technical and industrial capacity” to produce nuclear weapons in the future if its leaders decide to.
Silvestre Reyes, D-Tex, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, called the about face on Iran’s nuclear program a “remarkable shift.” He vowed to question intelligence officials closely about the classfied sources upon which they based their judgment.
Intelligence officials who helped prepare the estimate made no apologies for overlooking that the weapons program had been halted in the 2005 NIE. The officials said new information indicates that the Iranians halted their secret program in late 2003, less than 12 months before the 2005 estimates was prepared. New information causing the intelligence agencies to conclude that the program had been halted continued to be evaluated until a few weeks ago.
In 2007, the Iranian government allowed some journalists to visit a nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz. U.S. intelligence officials viewed photographs the journalists made and concluded that Tehran continues to face “significant technical problems” in using the facility to enrich uranium.
The estimate said officials lack sufficient intelligence to “judge confidently” whether Iran plans to re-start its weapons program.
Iran’s decision to halt the program was “guided by a cost-benefit approach” that took into account the “political, economic and military costs” of continuing in the face of world scrutiny and possible sanctions.
Continued pressure, combined with “opportunities” for Iran to obtain prestige and regional influence without a weapons program, might encourage Tehran to continue the current halt.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released about 2 1/2 pages of the NIE’s declassified “key judgments.” The full estimate is about 140 pages.
Talk: The Iran Agenda with Reese Erlich (long video)
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Why should we believe that Iran EVER had a nuclear weapons program at all?