As U.S. and Israeli officials talk publicly about the prospect of a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program, one fact is often overlooked: U.S. intelligence agencies don’t believe Iran is actively trying to build an atomic bomb.
A highly classified U.S. intelligence assessment circulated to policymakers early last year largely affirms that view, originally made in 2007. Both reports, known as national intelligence estimates, conclude that Tehran halted efforts to develop and build a nuclear warhead in 2003.
The most recent report, which represents the consensus of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, indicates that Iran is pursuing research that could put it in a position to build a weapon, but that it has not sought to do so.
Although Iran continues to enrich uranium at low levels, U.S. officials say they have not seen evidence that has caused them to significantly revise that judgment. Senior U.S. officials say Israel does not dispute the basic intelligence or analysis.
But Israel appears to have a lower threshold for action than Washington. It regards Iran as a threat to its existence and says it will not allow Iran to become capable of building and delivering a nuclear weapon. Some Israeli officials have raised the prospect of a military strike to stop Iran before it’s too late.
It’s unclear how much access U.S. intelligence has in Iran, a problem that bedeviled efforts to determine whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
The assessment that Saddam Hussein had secretly amassed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and was seeking to build a nuclear weapon, cited by the George W. Bush administration to justify the invasion, turned out to be wrong.
Iran barred inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog group, from visiting Parchin, a military site, this week to determine whether explosives tests were aimed at developing nuclear technology.
An IAEA report in November cited “serious concerns” about “possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program,” but did not reach hard conclusions. Another IAEA report is imminent.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, insisted Wednesday that Tehran had no intention of producing nuclear weapons. In remarks broadcast on state television, he said that “owning a nuclear weapon is a big sin.”
But he said that “pressure, sanctions and assassinations” would not stop Iran from producing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
The U.S. and European Union have imposed strict sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors, and unidentified assassins on motorcycles have killed several nuclear scientists in Iran, attacks for which Tehran has blamed Israel.
For now, U.S. military and intelligence officials say they don’t believe Iran’s leadership has made the decision to build a bomb.
“I think they are keeping themselves in a position to make that decision,” James R. Clapper Jr., director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 16. “But there are certain things they have not yet done and have not done for some time.”
Clapper and CIA Director David H. Petraeus told a separate Senate hearing that Iran was enriching uranium below 20% purity. Uranium is considered weapons grade when it is enriched to about 90% purity, although it is still potentially usable at lower enrichment levels.
U.S. spy agencies also have not seen evidence of a decision-making structure on nuclear weapons around Khamenei, said David Albright, who heads the nonprofit Institute for Science and International Security and is an expert on Iran’s nuclear program.
Albright’s group estimates that with the centrifuges Iran already has, it could enrich uranium to sufficient purity to make a bomb in as little as six months, should it decide to do so.
It is not known precisely what other technical hurdles Iran would have to overcome, but Albright and many other experts believe that if it decides to proceed, the country has the scientific knowledge to design and build a crude working bomb in as little as a year. It would take as long as three years, Albright estimated, for Iran to build a warhead small enough to fit on a ballistic missile.
Albright said a push by Iran to build a nuclear weapon probably would be detected.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, the former CIA director, told a House committee that such a decision would be a “red line” prompting an international response.
Stephen Hadley, who was President Bush’s national security advisor, said it would be too late to respond then.
“When they’re assembling a bomb, that’s going to be the hardest thing to see,” said Hadley, now a senior advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a government-funded think tank.
Some developments have bolstered the view that Iran is secretly pursuing a weapon.
In 2009, Western intelligence agencies discovered a clandestine underground facility called Fordow, near the city of Qom, that is said to be capable of housing 3,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium.
Israel worries that such facilities may be invulnerable to conventional bombing if Iran begins building a weapon. Israeli officials have warned that Iran could create what they call a “zone of immunity” by year’s end.
And some U.S. officials have come to different conclusions about the intelligence. Among them is Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “We know that [Iran is] aggressively pursuing a nuclear weapons program,” Rogers said this month.
U.S. intelligence on Iran’s nuclear ambitions has vacillated over the years. After Iranian dissidents exposed a long-hidden program in 2002, U.S. intelligence warned that Tehran was “determined to build nuclear weapons.”
In 2006, Bush asked aides to present him with options for a U.S. attack. But newly recruited informants, intercepted conversations and notes from deliberations of Iranian officials led U.S. intelligence to reconsider its warning.
In December 2007, the National Intelligence Estimate judged with “high confidence” that Tehran had halted its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003. It judged with “moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”
In his 2010 memoir, “Decision Points,” Bush questioned whether analysts had reversed course to atone for their errors on Iraq.
Michael Hayden, who was CIA director in 2007, said the analysts who wrote the report had no political motivation. “It was intelligence professionals calling balls and strikes the way they saw them,” he said in an interview.
He said the 2007 estimate was poorly worded and “quickly got translated into ‘Iran stopped its nuclear program,’” which he does not believe is accurate.
The more important finding, Hadley said, was that Iran was continuing its efforts to develop fissile material and to build ballistic missiles capable of delivering warheads.
“They are doing everything they can to put themselves in a position so that they have a clear and fairly quick route to a nuclear weapon,” he said.