Iran's work on bomb has halted, report says

December 04, 2007|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- In a surprising new report, the U.S. intelligence community said yesterday that Iran halted its secret military program to develop nuclear weapons four years ago, most likely in response to international criticism.

The new National Intelligence Estimate runs counter to Bush administration warnings about Iran's weapons development program, specifically its suggestion that Iran is pushing to build a nuclear bomb. The report said Iran's effort to turn nuclear material into a bomb ended in 2003 and has not been restarted.

A top White House official said there would be no change in U.S. policy toward Iran as a result of the latest intelligence finding.

According to the new assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies, Iran is continuing its effort to enrich uranium to produce weapons-grade material and "at a minimum" is keeping open the option of developing nuclear weapons.

But the report said Iran faces "significant technical problems" and probably could not amass enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb until "sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame."

Despite fiery rhetoric from Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, about Iran's right to develop nuclear weapons, the intelligence report said Tehran's decisions about nuclear arms seem to be guided by weighing the costs of international sanctions and diplomatic isolation rather than a single-minded, all-out rush to get a bomb.

"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," said the intelligence assessment, released by Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence.

For President Bush, who warned in October that Iran's nuclear ambitions could ignite World War III, the new report appeared to be a cold splash of reality.

"This is challenging information," acknowledged Stephen J. Hadley, the president's national security adviser.

But he insisted that the new intelligence judgments bolstered White House confidence that international pressure, rather than force, was the right way to deal with Iran.

Threat of war

Asked at an Oct. 17 news conference about Iran's nuclear ambitions, Bush replied, "I believe they want to have the capacity, the knowledge, in order to make a nuclear weapon. ... If you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge to make a nuclear weapon."

Hadley said Bush was briefed on the new intelligence findings Wednesday, a day after the assessment was finalized. He said Bush was told "months earlier" that there was new information on Iran but that it was not confirmed and that it would take some time to complete the assessment.

"He was not told to stop talking about Iran's nuclear weapons program," Hadley said.

He insisted that Bush's strategy of bringing international pressure on Iran had not changed before or after he learned of the new intelligence assessment.

In October, Bush explained his strategy this way: "At some point in time, leaders or responsible folks inside of Iran may get tired of isolation and say, `This isn't worth it.'"

Hadley said that "was our policy" before the new intelligence assessment "and that's our policy going forward. No change."

Cheney briefed first

He disclosed that Vice President Dick Cheney, who warned in October that "we will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon," was briefed on the new intelligence findings during Thanksgiving week, a week before Bush was briefed.

The Bush administration is seeking agreement at the United Nations Security Council for a third round of economic sanctions against Iran. Its case seemed to be bolstered over the weekend by a statement by the new chief Iranian negotiator, Saeed Jalili, that all previous diplomatic understandings on Iran's nuclear program are inoperative.

The new National Intelligence Estimate, a report that is the most authoritative written judgment of the U.S. intelligence community, was ordered by the former director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte, more than a year ago, in response to questions being raised by administration officials and by Congress.

Completion of the assessment was due last spring but was delayed for additional work and a comprehensive "scrubbing" and review, intelligence officials said.

Summary of report

The assessment, released yesterday as an unclassified summary of the full classified report, represents the unanimous judgment of the U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, collection and analysis offices at the Departments of Energy and State, and others.

It said many of its key judgments were made "with high confidence," a phrase that indicates to intelligence professionals that the United States has sources deep inside Iran's ruling elites.

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