By Tabassum Zakaria
The United States, European allies and even Israel generally agree on three things about Iran’s nuclear program: Tehran does not have a bomb, has not decided to build one, and is probably years away from having a deliverable nuclear warhead.
Those conclusions, drawn from extensive interviews with current and former U.S. and European officials with access to intelligence on Iran, contrast starkly with the heated debate surrounding a possible Israeli strike on Tehran’s nuclear facilities.
“They’re keeping the soup warm but they are not cooking it,” a U.S. administration official said.
Reuters has learned that in late 2006 or early 2007, U.S. intelligence intercepted telephone and email communications in which Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a leading figure in Iran’s nuclear program, and other scientists complained that the weaponization program had been stopped.
That led to a bombshell conclusion in a controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate: American spy agencies had “high confidence” that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003.
Current and former U.S. officials say they are confident that Iran has no secret uranium-enrichment site outside the purview of UN nuclear inspections.
They also have confidence that any Iranian move toward building a functional nuclear weapon would be detected long before a bomb was made.
These intelligence findings are what underpin President Barack Obama’s argument that there is still time to see whether economic sanctions will compel Iran’s leaders to halt any program.
The Obama administration, relying on a top-priority intelligence collection program and after countless hours of debate, has concluded that Iranian leaders have not decided whether to actively construct a nuclear weapon, current and former officials said.
There is little argument, however, that Iran’s leaders have taken steps that would give them the option of becoming a nuclear-armed power.
Iran has enriched uranium, although not yet of sufficient quantity or purity to fuel a bomb, and has built secret enrichment sites, which were acknowledged only when unmasked.
Iran has, in years past, worked on designing a nuclear warhead, the complicated package of electronics and explosives that would transform highly enriched uranium into a fission bomb.
And it is developing missiles that could in theory launch such a weapon at a target in enemy territory.
There are also blind spots in U.S. and allied agencies’ knowledge. A crucial unknown is the intentions of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Another question is exactly how much progress Iran made in designing a warhead before mothballing its program. The allies disagree on how fast Iran is progressing toward bomb-building ability: the U.S. thinks progress is relatively slow; the Europeans and Israelis believe it’s faster.
U.S. officials assert that intelligence reporting on Iran’s nuclear program is better than it was on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, which proved to be non-existent but which President George W. Bush and his aides used to make the case for the 2003 invasion.
That case and others, such as the U.S. failure to predict India’s 1998 underground nuclear test, illustrate the perils of divining secrets about others’ weapons programs.
“The quality of intelligence varies from case to case,” a U.S. administration official said. Intelligence on North Korea and Iraq was more limited, but there was “extraordinarily good intelligence” on Iran, the official said.
Israel, which regards a nuclear Iran as an existential threat, has a different calculation. It studies the same intelligence and timetable, but sees a closing window of opportunity to take unilateral military action and set back Iran’s ambitions. Israel worries that Iran will soon have moved enough of its nuclear program underground — or spread it far enough around the country — as to make it virtually impervious to a unilateral Israeli attack, creating what Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently referred to as a “zone of immunity.”
While Israel would not be able to launch an effective offensive in this analysis, the U.S., with its deeper-penetrating bombs and in-air refueling capability, believes it could still get results from a military strike.
Israel has not publicly defined how or when Iran would enter this phase of a nuclear weapons program. Barak said last month that relying on an ability to detect an order by Khamenei to build a bomb “oversimplifies the issue dramatically.”