Iran halted its nuclear weapons development programme in the fall of 2003 under international pressure but is continuing to enrich uranium, which means it may still be able to develop a weapon between 2010 and 2015, senior intelligence officials said yesterday.
That finding, in a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, is a change from two years ago, when US intelligence agencies believed Tehran was determined to develop a nuclear capability and was continuing its weapons development program. It suggests that Iran is susceptible to diplomatic pressure, the officials said.
"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 unclassified summary of the secret report.
Officials said the new findings suggest that diplomacy has been effective in containing Iran's nuclear ambitions, although President Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said the risk of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon remains "a serious problem."
The estimate suggests that Bush "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," Hadley said.
The finding comes at a time of escalating tensions between the United States and Iran, which Bush has labeled part of an "axis of evil," along with North Korea and President Saddam Hussein's Iraq. At a news conference on 17 October, Bush said "if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them (Iran) from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."
The halt to active weapons development is one of the key judgments of the latest intelligence estimate on Iran's nuclear program. National Intelligence Estimates represent the most authoritative written judgments of all 16 US spy agencies.
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 US 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.