WASHINGTON — Iran halted its secret effort to develop a nuclear weapon four years ago and doesn't appear to have restarted the project, a comprehensive new U.S. intelligence report said Monday.
Iran's decision to stop the program in mid-2003 indicates that it's "less determined" to acquire nuclear weapons and "more vulnerable" to international pressure than U.S. intelligence agencies had previously believed, the U.S. intelligence community said.
The long-awaited National Intelligence Estimate, however, warned that the Islamic regime could resume its nuclear effort and "has the scientific, technical and industrial capabilities to eventually produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so."
Nevertheless, the NIE is a stunning reversal of the main conclusion of a 2005 estimate — that Iran's theocratic rulers were "determined" to develop nuclear weapons despite threats of sanctions and international isolation.
The declassified key judgments also undermine both President Bush's Oct. 17 warning that Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons could "ignite World War III" and his administration's drive for tougher international sanctions against Iran. In addition, they deal another blow to the administration's credibility and influence, already battered by its use of bogus and exaggerated intelligence to justify its 2003 invasion of Iraq.
"I think there is going to be a tendency for a lot of people to say: `Whoop! The problem's less bad than we thought,'" White House National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley conceded Monday.
Hadley said that Bush was briefed on the NIE's conclusions last Wednesday. But he appeared to acknowledge that U.S. intelligence agencies already had concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program when Bush told a news conference that Tehran's quest for a nuclear arsenal could trigger a third world war.
"He (Bush) would have made that, I believe, that comment after" the new intelligence was known, Hadley told reporters.
Senior U.S. intelligence officials said the judgment that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in mid-2003 emerged four to six months ago as a result of fresh intelligence, some of it from open sources and some from a "very rigorous scrub" of 20 years of information, some of which informed the 2005 NIE.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the analysts who drafted the report also had applied lessons learned from an erroneous 2002 NIE on Iraq.
"We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate to high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons," said the NIE, titled "Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities."
The report said that Iran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggested that "it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005. Our assessment that the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure suggests that Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously."
Those pressures included threats of U.N. sanctions, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the unveiling of the A.Q. Khan network and Libya's admission that it was trying to develop a nuclear weapon, the senior intelligence officials said.
An NIE represents the consensus of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies and is written by the National Intelligence Council, the intelligence community's highest analytical body.
It said that because of unidentified "intelligence gaps," U.S. intelligence agencies and the Department of Energy assessed with "moderate confidence" that Iran "had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007."
"We do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons," the key judgments continued. "We continue to assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapon" even though "we cannot rule out that Iran has acquired from abroad — or will acquire in the future — a nuclear weapon or enough fissile material for a weapon."
The NIE said that Iran appears to be having problems with its uranium enrichment program and probably won't be capable of producing highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon before 2010. The State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research dissented from that view and estimated that Iran won't be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium to make a weapon before 2013.
Iran, which hid its uranium enrichment program from International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors for 18 years, has denied repeatedly that it's seeking a nuclear arsenal.
Only last summer did it begin answering key IAEA questions about the history of its uranium enrichment program and the purchases of technology and know-how, including weapons-related materials, from the smuggling ring led by A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program.
Hadley indicated that the administration would try to use the finding that Iran appears vulnerable to international influence to win Russian and Chinese support for a third round of U.N. sanctions. "The international community has to turn up the pressure on Iran," he said.
The Democratic-controlled Congress ordered the production of the NIE amid concerns that the Bush administration was hyping the threat as it had in Iraq.
The report was to have been completed last spring, but senior intelligence officials had said they wouldn't declassify the key judgments. Administration officials held internal discussions about whether or not to release unclassified portions of the intelligence estimate, said a State Department official familiar with the issue.
In the end, said the official, it was decided that if the unclassified summary wasn't made public, that would increase the chances that classified parts of the document might leak. If that were to happen, the administration would be accused of suppressing intelligence that found that Iran's nuclear program wasn't as immediate a threat as the White House had suggested.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.
(Warren P. Strobel contributed.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2007