Even as the UN’s nuclear watchdog said in a new report on Friday that Iran has accelerated its uranium enrichment program, US intelligence analysts continue to believe there is no hard evidence that Iran has decided to build a nuclear bomb.
Recent assessments by US spy agencies are broadly consistent with a 2007 intelligence finding that concluded that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program years earlier, according to current and former US officials. The officials said that assessment was largely reaffirmed in a 2010 National Intelligence Estimate and that it remains the consensus view of the US’ 16 intelligence agencies.
At the center of the debate is the murky question of the ultimate ambitions of the leaders in Tehran. There is no dispute among US, Israeli and European intelligence officials that Iran has been enriching nuclear fuel and developing some necessary infrastructure to become a nuclear power.
However, the CIA and other intelligence agencies believe that Iran has yet to decide whether to resume a parallel program to design a nuclear warhead — a program they believe was essentially halted in 2003 and which would be necessary for Iran to build a nuclear bomb. Iranian officials maintain that their nuclear program is for civilian purposes.
In a US Senate testimony on Jan. 31, James Clapper Jr, the director of US national intelligence, stated explicitly that US officials believe that Iran is preserving its options for a nuclear weapon, but said there was no evidence it had made a decision on making a concerted push to build a weapon. CIA Director David Petraeus concurred with that view at the same hearing. Other senior US officials, including US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, have made similar statements in recent television appearances.
Critics of the US assessment in Jerusalem and some European capitals point out that Iran has made great strides in the most difficult step toward building a nuclear weapon, enriching uranium. That has also been the conclusion of a series of reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspectors, who on Friday presented new evidence that the Iranians have begun enriching uranium in an underground facility near the city of Qom.
Once Iran takes further steps to actually enrich weapons-grade fuel — a feat the US does not believe Iran has yet accomplished — the critics believe it would be relatively easy for Iran to engineer a warhead and then have a bomb in short order.
Yet some intelligence officials and outside analysts believe there is another possible explanation for Iran’s enrichment activity, besides a headlong race to build a bomb as quickly as possible. They say that Iran could be seeking to enhance its influence in the region by creating what some analysts call “strategic ambiguity.”
Rather than building a bomb now, Iran may want to increase its power by sowing doubt among other nations about its nuclear ambitions. Some point to the examples of Pakistan and India, both of which had clandestine nuclear weapons programs for decades before they actually decided to build bombs and test their weapons in 1998.
To be sure, US intelligence analysts acknowledge that understanding the intentions of Iran’s leadership is extremely difficult and that their assessments are based on limited information. David Kay, who was head of the CIA’s team that searched for Iraq’s weapons programs after the US invasion, was cautious about the quality of the intelligence underlying the current US assessment.