The U.S. intelligence community has completed a new National Intelligence Estimate for President Barack Obama and Congress on Iran's nuclear program. The key judgements, however, aren't being released like those of a November 2007 NIE that concluded that Iran had halted the development of a nuclear weapon four years earlier.
But that may not matter. Because logic and U.S. intelligence community practices tell us that Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper essentially laid out the new NIE's key judgments in the Annual Worldwide Threat Assessment that he presented today to the Senate Intelligence Committee and on Feb. 10 to the House Intelligence Committee. And in effect, the conclusions of the new NIE are pretty close to those of the 2007 NIE.
"We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it chose to do so," Clapper says in the threat assessment. "We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons."
Translation: The 16 U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Iran's covert nuclear weapons work remains suspended for now, but could be restarted if the Iranian regime decides to do so. And if it does proceed, the United States may not know it.
Here's what the 2007 NIE said: U.S. intelligence analysts "assess with moderate-to-high confidence
that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons."
And this: "In our judgment, only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons—and such a decision is inherently reversible."
That doesn't mean that Iran hasn't been aggressively pursuing the technologies that it would need to build weapons. That is especially so when it comes to centrifuges, the supersonic spinning machines that are used to produce both low-enriched urnanium for power reactors - which is what Tehran insists it's using them for - and highly enriched uranium for bombs. The effort centered at Natanz has been considerably slowed, however, by attacks by the computer virus known as Stuxnet, experts say.
"Iran's technical advancement, particularly in uranium enrichment, strengthens our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons, making the central issue the will to do so," Clapper says in the threat assessment. "These advancements contribute to our judgment that Iran is technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon in the next few years, if it choses to do so."