WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A new U.S. intelligence report
says Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003
and it remains on hold, contradicting the Bush
administration's earlier assertion that Tehran was
intent on developing a bomb.
The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released on
Monday could undermine U.S. efforts to convince other
world powers to agree on a third package of U.N.
sanctions against Iran for defying demands to halt
uranium enrichment activities.
Tensions have escalated in recent months as Washington
has ratcheted up the rhetoric against Tehran, with
U.S. President George W. Bush insisting in October
that a nuclear-armed Iran could lead to World War
But in a finding likely to surprise U.S. friends and
foes alike, the latest NIE concluded: "We do not know
whether (Iran) currently intends to develop nuclear
That marked a sharp contrast to an intelligence report
two years ago that stated Iran was "determined to
develop nuclear weapons."
But the new assessment found Iran was continuing to
develop technical means that could be used to build a
bomb and it would likely be capable of producing
enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon "sometime
during the 2010-2015 time-frame."
The shift in the intelligence community's thinking on
Iran comes five years after a flawed NIE concluded
neighboring Iraq was developing weapons of mass
destruction -- a report that helped pave the way for
the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
No nuclear, chemical or biological weapons were ever
found in Iraq and intelligence agencies since have
been more cautious about Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who have
repeatedly accused Iran of seeking nuclear weapons,
were briefed on the new NIE last Wednesday.
Washington, which insists it wants to solve the Iran
problem diplomatically while leaving military options
"on the table," is pushing for tougher U.N. sanctions
against Tehran but faces resistance from China and
Iran insists it wants nuclear technology only for
civilian purposes, such as electricity generation.
The nuclear standoff has become a major issue in the
2008 U.S. presidential campaign, with candidates
weighing in on the prospects for military action
U.S. STILL SEES IRANIAN "RISK"
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, among senior
Democrats who had requested the updated report on
Iran, said the assessment challenged some of the
administration's "alarming rhetoric about the threat
posed by Iran."
He and other critics had accused Bush trying to rush
the country into war again based on faulty
Bush's national security adviser said that on balance
the report was "good news," insisting it showed Tehran
was susceptible to international pressure but that the
risk of it acquiring nuclear weapons "remains a very
But he added: "The international community has to
understand that if we want to avoid a situation where
we either have to accept Iran on a road to a nuclear
weapon ... or the possibility of having to use force
to stop it with all the connotations of World War III,
then we need to step up the diplomacy, step up the
Administration officials denied the new NIE had
exposed a serious intelligence lapse but could not
explain how agencies failed to detect for four years
that Iran's nuclear weapons program had been halted.
Intelligence officials said the suspension involved
design and engineering for a bomb and covert
A key NIE finding was that: "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."
Still, the report said: "We also assess with
moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum
is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons."