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WASHINGTON, Aug 7 2009 (IPS) - Iran is unlikely to be able to produce the highly enriched uranium (HEU) necessary for a nuclear weapon until at least 2013, according to a U.S. government intelligence estimate made public Thursday.
The estimate, which sets a notably later date for Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear capability than other claims that have recently been circulated in the media, was prepared by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dennis Blair submitted it in written testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in February.
The publication of the estimate comes at a particularly sensitive time in Washington, as the U.S. debates how best to proceed in dealing with Iran in the wake of June’s disputed election and the Iranian government’s subsequent crackdown on protesters.
Many Iran analysts have called for the U.S. to do nothing for the time being while the political situation within Iran develops – holding off on its planned engagement with Tehran while at the same time avoiding confrontational measures such as the imposition of additional sanctions.
But hawks in the U.S. and Israel have argued that there is no time to spare in dealing with the Iranian nuclear programme, and that the U.S. should quickly move to sanctions targeting Iran’s refined petroleum imports if engagement does not bear fruit by the end of September.
There has also been a great deal of speculation about whether Israel would undertake a unilateral military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities if it is not satisfied with the progress of negotiations – Israeli leaders have refused to rule out the possibility.
Blair’s testimony to the Senate, in which the estimate appeared, was released in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), and published by Aftergood on the FAS website Thursday.
The INR estimate stresses that it is not taking a position on whether Iran will make a "political decision" to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a nuclear weapon, but rather on when Iran would have the "functional ability" to produce HEU should it choose to do so.
Iran has denied that it intends to produce a nuclear weapon, insisting that its nuclear programme is for civilian use only.
Blair’s testimony to the Senate states that although Iran has "made significant progress since 2007 in installing and operating centrifuges, INR continues to assess it is unlikely that Iran will have the technical capability to produce HEU before 2013."
The testimony also states that "Iran probably would use military-run covert facilities, rather than declared nuclear sites, to produce HEU."
According to Blair, the broader intelligence community has "no evidence that Iran has yet made the decision to produce highly enriched uranium, and INR assess that Iran is unlikely to make such a decision for at least as long as international scrutiny and pressure persist."
The INR’s estimate is in line with other recent intelligence estimates suggesting that Iran is years away from a deliverable weapon, if it chose to pursue one.
Meir Dagan, chief of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, said in June that Iran would be capable of launching a bomb by 2014.
But more alarmist estimates have frequently been circulated in the media, providing grist for hawks who suggest that time is running out to prevent an Iranian bomb.
On Monday, the Times of London reported that Iran "has perfected the technology to create and detonate a nuclear warhead and is merely awaiting the word from its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to produce its first bomb."
Citing unnamed "Western intelligence sources," the Times claimed that Iran "could feasibly make a bomb within a year of an order" from Khamenei.
The "one year" estimate – which is met with scepticism by most intelligence analysts – was quickly picked up by hawks as proof that there is no time to waste on engagement.
On Tuesday, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton appeared on Fox News, citing the Times report in suggesting that "pressure [is] building" on Israel to strike Iranian nuclear facilities.
Bolton warned that "we are so close to Iran actually getting a weapon that these fine calibrations that we have got six months, or eight months, or 10 months, all you have to do is be wrong by one day" for the U.S. and Israeli strategic calculus to change dramatically.
On Thursday, Israeli newspaper Haaretz suggested that the "one year" estimate was leaked to the Times by Israeli military intelligence.
Citing the fact that the head of the Israeli Military Intelligence Research Brigade used "almost identical terms to those of the Times" in a Tuesday briefing, Haaretz argued that the "timing of the articles implies that someone in Israel’s defence establishment wanted to deliver an explicit, public declaration" to the media.
The INR report is not the first time that a U.S. intelligence estimate has helped to frame the debate over Iran policy.
In 2007, the release of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concluding that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programme – as opposed to its civilian nuclear programme – in 2003 was widely seen as critical in alleviating political pressure to take a tougher line on Tehran.
In his February Senate testimony, Blair refused to comment on the status or content of the upcoming NIE. The NIE is the consensus judgment of the all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, and hence its findings are likely to be the subject of even more heated discussion than the just-released INR estimate.
The release of the Blair’s testimony comes as Iran hawks in the U.S. are exerting increasing political pressure on the Obama administration to ramp up sanctions on Tehran.
Last week, the Forward reported that congressional leaders and hawkish Jewish organisations are planning a concerted political and lobbying effort in September to rally support for increased sanctions.
The primary bill under consideration, the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, would punish firms exporting refined petroleum products to Iran.
The Obama administration has suggested that Iran will have until the Sep. 30 meeting of the U.N. General Assembly to respond positively to Washington’s engagement, at which point it will consider more punitive measures.
However, many Iran experts have suggested that Tehran is in no position to negotiate at the moment, due to the political turmoil that followed the Jun. 12 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which critics denounce as fraudulent.
As a result, many have called for a "tactical pause" in the U.S. engagement strategy, in the words of National Iranian American Council (NIAC) president Trita Parsi.
The latest intelligence estimate may give the U.S. some political breathing room to pursue such a pause.
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