(Reuters) – The United States, European allies and even Israel generally agree on three things about Iran‘s nuclear program: Tehran does not have a bomb, has not decided to build one, and is probably years away from having a deliverable nuclear warhead.
Those conclusions, drawn from extensive interviews with current and former U.S. and European officials with access to intelligence on Iran, contrast starkly with the heated debate surrounding a possible Israeli strike on Tehran’s nuclear facilities.
Current and former U.S. officials say they are confident that Iran has no secret uranium-enrichment site outside the purview of U.N. nuclear inspections.
They also have confidence that any Iranian move toward building a functional nuclear weapon would be detected long before a bomb was made.
U.S. officials assert that intelligence reporting on Iran’s nuclear program is better than it was on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, which proved to be non-existent but which President George W. Bush and his aides used to make the case for the 2003 invasion.
That case and others, such as the U.S. failure to predict India’s 1998 underground nuclear test, illustrate the perils of divining secrets about others’ weapons programs.
“The quality of intelligence varies from case to case,” a U.S. administration official said. Intelligence on North Korea and Iraq was more limited, but there was “extraordinarily good intelligence” on Iran, the official said.
“I think they are years away from having a nuclear weapon,” a U.S. administration official said.
Three main pieces are needed for a nuclear arsenal: highly enriched uranium to fuel a bomb, a nuclear warhead to detonate it, and a missile or other platform to deliver it. For Iran’s program, the West has the most information about the first.
Iran has a declared nuclear program for medical research and producing energy, is a member of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and allows U.N. nuclear inspectors into its facilities.
The inspections are conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and its reports provide some of the best snapshots of where Iran’s program stands.
Iran conducts uranium enrichment at the Natanz plant in central Iran and at a site at Fordow buried deep in a mountainous region near the holy city of Qom. Both sites were built secretly and made public by others.
“The nuclear threat is growing. They are getting relatively close to the place where they can make the decision to assemble all three parts of their program — enrichment, missile, weaponization,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said in an interview. Khamenei “hasn’t said ‘put it together’ yet,” said Rogers, a Republican. “Have they decided to sprint to making the device that blows up? Probably not. But are they walking to a device that blows up? Yes.”
The debate over air strikes, supercharged by Israel’s anxiety and U.S. election-year politics, has raised the spectre of the Iraq war. The White House justified that conflict on the grounds of weapons of mass destruction, as well as significant ties between Iraq and al Qaeda. Both proved to be mirages.
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