A new assessment by American intelligence agencies released Monday concludes that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that the program remains frozen, contradicting a judgment two years ago that Tehran was working relentlessly toward building a nuclear bomb.
The conclusions of the new assessment are likely to reshape the final year of the Bush administration, which has made halting Iran’s nuclear program a cornerstone of its foreign policy.
The assessment, a National Intelligence Estimate that represents the consensus view of all 16 American spy agencies, states that Tehran is likely to keep its options open with respect to building a weapon, but that intelligence agencies “do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.”
Iran is continuing to produce enriched uranium, a program that the Tehran government has said is intended for civilian purposes. The new estimate says that the enrichment program could still provide Iran with enough raw material to produce a nuclear weapon sometime by the middle of next decade, a timetable essentially unchanged from previous estimates.
But the new report essentially disavows a judgment that the intelligence agencies issued in 2005, which concluded that Iran had an active secret arms program intended to transform the raw material into a nuclear weapon. The new estimate declares instead with “high confidence” that that military-run program has been shut down since 2003, and it concludes that the halt was imposed by Iran “primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure.”
It was not clear what prompted the reversal. Administration officials said the new estimate reflected conclusions that the intelligence agencies had agreed on only in the past several weeks. The report’s agnosticism about Iran’s nuclear intentions represents a very different tone than had been struck by President Bush, and by Vice President Dick Cheney, who warned in a speech in October that if Iran “stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose serious consequences.”
The estimate does not say when intelligence agencies learned that the arms program had been halted, but officials said new information obtained from covert sources over the summer had led to a reassessment of the state of Iran’s nuclear program and a decision to delay preparation of the estimate, which had been scheduled to be delivered to Congress in the spring.
The new report came out just over five years after a 2002 intelligence estimate on Iraq concluded that it possessed chemical and biological weapons programs and was determined to restart its nuclear program. That estimate was instrumental in winning the congressional authorization for a military invasion of Iraq, but it proved to be deeply flawed, and most of its conclusions turned out to be wrong.
Intelligence officials said the specter of the 2002 estimate on Iraq hung over their deliberations on Iran even more than it had in 2005, when the lessons from the intelligence failure on Iraq were just beginning to prompt spy agencies to adapt a more rigorous approach to their findings.