WASHINGTON - Iran is nowhere near deciding to abandon its nuclear program, even though it recently agreed to a European Union proposal to resume talks on the issue. But neither is it likely to intentionally provoke a conflict, senior American intelligence officials told the Senate's Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
The hearing coincided with the circulation of a draft resolution sponsored by 32 senators from both parties "ruling out a strategy of containment for a nuclear-armed Iran."
James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, told the meeting that Israel might decide to attack Iran's nuclear facilities this spring, because the weather will be better then. But he stressed that Jerusalem has as yet made no decision on the matter.
Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that Iran has the "technical, scientific and industrial capability to eventually produce nuclear weapons." It also has missiles capable of reaching central Europe and could "attempt to employ terrorist surrogates worldwide."
Nevertheless, "the agency assesses Iran as unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke a conflict."
But Iran is also "not close" to abandoning its nuclear program, Burgess said - and while Israel, "to the best of our knowledge," has not yet decided to attack it, Iran could respond to an Israeli attack by closing the Strait of Hormuz to ships and launching missiles at "United States forces and our allies in the region."
Clapper said that "Iran's technical advances, particularly in uranium enrichment, strengthen our assessment that Iran is more than capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon if its political leaders, specifically the supreme leader [Ali Khamenei] himself, chooses to do so ... We believe the decision would be made by the supreme leader himself, and he would base that on a cost-benefit analysis - I don't think you want a nuclear weapon at any price. So that, I think, plays to the value of sanctions, particularly the recent ratcheting up of more sanctions ... If the regime then feels threatened in terms of its stability and tenure, the thought is that that could change their policy."
Clapper agreed with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that producing a bomb "would probably take them about a year, and then possibly another one or two years in order to put it on a deliverable vehicle of some sort," but said it could take even longer than that.
"It's technically feasible but practically not likely," Clapper said. "There are all kinds of combinations and permutations that could affect how long it might take, should the Iranians make a decision to pursue a nuclear weapon."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on a visit to Cyprus Thursday, sounded much less optimistic about sanctions than Clapper did.
"If anybody needed a reminder that sanctions so far haven't stopped Iran's nuclear program, it was the guided tour by Iran's president of the centrifuge halls yesterday," Netanyahu told reporters. "I hope that sanctions work, but so far, they haven't worked."
But Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who was in Japan, said exactly the opposite: "I think for the first time we're seeing some signs that the sanctions are having an effect."
Referring to this week's terror attacks on the Israeli embassies in India and Georgia, for which Israel blames Iran, Netanyahu said, "We are witnessing a regime that breaks all the rules and has absolutely no respect for international norms."
A regime that doesn't respect international law and attacks diplomats in foreign countries cannot have a nuclear bomb, he added.
Netanyahu also flatly denied reports that deployment of the Iron Dome anti-missile system had been frozen due to budgetary constraints.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, for his part, dismissed Iran's agreement to resume nuclear negotiations with the West. "The Iranians continue to mislead the international community, and we don't see any signs of willingness on their part to end their nuclear program," he said. "The letter they sent to the EU foreign minister [Catherine Ashton] isn't an expression of true willingness to negotiate, but a trick aimed at buying time."
Avi Bar-Eli reported from Nicosia and Barak Ravid from Jerusalem
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