U.S. Officials' About-face on Iran Nukes Could Sway Obama Policy

U.S. army chief: Tehran has ability to make nuclear bomb; U.S. Secretary of Defense Gates denies claim.

Israel is anxiously awaiting the new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which is due to be published in another month.

President Barack Obama's administration is currently formulating its policy toward Iran's nuclear program, and the revised NIE will serve as the basis for its conclusions. The administration has already decided that it wants to begin a dialogue with Iran, but it is still wrestling with questions such as how to prevent Iran from advancing its nuclear program under cover of negotiations and what role sanctions should play in the process.

The last NIE effectively stymied efforts to impose stiffer sanctions on Iran by declaring that Tehran had halted its nuclear weapons program. Since then, however, Iran has been feverishly developing its uranium enrichment capabilities - widely considered the hardest part of making a nuclear bomb - and some experts now believe it has enough fuel for its first bomb.

On Sunday, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, told CNN's "State of the Union" program that he believes Iran has enough fissile material for a bomb.

"We think they do, quite frankly," Mullen said.

However, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates hastened to deny this.

"They're not close to a stockpile, they're not close to a weapon at this point, and so there is some time," Gates said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

These differing assessments were apparently more a matter of terminology than substance. Mullen said merely that Iran had enough material for a nuclear "device," whereas Gates in the past has always spoken specifically about the amount of material needed to put a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile.

Both men were responding to a report issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency last month that said Iran had built up a stockpile of 1,010 kilograms of low-enriched uranium. Many analysts say that would be enough for a bomb, if converted into highly-enriched uranium.

Israel's assessment has thus far been that Iran will achieve enough fissionable material for a bomb by the end of 2009. The U.S., however, had until recently maintained that this would not happen until 2010.

Adm. Dennis Blair, the U.S. director of national intelligence, told Congress last month, "Iran probably has imported at least some weapons-usable fissile material but [we] still judge it has not obtained enough for a nuclear weapon. We cannot rule out that Iran has acquired from abroad or will acquire in the future a nuclear weapon or enough fissile material for a weapon."

Blair also reiterated that Iran was continuing work on two of the three technologies needed for a nuclear arms program - uranium enrichment technology and nuclear-capable ballistic missile systems. U.S. intelligence agencies have said that Iran suspended the third program, namely, developing an actual nuclear warhead.

Several senior U.S. officials have reiterated in recent days that the goal of Obama's planned dialogue is to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Speaking at a UN Security Council meeting on Iraq last Thursday, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice stressed that the U.S. intends to "seek an end to Iran's ambition to acquire an illicit nuclear capacity and its support for terrorism. It will aim to encourage both Iran and Syria to become constructive regional actors."

Mullen, in his remarks to CNN, said, "Iran having nuclear weapons, I've believed for a long time, is a very, very bad outcome - for the region and for the world."