U.S. Briefs Israel Ahead of Report on Iran Nukes

The National Intelligence Assessment released yesterday in Washington and discounting the likelihood that Iran is on a path to develop nuclear weapons soon did not catch the Israeli leadership by surprise. During their visit to Washington last week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were briefed on the report.

The document, which is a consensus paper containing the views of the 16 intelligence agencies in the American intelligence apparatus, concludes that Iran's actions are rational, motivated by "cost-benefit" and not driven by a mad dash to produce the bomb irrespective of all consequences.

According to the report, Iran ceased developing military nuclear capabilities in 2003 because of international pressure and is focused on a civilian nuclear program.

The report contradicts earlier U.S. intelligence reports, Israeli assessments, and the conclusions of senior officials in the Bush administration.

The new assessment concludes that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that the program remains on hold, contradicting an assessment two years ago that Tehran was working inexorably toward building a bomb.

Political sources in Israel said last night that it appears that the Bush administration has lost the sense of urgency and determination to carry out a military strike against Iran in 2008. The same sources said that the United States is unlikely to strike Iran in 2008, and will make do with more severe sanctions against Tehran.

The same sources told about the Bush administration's update of Olmert, Livni and Barak last week.

According to the Israeli sources, the report suggests that Iran had developed a military nuclear program but was unnerved by the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and of Iraq in 2003.

Israel's intelligence assessment, which guides Israeli decision making, is that Iran will achieve a military nuclear capability by the end of 2009 or 2010.

Olmert had made it clear to the administration that Israel is basing its policy on this assessment, and reiterated this in Washington last week.

In the report, U.S. intelligence assessments do not relate to Tehran's possible "hidden" aims. However, in a similar report in 2005, U.S. intelligence assessed that Iran seeks to acquire a nuclear weapons capability and is working toward that end.

A little over five years ago, a deeply mistaken intelligence estimate concluded that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons programs and was planning to restart its nuclear program. The report led to congressional authorization for a military invasion of Iraq, but most of those conclusions turned out to be wrong.

The new estimate on Iran does say that its ultimate goal is to develop the capability to produce nuclear weapons, and it is likely that Iran will achieve that goal by the middle of the next decade.

Moreover, the new report does not imply that Iran's leadership would be easy to persuade to relinquish its ambitions to become a nuclear power.

Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, had reported last month that Iran was now operating 3,000 uranium-enriching centrifuges, capable of producing fissile material for nuclear weapons.