U.S. intelligence agencies' last National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program was produced in December 2007, a time when President George W. Bush was making tough statements about Iran's alleged plans to build a nuclear bomb. Around the world, there was fear that Bush might order airstrikes on Iran's nuclear facilities to block the country's development of nuclear weapons.
The NIE put a quick end to that speculation. The publicly released "key judgments" began with this dramatic finding: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Teheran halted its nuclear weapons program." The NIE authors also said they had "moderate confidence" that the weapons program had not restarted as of the summer of 2007, the last period for which they had reliable intelligence.
Whether U.S. intelligence agencies believe Iran's nuclear weapons program remains on hold, however, is not clear. Some recent statements from President Barack Obama's intelligence team are ambiguous on that point.
The new director of national intelligence, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, seemed to back off the 2007 NIE judgments on Iran when he delivered his assessment of "global security threats" to the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this month. Referring to Iran's activities in the Middle East, Blair said, "A more assertive regional Iranian foreign policy, coupled with its dogged development of a deliverable nuclear weapon, alarms most of the governments from Riyadh to Tel Aviv."
It was not an off-the-cuff comment. Blair was reading from a written text. But elsewhere in his testimony, Blair said, "We do not know whether Iran currently intends to develop nuclear weapons."
Well, which is it? David Kay, a former nuclear inspector for the United Nations, suspects Blair and other intelligence officials are slowly moving away from the 2007 NIE judgments about Iran. "They seem to be much tougher on the intentions of the Iranians than the NIE" was, Kay said. "They haven't formally disavowed the NIE, but pretty much."
In response to a question from Republican Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, Blair said Iran is working on "all the components of a deliverable nuclear weapons program."
One intelligence official involved in preparing the 2007 NIE points out that the estimate only said one part of Iran's nuclear weapons program had been suspended: the design of a warhead. The other two parts — the production of enriched uranium and the preparation of a missile system to deliver a warhead — actually continued.
Obama's intelligence team seems now to be emphasizing the aspects of Iran's nuclear program that continued rather than the part that apparently stopped. One senior intelligence official says the NIE judgments on the Iranian nuclear program have not been disavowed, but he acknowledged that the current intelligence leadership is offering "a different presentation" of the intelligence.
In fact, Blair and other intelligence officials still stop short of declaring flatly that Iran is building a nuclear bomb, saying instead that it seems to be pursuing a nuclear weapons "capability."
John Isaacs, executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, says this is an important distinction. "If we definitely know what Iran wants to do, that they are planning to build a nuclear weapon, then it is indeed a very dangerous situation," he says. "If they're only moving in that direction and haven't made a final decision, not only does that take some time urgency off, but it also means there's an opportunity for the Obama administration to try to launch some negotiations with the Iranian leadership."
It's a distinction Obama may want to make, as well. If he chooses to talk about Iran in his address before the joint session of Congress, he's likely to choose his words very carefully.