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Wednesday, February 6, 2008       Free Headline Alerts

What NIE? McConnell sees possible Iran nuke by late next year

WASHINGTON — The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Iran could assemble its first nuclear bomb as early as 2009.

The intelligence community, in what marked a significant revision of previous assessments, said Iran could produce a sufficient amount of enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in late 2009. The community has confirmed Iran's operation of about 3,000 gas centrifuges at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant as well as Teheran's capability to eventually produce a nuclear weapon.

"We judge with moderate confidence that the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon in late 2009," U.S. National Intelligence director Michael McConnell said. "But that is very unlikely."

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In a briefing to the Senate Select Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, McConnell appeared to play down a previous U.S. assessment that Teheran halted its nuclear weapon program, Middle East Newsline reported. Instead, McConnell, in his first appearance since the release of the controversial National Intelligence Estimate in December 2007, acknowledged differences within the intelligence community over Iran's nuclear program.

"We judge with moderate confidence Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU [highly-enriched uranium] for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame," McConnell said. "INR judges Iran is unlikely to achieve this capability before 2013 because of foreseeable technical and programmatic problems. All agencies recognize the possibility that this capability may not be attained until after 2015."

This was the first time the U.S. intelligence community -- which asserted that Teheran could have also imported enriched uranium -- raised the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon before 2010. Previous assessments ruled out an Iranian nuclear weapon before 2013.

Over the last year, McConnell said, the U.S. intelligence community has gained "important new insights" into Teheran nuclear weapons activities. He said NIE concluded that Iran halted nuclear warhead design and weaponization in 2003 while maintaining uranium enrichment.

"This is the most difficult challenge in nuclear production," McConnell said. "Iran's efforts to perfect ballistic missiles that can reach North Africa and Europe also continue."

"We assess with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons," McConnell said. "In our judgment, only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons-and such a decision is inherently reversible."

The intelligence community assessed that Iran has continued dual-use nuclear research and development projects. McConnell said two of the 16 intelligence agencies — the Energy Department and National Intelligence Council — did not agree with their colleagues that Iran definitely halted nuclear weapons activities.

"Because of intelligence gaps, DOE and the NIC assess with only moderate confidence that all such activities were halted," McConnell said. "We assess with moderate confidence that Teheran had not restarted these activities as of mid-2007, but since they comprised an unannounced secret effort which Iran attempted to hide, we do not know if these activities have been restarted."

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