U.S. Intelligence: Iran Years Away from Nuclear Bomb
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
Iran is still years away from building a nuclear bomb. That's the consensus of a group of top U.S. intelligence officials who spoke to reporters today in a rare on-the-record session.
Meanwhile in Tehran, the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency was sounding a similar message. Mohammed El Baradei emerged from talks from Iranian nuclear officials to pronounce there's still plenty of time to negotiate. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: Two days ago when Iran triumphantly announced that it had successfully enriched uranium, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boasted Iran had joined the nuclear countries of the world. He called it a historic achievement. But today, here in Washington, intelligence experts said they view it as something less. Kenneth Brill, head of the New National Counter Proliferation Center, told reporters that Iran is still "a very significant amount of time away from making good on its alleged nuclear ambitions."
Thomas Fingar, the most senior U.S. intelligence analyst, says this week's announcement does not altar estimates of when Iran might be able to make a nuclear weapon.
THOMAS FINGAR: Our timeline hasn't changed in terms of some years away.
LOUISE KELLY: In past, U.S. officials have put the timeline at five to 10 years. Today, Fingar said perhaps in the next decade, that is 2010 or later. And Fingar says there's wide agreement on this timeline among all U.S. spy agencies. There is also wide agreement that Iran would like to build a bomb. Here's the nation's number two intelligence official, General Michael Hayden.
MICHAEL HAYDEN: We believe that Iran is intent on developing a nuclear weapon.
LOUISE KELLY: Hayden declined to elaborate on why he believes that, saying he doesn't want to give away what's known and what's unknown about Iran's weapons programs. But that didn't quite fly in a room full of reporters familiar with the intelligence fiascos on Iraq. Over and over the same question was asked, how confident are intelligence officials that the misjudgments on Iraq will not be repeated in the case of Iran?
Finally, Thomas Fingar, the top analyst, drew a chuckle from colleagues when he ventured to answer this is hazardous but answer he did. He said lessons have been learned about the need for greater transparency, for clear sourcing of information and for tolerance of dissenting views.
FINGAR: I think all of us have greater confidence in the judgments that we are making and bringing forward on Iran and are being, certainly, much more clearer where we just don't know.
LOUISE KELLY: Much of what U.S. intelligence does know about Iran's nuclear program comes from the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Today the head of the IAEA, Mohammed El Baradei, was in Tehran for talks. At a press conference afterward he said he can't confirm yet whether Iran has, in fact, enriched uranium to a level sufficient for nuclear power. So far, he said, there's no evidence of any material being adapted for military use.
MOHAMMED EL BARADEI: We have not seen diversion of nuclear material for weapon purpose, but the picture is still hazy and not very clear.
LOUISE KELLY: El Baradei also counseled restraint today, playing down concerns about Iran's technical progress.
EL BARADEI: I don't think that the issue of enrichment right now, emotional as it is, is urgent. So we have ample time to negotiate a settlement by which Iran needs for nuclear power is assured. And the concern of the international community is also put to rest.
LOUISE KELLY: It's unclear how much weight Mr. El Baradei's advice will carry among policy makers in Washington. Today Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice repeated that Iran must face consequences for refusing to suspend its nuclear program.
Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.
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