By Mark Mazzetti
WASHINGTON: A new assessment by American intelligence agencies 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.
The conclusions are likely to be major factor in the tense international negotiations aimed at getting Iran to halt its nuclear energy program, and they come in the middle of a U.S. presidential campaign during which a possible military strike against Iran's nuclear program has been discussed.
The new assessment, a National Intelligence Estimate that represents the consensus of all 16 American spy agencies, states that Tehran's ultimate intentions about gaining a nuclear weapon remain unclear, but that Iran's "decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs."
"Some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways might - if perceived by Iran's leaders as credible - prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program," the estimate states.
The new report has come out just over five years after a deeply flawed intelligence estimate concluded that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons programs and was determined to restart its nuclear program. The report led to congressional authorization for a military invasion of Iraq, although most of that estimate's conclusions turned out to be wrong. The new estimate on Iran does say that its ultimate goal is still to develop the capability to produce nuclear weapons.
The U.S. national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, quickly issued a statement describing the intelligence estimate as containing positive news rather than reflecting intelligence mistakes.
"It confirms that we were right to be worried about Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons," Hadley said. "It tells us that we have made progress in trying to ensure that this does not happen. But the intelligence also tells us that the risk of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon remains a very serious problem."
"The estimate offers grounds for hope that the problem can be solved diplomatically - without the use of force - as the administration has been trying to do," Hadley said.
The new report concludes that if Iran were to end the freeze on its weapons program, it would still be at least two years before Tehran would have enough highly enriched uranium to produce a nuclear bomb. But it says it is still "very unlikely" Iran could produce enough of the material by then.
Instead, the intelligence estimate concludes it is more likely Iran could have a bomb by the early part to the middle of the next decade. The report states that the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research judges that Iran is unlikely to achieve this goal before 2013, "because of foreseeable technical and programmatic problems."
The new estimate upends a judgment made about Iran's nuclear capabilities in 2005. At the time, intelligence agencies assessed with "high confidence" that Iran was determined to have nuclear weapons and concluded that Iran had a secret nuclear weapons program.
Since then, officials said they had obtained new information leading them to conclude that international pressure, including tough economic sanctions, had been successful in bringing about a halt to Iran's secret program.
"We felt that we needed to scrub all the assessments and sources to make sure we weren't misleading ourselves," said one senior intelligence official during a telephone interview, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
In a separate statement accompanying the intelligence estimate, the deputy director of national intelligence, Donald Kerr, said that given the new conclusions, it was important to release the report publicly "to ensure that an accurate presentation is available."
It was not immediately clear whether the report would help or hinder the U.S. push to tighten sanctions against Iran, which have been supported by Britain, France and Germany - the three countries leading negotiations with Iran. While it seems to blunt the sense of urgency over Iranian nuclear progress and intentions, it also underscores the apparent effectiveness of precisely the sort of sanctions the United States wants.
Indeed, the administration sought to make the sanctions argument on Monday. The intelligence report "suggests that the president has the right strategy: intensified international pressure along with a willingness to negotiate a solution that serves Iranian interests while ensuring that the world will never have to face a nuclear-armed Iran," the Hadley statement said.
"For that strategy to succeed, the international community has to turn up the pressure on Iran with diplomatic isolation, United Nations sanctions, and with other financial pressure, and Iran has to decide if it wants to negotiate a solution."
The report seemed certain to raise new questions about the intelligence the administration relies on, particularly in making the case for military action. It gave new ammunition to those Democrats worried that the administration might contemplate a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Those concerns were sharply raised after President George W. Bush suggested in October that a nuclear-armed Iran could lead to "World War III," and Vice President Dick Cheney promised "serious consequences" if the government in Tehran did not abandon its nuclear program.
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.
But his report said that agency inspectors in Iran had been unable to determine whether the Iranian program sought only to generate electricity or also to build weapons.
The CIA report did not suggest that Iran had halted the centrifuge-related work - rather that it had halted the separate work it would take to turn enriched uranium into a bomb.
Brian Knowlton contributed reporting.