Iran lacks nuclear bomb fuel: US officials

WASHINGTON (AFP) – Iran has yet to decide whether to build a nuclear bomb and currently lacks the weapons-grade highly enriched uranium needed to do so, top US intelligence officials told lawmakers on Tuesday.

But Tehran is enriching uranium in defiance of global sanctions and is “mastering” the know-how to build long-range missiles that can carry nuclear bombs to their targets oceans away, said director of intelligence Dennis Blair.

And most spy agencies believe Tehran will probably be able to produce highly enriched uranium somewhere in the 2010-2015 timeframe, with the US State Department’s apparatus setting the early date at 2013, he said.

“Although we do not know whether Iran currently intends to develop nuclear weapons, we assess Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop them,” said Blair told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

And he acknowledged that the US view was at odds with that of staunch ally Israel: “The Israelis are far more concerned about it, and they take more of a worst-case approach to these things from their point of view.”

To build a nuclear arsenal, Iran would need a stockpile of highly enriched uranium, would need to be able to build a warhead — a process it froze in mid-2003 and likely has not resumed — and would need long-range missiles.

US intelligence agencies have concluded that “Iran has not decided to press forward on all three tracks,” Blair said.

“We are in agreement on this,” Lieutenant Michael Maples, the director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) told the same committee.

And “Iran will see government revenues decline in 2009 as oil prices remain at low levels. Defense spending will have to be balanced with social programs,” said Maples.

Maples and Blair noted that Iran was building and acquiring advanced defenses against air strikes — which experts see as a likely path for a military effort to destroy Iran’s nuclear program.

But doing so is “a separate decision” from whether to build a nuclear weapon, said Blair.

Blair also warned it will be “difficult” to convince Iran through diplomatic means to give up its nuclear ambitions.

Tehran might bow to a blend of “credible” incentives and “threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures” but “it is difficult to specify what such a combination might be,” he said.

His comments came as US President Barack Obama wrestled with how to convince the Islamic republic to halt what the West views as a covert nuclear weapons drive.

Iran denies the allegations, saying it needs atomic power to generate electricity for civilian use.

“We assess convincing the Iranian leadership to forego the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult, given the linkage many within the leadership see between nuclear weapons and Iran’s key national security and foreign policy objectives, and given Iran’s considerable effort from at least the late 1980s to 2003 to develop such weapons,” Blair warned.

US intelligence agencies estimate that Iran halted its nuclear weapons design and weaponization activities in late 2003 and that Tehran had not resumed them as of mid-2007, he told lawmakers.