(CNSNews.com) - As Democrats continue to attack the administration over a new intelligence assessment that Iran suspended its quest for nuclear weapons four years ago, proliferation experts say that as long as Tehran continues to enrich uranium, the potential threat remains.
That Iran is continuing -- and increasing -- its uranium enrichment activities is not a matter of dispute.
A year ago, it had just over 300 centrifuges operating at the Natanz nuclear facility. Early last month, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Natanz now had 3,000 centrifuges, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that in a Nov. 15 report, putting the number at 2,952.
Centrifuges are machines that spin at high speeds to extract small amounts of fissile material from uranium. Uranium enriched at lower levels is used as fuel in power plants, while highly enriched uranium (HEU) is a key ingredient of an atomic bomb.
Unclassified sections of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released on Monday said intelligence agencies assess that the earliest possible date by which Iran could produce enough HEU for a bomb is late 2009, although they say this is "highly unlikely." It is more reasonable, the agencies say, that the goal will be reached in the 2010-2015 timeframe.
The NIE's major judgment, that Iran stopped its weapons program in 2003, has drawn the most attention -- and prompted strong criticism from Congressional Democrats.
Citing the report, China and Russia have voiced skepticism about the need for further U.N. sanctions -- and Russia disputes that Iran ever had a weapons program -- but the remaining two Security Council permanent members, France and Britain, are holding firm.
The report's findings that a weapons program did exist into 2003 sparked international concerns, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said in a statement Thursday, the Associated Press reported. "Iran's refusal to conform [to IAEA demands to halt enrichment] justifies a new U.N. resolution reinforcing sanctions," it said.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband wrote in a Financial Times column that the U.K. would press for tougher sanctions.
"There are three key elements to a nuclear weapon -- the fissile material, the missile itself and the process of weaponizing the fissile material," he said.
The NIE suggested that "Iran has put work on the last of these elements on hold," Miliband wrote. "If so, good. But Iran is still pursuing the other two elements, in particular an enrichment program."
'Celebration would be shortsighted'
President Bush said the NIE "doesn't do anything to change my opinion about the danger Iran poses to the world," and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking in Afghanistan on Wednesday, warned that Iran was keeping its options open.
"As long as they continue with their enrichment activities, then the opportunity to resume that nuclear weapons program is always present," he said at a joint press conference with President Hamid Karzai.
The administration is joined in that assessment by proliferation experts, including some who have been critical of its policies.
"This NIE takes the 'nuclear weapons program' label off Iranian activities, but uranium enrichment and plutonium production pose potential threats no matter how they are labeled," argued Carnegie Endowment proliferation specialist and vice president for studies, George Perkovich, in an analysis.
"Critics of the Bush Administration might celebrate [the NIE's findings], but this would be shortsighted," he said. "Leverage is still needed to persuade Iran to take measures necessary to reassure its neighbors and the world that it is not gaming the inadequate nuclear rules in ways that could enable it to change its mind, break the rules, and very quickly build nuclear weapons."
Perkovich was co-author of a key 2004 report that called for an independent commission to examine U.S. intelligence failures in Iraq.
In 2005 -- the same year the U.S. intelligence community assessed that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons capability -- he wrote about the possibility that Iran had decided in 2003 to suspend the program as a result of it having been exposed and because of pressure from the U.S., European Union and IAEA.
"Iran's progress towards nuclear weapon capability will continue as long as its enrichment work does," said Valerie Lincy, research associate at the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, and editor of its Iranwatch program.
"If one reads the full [NIE] text available, there are clearly still serious concerns about enrichment activities and an absence of good intelligence on Iran's strategic intentions," said Ellen Laipson, president of the non-partisan Henry L. Stimson Center.
"The nuclear story is not over, and the policy challenge of convincing Iran to be a responsible player that openly accepts global governance mechanisms remains as acute as ever," she added.
Laipson is a former vice chair of the National Intelligence Council, the government body responsible for NIEs.
"Iran's leaders are still pushing ahead with their uranium enrichment and heavy-water reactor projects," Arms Control Association executive director Daryl Kimball said in a statement.
While acknowledging that as a problem, however, he expressed doubt that tougher sanctions would be effective alone in dissuading Tehran from continuing the enrichment program.
Together with sanctions, the U.S. and other permanent council members should also engage Iranian leaders in direct dialogue, with the focus being "on limiting Iran to its current uranium centrifuge capability and putting in place extensive IAEA safeguards," Kimball said.
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