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EDITORIAL: Tehran’s nukes

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At last week's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings titled, "Engaging Iran: Obstacles and Opportunities," former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns told senators that "there is no question [Iran is] seeking a nuclear weapons capability. No one doubts that." No one? Really? Actually, our own spy agencies belittle the Iranian threat.

On March 12, the CIA's Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Center, known as WINPAC, released its report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, which covered 2008. The agency concluded that "we do not know whether Iran currently intends to develop a nuclear weapon." However, Iran "continued to expand its nuclear infrastructure and continued uranium enrichment activities ... despite multiple United Nations Security Council Resolutions since 2006 calling for the suspension of those activities."

The report essentially reworks conclusions reached in a controversial December 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iranian Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities, which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called a "declaration of surrender" by America.

The intelligence community then reported that it judged "with high confidence" that Iran halted its weapons program in 2003 for "at least several years." Headlines declared that Iran had no weapons program - but the 2007 NIE admitted that the United States did "not know whether [Iran] currently intends to develop nuclear weapons" and that "Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons."

The new WINPAC report discusses some aspects of Iran's nuclear infrastructure, such as increased uranium enrichment activities at the nuclear facility at Natanz, the arrival of Russian-supplied fuel for the new reactor at Bushehr, and continued construction on a new heavy water research reactor. Most of the information cited in the unclassified assessment is available in other, more detailed reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Had any facilities like these been located in Iraq after the invasion in 2003, it would have justified weapons of mass destruction as a casus belli.

New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who also testified at last week's Senate hearing, said the message from Iran was "loud and clear." His investigations of the multibillion-dollar criminal financial schemes Iran is using to finance its programs indicated "it is late in this game and we don't have a lot of time to stop Iran" from developing nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. "The Iranians are deadly serious about proceeding with this program," he said. "It is later than a lot of people think."

Just how late is it? Last February, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran already had sufficient raw materials to build a nuclear weapon and noted that the "continued lack of cooperation by Iran ... gives rise to concerns about possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program." The center-left Institute for Science and International Security reported in December 2008 that Iran "is expected to reach [the nuclear-capability] milestone during 2009 under a wide variety of scenarios." Even the 2007 NIE indicated Iran could have weapons capability by next year.

A Senate report on Iran is due out this week, and we look forward to reading its conclusions about the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Maybe the intelligence community eventually will conclude that it exists - hopefully sometime before Iran tests a nuclear weapon.

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