- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 29, 2012

VIENNA, Austria The United States and its European allies agree that Iran might be seeking the capacity to make atomic arms as it forges ahead with its nuclear program. They differ on whether Iran is actively working to build a bomb.

Comments by U.S. intelligence officials indicate that Washington still thinks Iran stopped such secret weapons work nine years ago.

Britain, France and Germany disagree, even though their officials are keen to show that they and the United States speak with one voice on the concerns that Iran may want to produce nuclear arms.

Such divergence could mean trouble for the West’s strategy to keep Iran nuclear weapons-free.

The United States and, more forcefully, Israel have warned that armed attack is possible if Iran is seen to be actively working on a bomb. But the lack of consensus among allies could complicate making any such assessment.

Publicly at least, the United States is standing by a 2007 U.S. intelligence assessment that said Iran had abandoned attempts to develop a nuclear bomb in 2003.

A revised report last year remains classified. In outlining its findings to Congress last year, National Intelligence Director James Clapper avoided any suggestion that Washington now thinks it erred in its 2007 assessment.

Instead he focused on Iran’s expanding uranium enrichment and other programs monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency as key concerns. Mr. Clapper said it is “technically feasible” but “practically not likely” that Tehran could produce a nuclear weapon in one or two years if its leaders decide to build one.

IAEA challenges U.S. view

Recent reports by the IAEA, the U.N. nuclear agency, explicitly challenge the U.S. view that Iran has stopped weapons development work. They say that some such activities “continued after 2003 and that some may still be ongoing.”

The IAEA has not said what suspect work was conducted when.

In its most recent report last week, the agency repeated suspicions Iran may have: conducted high-explosives testing to set off a nuclear charge; worked on computer modeling of a core of a nuclear warhead; prepared for a nuclear weapons test; or worked on development of a nuclear payload for a missile that could reach Israel.

Israel is the most public in backing the view that weapons work is continuing in Iran, as it seeks to energize international public resolve to counter Tehran’s nuclear drive and possibly pave the ground for an armed strike.

Former Mossad chief Danny Yatom told the Associated Press that the Americans have privately acknowledged that their 2007 assessment was wrong.

“The Iranians have never stopped their efforts to achieve military nuclear capability,” he said.

Other U.S. allies are more circumspect but also back the IAEA view that secret weapons work may be continuing.

A British official told the Associated Press that London and Washington had the same analysis on Iran. But the official, who asked for anonymity in exchange for commenting on the confidential report, said Britain agreed with the IAEA assessment.

Public statements by some British officials go even further. During a visit to Washington in January, Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said his “working assumption is that [Iranians] are working flat out” to produce a nuclear weapon.

Diplomats accredited to the IAEA, who also asked they not be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said France and Germany also believe some work continued past 2003 and possibly into the present.

U.S. intelligence role

Complicating the picture are signs U.S. officials may be continuing to act as a main intelligence source for the IAEA’s case that Iran’s weapons work is continuing even while publicly standing by earlier conclusions that Iran stopped nine years ago.

A senior international official refused to say directly whether Washington is providing intelligence that backs up such suspicions. He did say, however, that the United States is one of the main sources on Iran’s atomic weapons work.

There is more clarity about Iran’s nuclear-enrichment program.

Iran has enriched tons of fuel-grade material since its clandestine program was discovered 10 years ago. Its total low- and higher-level stockpile is now enough for four weapons and is growing daily.

“They have the know-how, the technology, the infrastructure, everything,” he said. “Once they decide to build a bomb, they will be able to build a bomb unless somebody stops them.”