After years of dire warnings about Iran’s impending nuclear threat, Israeli and American officials abruptly backtracked this week, injecting a new level of uncertainty into delicate negotiations between European countries and Tehran.
The Jerusalem Post reported Monday that Israel had reviewed its assessment of Iran’s nuclear progress and now believes that Iran will have a nuclear bomb by 2012 and the capability to build one in 2008. Until now, Israeli officials had been warning that Iran would develop an atomic weapon between 2007 and 2009.
The next day, The Washington Post reported that a comprehensive American intelligence review concluded that Iran is about a decade away — double the previous estimate — from manufacturing highly enriched uranium, the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon.
“This slip from five to 10 years is significant,” said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. “Still, those estimates keep shifting and the problem will not go away.”
A senior Israeli military official was quoted in The Jerusalem Post as saying the reassessment was based on the conclusion that Iran no longer runs a secret military track independent of the civilian track, a view reportedly endorsed by the new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate described Tuesday in The Washington Post.
In January, the chief Israeli military intelligence, Aharon Ze’evi Farkash, said that Tehran would develop its first atomic weapon between 2007 and 2009 if it did not stop its uranium enrichment activities. In addition, he said, Iran was six months away from enriching the uranium required to build a nuclear bomb — the so-called “point of no return.”
Iran has repeatedly claimed that its nuclear infrastructure is geared toward energy production. The country justified the secrecy surrounding part of its nuclear programs by citing fears of American and Israeli military strikes.
Unconvinced by such claims, American, European and Israeli officials have been pressing Iran to give up its uranium enrichment activities. Nine months ago, Tehran agreed to do so and entered negotiations with Great Britain, France and Germany to reach an agreement that would lead to the dismantlement of its nuclear program in exchange for a variety of political and economic incentives.
The talks are expected to come to a head in the next few weeks, and their failure will in all likelihood prompt a referral to the United Nations Security Council that could open the way for sanctions against Tehran.
Tensions rose this week after Iran announced that it would resume work at one uranium conversion plant, triggering renewed threats from European capitals and Washington of actions from the United Nations.
Melissa Fleming, a spokesperson at the International Atomic Energy Agency, said that a new comprehensive report on Iran would be issued before the next meeting of the agency’s board of governors September 19. She added that much depended on the outcome of the European diplomatic initiative.