U.S. still believes Iran not on verge of nuclear weapon
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States still believes that Iran is not on the verge of having a nuclear weapon and that Tehran has not made a decision to pursue one, U.S. officials said on Thursday.
Their comments came after Israeli media reports claimed U.S. President Barack Obama had received a new National Intelligence Estimate saying Iran had made significant and surprising progress toward military nuclear capability.
Later, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak suggested that the new U.S. report, which he acknowledged might be something other than a National Intelligence Estimate, "transforms the Iranian situation into an even more urgent one."
But a White House National Security Council spokesman disputed the Israeli reports, saying the U.S. intelligence assessment of Iran's nuclear activities had not changed since intelligence officials delivered testimony to Congress on the issue earlier this year.
"We believe that there is time and space to continue to pursue a diplomatic path, backed by growing international pressure on the Iranian government," the spokesman said. "We continue to assess that Iran is not on the verge of achieving a nuclear weapon."
U.S. officials would not directly comment on whether there was a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which is a compilation of views of the various U.S. intelligence agencies.
The last formal NIE on Iran in 2007, partially made public by the administration of President George W. Bush, became highly controversial because it said Tehran had halted nuclear weaponization work in 2003, although other aspects of the overall program continued. A later update to that report retained that central assessment, sources have previously said.
James Clapper, U.S. director of national intelligence, said in congressional testimony in January: "We assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons."
Another U.S. official said the United States regularly exchanges intelligence reporting with its allies, which would include Israel.
The United States has been concerned that Israel may conduct a unilateral strike on Iran's nuclear sites, adding to turmoil in the Middle East.
Israel sees an atomic armed Iran as a threat to its existence and there is persistent speculation over whether it will launch a pre-emptive military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Tehran denies it is trying to build nuclear bombs, saying it is enriching uranium only for peaceful purposes.
Washington has tightened sanctions on Iran and sought to ramp up international diplomatic pressure to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
Barak told Israel Radio: "There probably really is such an American intelligence report - I don't know if it is an NIE one - making its way around senior offices (in Washington)."
"As far as we know it brings the American assessment much closer to ours ... it makes the Iranian issue even more urgent and (shows it is) less clear and certain that we will know everything in time about their steady progress toward military nuclear capability."
Israel, widely believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, says little time remains before Iran achieves a "zone of immunity" in which Israeli bombs would be unable to penetrate deeply buried uranium enrichment facilities.
(Reporting by Tabassum Zakaria and Mark Hosenball in Washington and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem. Editing by Warren Strobel and Christopher Wilson)
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