US sees Iran`s leaders split on nukes: Report

A report says Iran`s leaders are divided over whether to advance with a bomb.

Updated: Feb 17, 2011, 09:42 AM IST

Washington: US intelligence agencies believe Iran`s leadership is split over whether to use its nuclear program to develop atomic weapons and is immersed in a serious internal debate about how to proceed in the face of international sanctions, Americans officials said on Wednesday.

"We continue to assess Iran is keeping the option open 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," National Intelligence director James Clapper told Congress. "We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons."

Two officials said that the US believes Iran`s regime is fragmented on the matter and beset by divisions. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the findings of a new classified assessment of Iran. Clapper told lawmakers on Wednesday the assessment had been completed recently.

The key finding of the new NIE — that Iran`s leaders remain divided over whether to go forward with a bomb — was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

The new National Intelligence Estimate replaces a controversial 2007 version that concluded Iran had abandoned attempts to develop nuclear weapons in 2003. That report was disputed by Israel and several European intelligence services.

Discussing the broad outlines of the findings, Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Iran remained a challenge and a potential threat despite the internal debate.

"We see a disturbing confluence of events — an Iran that is increasingly rigid, autocratic, dependent on coercion to maintain control and defiant toward the West, and an Iran that continues to advance its uranium enrichment capabilities along with what appears to be the scientific, technical and industrial capacity to produce nuclear weapons if its leaders choose to do so," he said.

At the White House, when asked about the new intelligence estimate, national security spokesman Tommy Vietor said he would not comment on intelligence matters. But Vietor said the administration`s approach is driven "by the fact that Iran has failed to demonstrate clearly peaceful nuclear intentions”.

"Iran has engaged in a constant pattern of deception on its nuclear program," Vietor said. "Iran has pursued its nuclear program in ways that only deepen the world`s concerns, including by building a secret enrichment plant, enriching uranium to higher levels, and refusing to meet its international obligations."

In December, the top US military officer said he believes Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb, posing a threat to its neighbours, and the United States is "very ready" to counter Iran should it make a move.

"From my perspective I see Iran continuing on this path to develop nuclear weapons, and I believe that that development and achieving that goal would be very destabilising to the region," Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said then.

Iran denies it is seeking a nuclear weapon, and denies US claims that it sponsors terrorists. Iran has wary relations with many of its neighbours, who are trading partners with the oil giant but distrust the theocratic government.

The US fears that if Iran masters the technical challenge of building a bomb, it could set off a nuclear arms race around the Persian Gulf.

Bureau Report