Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

CIA: Iran May Now Have Nuclear Bomb

WASHINGTON -- In a sharp departure from its previous assessment of Iran's nuclear capacity, the CIA has told senior Clinton administration officials that Iran might now be able to make a nuclear weapon, according to several U.S. officials.

George Tenet, director of central intelligence, began briefings in December about the agency's new assessment, shortly after the document was completed, the officials said. The new evaluation has touched off a sharp debate about Iran's nuclear capacity, and the CIA's ability to monitor it.

CIA officials refused to comment on the new assessment. But the more ominous evaluation of Iran's nuclear capacity, which was described to The New York Times by U.S. officials, is apparently not based on evidence that Iran's indigenous efforts to build a bomb have achieved a breakthrough.

Rather, it seems to be based on the fact that the United States cannot track with great certainty increased efforts by Iran to acquire nuclear materials and technology on the international black market, mainly from the former Soviet Union, the officials said.

The CIA has found it difficult to track such transactions, and thus the assessment has been carefully hedged by its analysts. Washington has also made little headway with efforts to weaken the long-standing strategic relationship between Iran and Russia, which is brimming with nuclear weapons and stockpiles of the fissile material Tehran needs to make a nuclear bomb.

The U.S. agency has told policy-makers it is not certain that Iran actually has atomic weapons now. Instead, the new assessment says the CIA can no longer rule out the possibility that Iran has acquired them, in contrast to previous assessments that excluded that possibility.

Even with those caveats, the CIA's new assessment has prompted strong debate within the U.S. government. The new analysis is being disputed by policy-makers in President Bill Clinton's administration and some analysts at other U.S. intelligence agencies who believe that Iran's efforts to build its own bomb are still moving slowly, U.S. officials say.

They say there is no evidence that Iran has succeeded in building its own weapon, or that it has stolen or acquired enough fissile material to make one. The CIA began to warn policy-makers nearly a decade ago that Iran was likely to have nuclear weapons around the turn of the century. Now that the new century has arrived, the agency is offering a cautious warning that it can no longer be sure whether Iran has made more progress on its atomic program than previously believed.

Senior Clinton administration officials have tried to play down the significance of the CIA's new assessment, apparently eager to avoid damaging efforts toward rapprochement with Iran's new reformist leader, President Mohammad Khatami.

One view held by some Clinton administration officials is that the new assessment is an attempt by CIA analysts to avoid criticism in the future for failing to warn policy-makers if Iran someday joins the ranks of states with nuclear weapons. The officials believe that the agency has been singed by criticism after previous intelligence failures: missing signs that India was about to test a nuclear weapon in 1998 and being surprised by the advanced state of Iraq's nuclear program, revealed after the Persian Gulf War of 1991.

The latest CIA assessment implicitly acknowledges what many U.S. officials say is a severe problem for the United States: the shortcomings of intelligence about both the Iranian program and the spread on the black market of weapons-grade fissile material from the former Soviet Union.

In effect, CIA analysts are warning that, given Iran's intensive efforts to steal or buy highly enriched uranium and plutonium, it is possible that it may have more bomb-grade material than previously believed.

The scientific and technical know-how to build a bomb is useless without sufficient quantities of highly enriched uranium or plutonium, the fissile material at the heart of an atomic weapon. Western analysts say the most likely sources for countries like Iran and Iraq are the stockpiles of Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union.

Ukraine and Kazakhstan, both of which had nuclear weapons or related materials and technology on their territory during Soviet times, have renounced weapons of mass destruction.

In 1992, Kazakhstan rebuffed efforts by Iran to buy beryllium from a storage site that also contained more than 600 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, enough to make dozens of nuclear bombs. Two years later, Washington secretly flew the fuel out of the country to prevent Iran and other would-be nuclear powers from acquiring it.

But Russia, still brimming with stockpiles of nuclear fuel and weapons-related technology, has long sold sensitive nuclear and missile technology to Iran, and assisted Tehran's civilian atomic energy program over objections from Washington, which fears that Iran's domestic nuclear power program is being used to develop indigenous weapons.

The Clinton administration's concerns that Russia might be broadening its nuclear trade with Iran to include heavy-water and graphite technology led the United States a year ago to impose sanctions against two Russian scientific institutions.

After the sanctions were imposed, Iran denied it was cooperating with such institutions to develop missiles and nuclear weapons. Last March, Yevgeny Adamov, Russia's nuclear power minister, said Russia would continue its commercial nuclear cooperation with Iran, especially its program to help Iran complete two large reactors at Bushehr, one of which was damaged in the Iran-Iraq war.

Earlier this month, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev met with a top Iranian security official and pledged to maintain Moscow's military ties with Tehran.

Russian officials have denied that Moscow is helping Iran develop nuclear weapons.