WASHINGTON -- A major US intelligence review has projected that Iran is about a decade away from manufacturing the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon, roughly doubling the previous estimate of five years, according to government sources with firsthand knowledge of the new analysis.
The carefully hedged assessments, which represent consensus among US intelligence agencies, contrast with forceful public statements by the White House. Administration officials have asserted, but have not offered proof, that Tehran is moving determinedly toward a nuclear arsenal. The new estimate could provide more time for diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. President Bush has said he wants the crisis resolved diplomatically but ''all options are on the table."
The new National Intelligence Estimate includes what the intelligence community views as credible indicators that Iran's military is conducting clandestine work. But the sources said there is no information linking those projects directly to a nuclear weapons program. What is clear is that Iran, mostly through its energy program, is acquiring and mastering technologies that could be diverted to bombmaking.
The estimate expresses uncertainty about whether Iran's ruling clerics have made a decision to build a nuclear arsenal, three US sources said. Still, a senior intelligence official familiar with the findings said that ''it is the judgment of the intelligence community that, left to its own devices, Iran is determined to build nuclear weapons."
At no time in the past three years has the White House attributed its assertions about Iran to US intelligence, as it did about Iraq in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion. Instead, it has pointed to years of Iranian concealment and questioned why a country with as much oil as Iran would require a large-scale nuclear energy program.
Those familiar with the new judgments, which have not been previously detailed, would discuss only limited elements of the estimate and only on the condition of anonymity, because the report is classified, as is some of the evidence on which it is based.
Top policy-makers are scrutinizing the review, several administration officials said.
Until recently, Iran was judged, according to February testimony by Vice Admiral Lowell E. Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, to be within five years of the capability to make a nuclear weapon.
Meanwhile, Iran threatened to reopen its nuclear processing plant in Isfahan yesterday but later agreed to a two-day delay, after receiving a request from the head of the UN atomic watchdog agency. Ali Agha Mohammadi, spokesman for Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said the International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed ElBaradei asked Tehran for a ''maximum of two days" to send its inspectors to Iran's nuclear facility where they can oversee the dismantling of UN seals.