WASHINGTON -- A new assessment by American intelligence agencies concludes that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that the program remains frozen, contradicting judgment two years ago that Tehran was working relentlessly toward building a nuclear bomb.
The conclusions of the new assessment (.pdf file) are likely to reshape the final year of the Bush administration, which has made halting Iran's nuclear program a cornerstone of its foreign policy.
The assessment, a National Intelligence Estimate that represents the consensus view of all 16 American spy agencies, states that Tehran is likely keeping its options open with respect to building a weapon, but that intelligence agencies "do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons."
Iran is continuing to produce enriched uranium, a program that the Tehran government has said is designed for civilian purposes. The new estimate says that enrichment program could still provide Iran with enough raw material to produce a nuclear weapon sometime by the middle of next decade, a timetable essentially unchanged from previous estimates.
But the new estimate declares with "high confidence" that a military-run Iranian program intended to transform that raw material into a nuclear weapon has been shut down since 2003, and also says with high confidence that the halt "was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure."
The estimate does not say when American intelligence agencies learned that the weapons program had been halted, but a statement issued by Donald Kerr, the principal director of national intelligence, said the document was being made public "since our understanding of Iran's capabilities has changed."
Rather than painting Iran as a rogue, irrational nation determined to join the club of nations with the bomb, the estimate states Iran's "decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs." The administration called new attention to the threat posed by Iran earlier this year when President Bush had suggested in October that a nuclear-armed Iran could lead to "World War III" and Vice President Dick Cheney promised "serious consequences" if the government in Tehran did not abandon its nuclear program.
Yet at the same time officials were airing these dire warnings about the Iranian threat, analysts at the Central Intelligence Agency were secretly concluding that Iran's nuclear weapons work halted years ago and that international pressure on the Islamic regime in Tehran was working.
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Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, portrayed the assessment as "directly challenging some of this administration's alarming rhetoric about the threat posed by Iran." He said he hoped the administration "appropriately adjusts its rhetoric and policy," and called for a "a diplomatic surge necessary to effectively address the challenges posed by Iran."
But the national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, quickly issued a statement describing the N.I.E. as containing positive news rather than reflecting intelligence mistakes.
"It confirms that we were right to be worried about Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons," Mr. Hadley said. "It tells us that we have made progress in trying to ensure that this does not happen. But the intelligence also tells us that the risk of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon remains a very serious problem."
"The estimate offers grounds for hope that the problem can be solved diplomatically - without the use of force - as the administration has been trying to do," Mr. Hadley said.
The new report comes out just over five years after a deeply flawed N.I.E. concluded that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons programs and was determined to restart its nuclear program - an estimate that led to congressional authorization for a military invasion of Iraq, although most of the report's conclusions turned out to be wrong.
Intelligence officials said that the specter of the botched 2002 N.I.E. hung over their deliberations over the Iran assessment, leading them to treat the document with particular caution.
"We felt that we needed to scrub all the assessments and sources to make sure we weren't misleading ourselves," said one senior intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company