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(photo credit: AP)
It would be difficult to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and hard to tell which combination of carrots and sticks might convince Iran's leaders to abandon that goal, the US Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, told the Senate Tuesday.
According to Blair's testimony, "only an Iranian political decision" - a decision he noted could always be reversed - would "plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons," as Teheran already had "the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons."
"We assess convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult," he told the Armed Services Committee in prepared remarks. "Some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security and goals might - if perceived by Iran's leaders as credible - prompt Teheran to extend the halt to the above nuclear weapons-related activities. It is difficult to specify what such a combination might be."
At the same time, he assessed that Iran does not have highly enriched uranium and had not made a decision about whether or not to develop a bomb in the future.
"Although we do not know whether Iran currently intends to develop nuclear weapons, we assess Teheran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop them," Blair said, adding that the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate finding that Iran had halted its secret nuclear weapons program in 2003 was still accurate to the best of his knowledge.
According to Blair and the various US intelligence agencies that report to him, the earliest Iran could obtain a nuclear weapon is between 2010 to 2015.
Israeli estimates give Iran a shorter timeline, and OC Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin told the cabinet Sunday that Iran had "crossed the technological threshold," and its attainment of nuclear military capability was now a matter of "incorporating the goal of producing an atomic bomb into its strategy."
Asked by Senator Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) about the different view Israel takes, Blair replied that both countries use the same facts, but that when it comes to interpretation, "The Israelis are far more concerned about it, and they take more of a worst-case approach to these things from their point of view."
Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Connecticut) called attention to the unusual centrality that Blair's assessment put on economics. His testimony began by stressing that "the primary near-term security concern of the United States is the global economic crisis and its geopolitical implications."
Blair also devoted considerable attention to Hizbullah, which he said was the largest recipient of Iranian financial aid, training and weaponry.
He also concluded, "Hizbullah anticipates a future conflict with Israel and probably continues to implement lessons learned from the conflict in the summer of 2006. In a potential future conflict, Hizbullah is likely to be better prepared and more capable than in 2006."
He said Israel was not alone in the Middle East in opposing a nuclear Iran, as moderate Arab states also feared such a threat. But he said those countries also wanted movement on setting the Palestinian issue, "the absence of which deprives US Arab allies of crucial political capital to defend strategic ties to the US."
Blair judged that, "progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace track would increase opportunities for the US to broaden its engagement with Arab publics, including those aligning with the growing ideology of Islamic nationalism."