The Obama administration is wrestling with how the United States should deal with Iran, and in particular its purported ambition to become a nuclear-armed state. But, the challenge is all the greater because of the difficulty of getting solid intelligence on Iran's capabilities and intentions.
In late 2007, U.S. intelligence officials produced a National Intelligence Estimate, an N.I.E., that concluded that Iran had halted nuclear weapons work in 2003 and, as of estimate's writing, was keeping its options open about actually developing such weapons.
As recently as February, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair reiterated that Tehran's nuclear intentions remain unclear.
"We do not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons," said Blair. "We continue to judge that it [Iran] takes a cost-benefit [cost vs. benefits] approach to making decisions on nuclear weapons. And we judge that this offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran's decision-making."
Intelligence officers say judging capabilities - what a nation has - is a far easier task than assessing the intentions of what it might do with those capabilities. The 2007 N.I.E., which is the collective judgment of all U.S. intelligence agencies, sparked a firestorm of controversy, especially from those who wanted to see a more muscular stance taken against Iran.
At a forum of the Heritage Foundation, Frederick Fleitz, a Republican staff member of the House Intelligence Committee, asserted the N.I.E. was flat-out wrong.
"I am not convinced there was a halt that lasted any substantial length of time, if there was a halt at all," said Fleitz. "But if there was a halt, the intelligence community has to do a better job of explaining it and convincing people that they have persuasive evidence to that effect. They did not do that in 2007. If they are going to continue to hold to that position they are going to have to do an awfully good sales job to explain to policymakers and people on the [Capitol] Hill that there was a halt."
That sales job may come soon. A new N.I.E. on Iran is nearly completed, if not finished already. What its findings may be remain secret. But intelligence officials have said publicly that Iran can have enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb within a year, but that it would take two to five years to have a usable, deliverable weapon.
Security and Military Intelligence analyst Tate Nurkin, of I.H.S. Jane's publications, says the new N.I.E. will reach some new conclusions.
"I think any assessment today would probably be a bit more aggressive in its assessment of Iranian capabilities, suggesting that they are closer to achieving a nuclear capability than they were in 2007," said Nurkin. "Part of that is just because I think in two years a lot has happened. And some of it may be because the previous estimate took, I think, a softer approach to the issues. I also think there would be a real reflecting of the opinion that is emerging right now in intelligence community circles that this is a real problem, that three is not a good way out of this particular issue, that there are not many good options here."
A nation can have a nuclear capability without actually having a working nuclear weapon. In 1985, the U.S. Congress placed Pakistan under threat of an aid cutoff if the president certified that Pakistan had nuclear weapons. Pakistan repeatedly denied it had a nuclear weapon - and, technically, it was right. To skirt the issue, the Pakistani government had all the component parts for a bomb, but kept them on the shelf, so to speak, and did not test a weapon until 1998.
Jane's Nurkin says Iran may follow Pakistan's example by becoming a nuclear-capable state without becoming a nuclear-armed one.
"That is what a lot of people think is the best case scenario for this, that Iran stops just short, that they get all the technologies, that they can just assemble it, [but] they stop two, three, six months short of actually becoming a nuclear power," continued Nurkin. "Now, whether we would have the penetration of their program to know if they have reached that level is a different question. But they may very well let us know, 'Hey, look, we are right on the threshold."
The House Intelligence Committee's Fleitz believes the intelligence community should admit it was wrong in 2007 and say that Iran is embarked on the path to nuclear weapons. But he says that probably will not happen.
"Unfortunately I think the likelihood is that the intelligence community will try to split the difference," said Fleitz. "They are going to claim that there have been weapons-related developments, but there still was a halt, and you have seen leaks to the media since January where officials seem to be indicating that.
"We need an estimate that is going to talk about the dire threat, we are going to need good timelines, prospects for what this will mean if there is a nuclear-weapons program, and what we can do to roll it back," he added.
Iran claims it is only engaged in non-military nuclear research. The Obama administration is trying to round up more international backing for tougher sanctions on Iran to get Tehran to halt nuclear work. But what happens after that or if consensus for sanctions in the U.N. Security Council cannot be reached is not clear.
U.S. officials say all options, including military ones, are open. But a memo by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the contents of which were leaked to the New York Times, says the United States lacks an effective long-range strategy on Iran, including how to deal with an Iran that becomes nuclear-capable without becoming nuclear-armed.