Top U.S. intelligence officials say Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, but has not yet made the decision to build a bomb. Analysts say if Tehran makes such a decision, it will be capable of producing a nuclear weapon later this year.
Concern continues to mount over Iran’s nuclear program, as tensions between Western nations and Tehran are escalating.
Tehran says its nuclear plants are used for peaceful energy production. But the International Atomic Energy Agency cites evidence Iran is researching the development and delivery of nuclear weapons.
“They are certainly moving on that path, but we do not believe they have actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon," said U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
In recent months, Iran has begun enriching uranium at an underground plant. Maseh Zarif of the American Enterprise Institute conducted an analysis of the country’s enrichment program that shows it would not take long to build a bomb.
“By about early summer 2012 they would have a large enough stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium with which they could produce fuel for one nuclear weapon in about 2.5 months," said Zarif.
An estimate by the Israeli military says Iran could make four atomic bombs by further enriching uranium it has already stockpiled.
Iran has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East and U.S. intelligence officials say it would likely use a missile to deliver a nuclear weapon.
"I have come to believe that Iran's leaders are not going to give up their push for a nuclear weapons capability, unless they believe it is going to cost them their hold on power," said Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Intelligence officials say there is now an increasing threat that Iran could conduct attacks on U.S. interests overseas or even on American soil.
Top Iranian officials were allegedly involved in last year’s failed plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States by bombing a Washington restaurant.
“It shows me they are becoming increasingly aggressive, that they are willing to absorb more risk and that they are willing to bring the fight here," said analyst Maseh Zarif.
Iran’s central bank has been slapped with tough new U.S. sanctions and the European Union has agreed to embargo Iranian oil by July 1.
The country’s currency is rapidly losing value, forcing up prices in Iranian markets. The pressure is on, says CIA Director David Petraeus.
“The overall situation is one in which the sanctions have been biting much, much more literally in recent weeks than they have until this time," he said.
Iranian officials have reacted by threatening to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz, a move the U.S. says would not be allowed to stand.
Another sign, analysts say, a military confrontation could be looming.