In an exclusive VOA interview, the Pentagon's top intelligence official says there is no evidence that Iran has made a final decision to build nuclear weapons. But the chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) adds that much about Iran's inner workings remains murky.
Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess says the key finding that Iran has not yet committed itself to nuclear weapons, contained in a controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), is still valid.
"The bottom line assessments of the NIE still hold true," he said. "We have not seen indication that the government has made the decision to move ahead with the program. But the fact still remains that we don't know what we don't know."
General Burgess says it is difficult to ascertain the intentions of Iran's leaders or the level of political infighting among the country's leadership. But he adds that Tehran's statements and behavior have only fueled suspicion in Western capitals.
"The fact is, Iran is not dealing straight up," he added. "So they can say whatever they would like. I'm an intelligence professional. My job is to verify. And so we continually work on trying to verify what it is the Iranians say. But they are engaged in use of words that is not moving this in a positive direction."
The 2007 NIE, a consensus judgment of all U.S. intelligence agencies, concluded that Iran halted nuclear weapons design work in 2003. The study sparked a fierce controversy with critics charging that the NIE was flawed and asserting that Iran is clearly on a path to become a nuclear power. Some recently published news reports quote unnamed sources as saying that many of U.S. President Barack Obama's advisors are skeptical of the intelligence estimate.
Iran has been pushing to enrich uranium, a critical step in building nuclear weapons, but continues to insist that it is for peaceful nuclear energy.
Talks with Iran on the nuclear issue have been frustrating for Western negotiators. In October, it appeared that an agreement had been reached for Iran to send its uranium to a third country for enrichment. But then Tehran backed away from the deal.
General Burgess likens Iran's behavior to bargaining in a bazaar, saying that by walking away, Tehran hopes to get a better deal.
"I think that there is always an idea in their head that they can either ultimately get what they've put on the table or move the ball further in their direction. And I think that's clearly one of their aims," he explained.
Given the hidden nature of decision-making in Tehran, it is difficult to say how protests by the country's reformist movement might be affecting the government's nuclear ambitions. But Burgess says the movement is resilient and will be difficult to suppress.
"There is a reform movement in Iran. It has legs," he said. "It is attempting to get its message out. I do not see indication that that movement has been stamped out or put totally under the direction of the government. They still have a voice. They are still attempting to get their message out. And so this will be an interesting dynamic for us to follow in that country."
The Obama administration has been careful in its support of the protestors so as not to compromise the activists' efforts in the eyes of the Iranian government. At the same time, the United States is considering new sanctions aimed specifically at the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. The Revolutionary Guards has not only spearheaded the crackdown on the protestors, but also plays a critical role in Iran's nuclear program.