LONDON, Sept 30 (Reuters) – British officials suspect Iran has been seeking nuclear weapons for the past few years, differing from a U.S. view that Tehran halted work on design and weaponisation in 2003, a UK security source said on Wednesday.
Last week’s revelation of a second nuclear plant in Iran only served to support international suspicions about an Iranian cover-up to mask nuclear weapons designs, the source said.
A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate published in December 2007 judged with high confidence that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons programme in the autumn of 2003 and had not restarted it as of mid-2007.
The estimate defined the phrase nuclear weapons programme to mean nuclear weapon design and weaponisation work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work. “We didn’t share the U.S. assessment and still do not,” the British source said.
“That’s what we felt in 2003. So (our concern) goes back to then. We’re still not convinced and last week’s developments have simply supported that scepticism.”
“I want to make it quite clear we are not in an intelligence battle with the U.S. It’s only a difference of assessment. It’s to do with the analysis, not the information.”
The 2003 U.S. intelligence estimate at the time dampened international support for further sanctions on Iran, which denies any plans for atomic weapons and says its uranium, enrichment work is intended only for electricity production. But news of the second plant has raised pressure on Iran and added urgency to Thursday’s Geneva meeting between Iran and permanent U.N. Security Council members China, Britain, France, the United Sates and Russia, as well as Germany.
Western leaders demand Tehran comply with international rules on nuclear non-proliferation, and Washington has suggested possible new sanctions on banking and the oil and gas industry if Tehran fails to assuage Western fears it seeks nuclear arms.
Apparent differences in foreign intelligence assessments of Iran’s nuclear work have surfaced increasingly in recent weeks.
Mohamed ElBaradei, Director-General of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said this month that Israeli and French suggestions he was hiding evidence of alleged Iranian atom bomb work were baseless.
An Aug. 28 IAEA report said Western intelligence material implying Tehran secretly combined uranium processing, airborne high-explosive tests and efforts to revamp a missile cone in a way that would fit a nuclear warhead was compelling.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Sept. 7 that Iran must clarify the matter instead of just rejecting the intelligence as fabricated. But the report contained no new, concrete evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons agenda, it said.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has said the IAEA had yet to publish annexes of findings on Iran which he said were “important” for an assessment of “possible military dimensions” to Iran’s uranium enrichment campaign.
Western intelligence agencies and their relationship to the IAEA have proved a particularly controversial aspect of international relations since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
U.S. and British forces invaded and ousted President Saddam Hussein in 2003 based on what proved to be false intelligence on a mass-destruction weapons programme. Evidence to the contrary given by ElBaradei to the U.N. Security Council was disregarded.