Washington – A classifed draft CIA assessment has found no firm evidence of a secret drive by Iran to develop nuclear weapons, as alleged by the White House, a top US investigative reporter has said.
Seymour Hersh, writing in an article for the November 27 issue of the magazine The New Yorker released in advance, reported on whether the administration of Republican President George W. Bush was more, or less, inclined to attack Iran after Democrats won control of Congress last week.
A month before the November 7 legislative elections, Hersh wrote, Vice President Dick Cheney attended a national-security discussion that touched on the impact of Democratic victory in both chambers on Iran policy.
“If the Democrats won on November 7th, the vice president said, that victory would not stop the administration from pursuing a military option with Iran,” Hersh wrote, citing a source familiar with the discussion.
Cheney said the White House would circumvent any legislative restrictions “and thus stop Congress from getting in its way,” he said.
The Democratic victory unleashed a surge of calls for the Bush administration to begin direct talks with Iran.
But the administration’s planning of a military option was made “far more complicated” in recent months by a highly classified draft assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency “challenging the White House’s assumptions about how close Iran might be to building a nuclear bomb,” he wrote.
“The CIA found no conclusive evidence, as yet, of a secret Iranian nuclear-weapons program running paallel to the civilian operations that Iran has declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency,” Hersh wrote, adding the CIA had declined to comment on that story.
A current senior intelligence official confirmed the existence of the CIA analysis and said the White House had been hostile to it, he wrote.
Cheney and his aides had discounted the assessment, the official said.
“They’re not looking for a smoking gun,” the official was quoted as saying, referring to specific intelligence about Iranian nuclear planning.
“They’re looking for the degree of comfort level they think they need to accomplish the mission.”
The United States and other major powers believe Iran’s uranium enrichment program is ultimately aimed at producing fissile material for nuclear weapons.
Iran insists it will use the enriched uranium only to fuel nuclear power stations, something it is permitted to do as a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The major powers have been debating a draft United Nations resolution drawn up by Britain, France and Germany that would impose limited sanctions on Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile sectors for Tehran’s failure to comply with an earlier UN resolution on halting enrichment.
On Wednesday, Israel’s outgoing US ambassador Danny Ayalon said in an interview that Bush would not hesitate to use force against Iran to halt its nuclear program if other options failed.
“US President George W. Bush will not hesitate to use force against Iran in order to halt its nuclear program,” Ayalon told the Maariv daily.
Israel, widely considered the Middle East’s sole if undeclared nuclear power, views Iran as its arch-foe, pointing to repeated calls by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to wipe the Jewish state off the map.