Optimistic accounts from the Middle East were heard on only one score, Iran's nuclear program, at the first get-together of US and NATO intelligence chiefs for assessing the Arab uprisings.
The confabulation took place at CIA headquarters in Langley, Washington in the third week of September.
In the first three articles in this issue, DEBKA-Net-Weekly offers exclusive coverage of this important and rare collective exchange of views among the heads of Western intelligence on an ongoing chapter of history.
Their assessment of the outlook facing Western interests from the turbulence sweeping the Arab world was for the most part gloomy. (See the first two articles.)
But on Iran and its drive for a nuclear bomb, US intelligence input was more sanguine: Iran is lagging four to five years at least behind its schedule for developing a nuclear weapon, American officials reported. Its military scientists and engineers are believed to be baffled by at least one unsolvable problem: How to build the weapon's outer containment shell. Even if they hit on a formula, it will take years of experimentation to perfect this key component.
This discovery invalidates previous American estimates that Iran could have one, three or even four nuclear bombs by the end of 2012 or early 2013. The new estimate is closer to 2015 or even 2016.
US intelligence: Iran can't operate new centrifuges
Iran's technological inadequacy has shown up in another field, say the same US experts: Advanced IR-2M and IR-4 centrifuges, capable of enriching uranium at three times the speed of the currently used IR-1 machines, have reportedly been installed at the Fordo underground nuclear facility near Qom. But they are standing idle because their velocity is irregular and never attains the required level – two essential conditions for enriching uranium up to the targeted 60 percent level.
US intelligence dismissed as propaganda the claims voiced Sept. 20 in Vienna by Feryedoon Abbasi-Davani that Iran was ready to install and transfer advanced centrifuges to the Fordo site for launching in six months.
No evidence has been found to support these claims.
It is believed that Abbasi-Davani was ordered to get the machines installed at the new facility without waiting for Iranian engineers to smooth out the glitches because Tehran was anxious to show Fordo was up and running in the face of the international outcry.
The same official's next comment at the time was seen as closer to reality:
"We are not in that much of a hurry since we have stored sufficient 20-percent enriched uranium and we are trying to expand the lifespan of centrifuges."
The intelligence experts inferred that Iran had not solved the technical faults delaying the orderly operation of the new centrifuges and had fallen back on its less advanced machines.
Panetta tells Israel: No more need to attack Iran
However, the US spymasters did confirm that Iran had made progress in ballistics. Tehran was developing and building missiles with more powerful engines capable of longer ranges and greater accuracy than ever before in the following categories:
Shahab-3, 3A and 4; Zelzal-3; Sejjil; Shahab-3D-IRIS; X-55 Long Range Cruise Missile; Shahab-5 – Kosar; the Simorgh-3, 4 & 5 series and Shahab-6-Simorgh.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources say that this revised US evaluation was greeted with much skepticism by some of the Western intelligence chiefs attending the meeting.
In recent weeks, the Obama administrated has been quietly trying to persuade the governments of western European countries within range of Iranian ballistic missiles that they have nothing to fear from the advances in Iran's missile capabilities because it has no nuclear warheads – and won't have for years to come.
To clinch the argument, the United States has rejiggered European defenses against a potential Iranian missile attack. Romania has accepted the deployment of 24 interceptor systems and Turkey agreed to a sophisticated US radar station being installed on its soil by the end of the year.
As part of Washington's campaign of persuasion, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta paid a visit to Israel Monday, Oct. 3, and assured its government and defense leaders that there was no need any longer to launch a military strike against Iran's nuclear program.