LONDON (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.
U.N. nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei said he had no evidence to back up the British assessment.
The British security source said last week’s revelation of a second uranium enrichment plant in Iran only served to support international suspicions about an Iranian cover-up to mask nuclear weapons designs.
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 2007 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 States 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.
The credibility of Western intelligence assessments was severely damaged when the United States and Britain used them as a basis to assert that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, citing this as justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Evidence to the contrary given by ElBaradei to the U.N. Security Council was disregarded. No such weapons were ever found.
Apparent differences in foreign intelligence assessments of Iran’s nuclear work have surfaced increasingly in recent weeks.
ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said a continuing IAEA investigation of Western intelligence indicating Iran has conducted nuclear weapons research had turned up no proof to date.
“I have not seen any credible evidence to suggest that Iran has an ongoing (nuclear weapons programme) today,” he said in an interview with CNN-India during a visit to New Delhi.
“Whether they (Iran) have done some weaponisation studies, as was claimed by the U.S. and others, that is one of the issues still outstanding,” he said.
The IAEA has said intelligence material implying that Tehran in the past linked projects to process uranium, test-detonate explosives at high altitude and revamp a missile cone in a way that would fit a nuclear warhead is credible, but unverified.
An Aug. 28 IAEA report said Iran must clarify the matter instead of just rejecting the intelligence as fabricated, but it had no new, concrete evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons agenda.
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.
Diplomats close to the IAEA said it has an internal analysis of its findings that is frequently updated with new material, but investigators had drawn no conclusions as yet.
Additional reporting by Mark Heinrich in Vienna; Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Mark Trevelyan