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Spooky business: CIA probing Iran's nuclear intent

From David Ensor
CNN

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CNN's national security correspondent David Ensor

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Iran
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
David Ensor

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- What exactly are Iran's nuclear scientists up to?

That's a question the West wants answered, and it's one of extreme focus at the CIA. It's also a question not easily answered. Ask intelligence officials these days whether Iran has a covert enrichment program and they are quick to say, "We just do not know."

That said, intelligence officials -- including senior ones -- express confidence in their key judgment: Although Iran says it is only working toward nuclear power, the U.S. intelligence community believes otherwise -- that Tehran is in fact also working toward a bomb.

U.S. officials will not describe the evidence backing that up, but they say it is credible.

At an agency bruised from its faulty prewar intelligence assessment of Iraq, they want to make sure they get it exactly right this time around.

"People are approaching this with a heck of a lot of vigor," said one U.S. intelligence official. "But they are being very careful not to jump to conclusions."

Like journalists, intelligence analysts are never happy with their sources, and always looking for better information.

"People are dissatisfied, but this is a major priority and we are collecting everything we can on it," this official said.

Experts say Tuesday's announcement by Tehran -- that it used an array of 164 centrifuges to enrich uranium -- is less significant scientifically speaking than Tehran would have the world to believe.

There are many difficult steps ahead before enough enriched uranium hexafluoride can be produced to make electricity and many more still before bomb-grade uranium can be produced. Nuclear weapons require many thousands of centrifuges.

"I think it's mostly about showbiz and politics," said David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector, now head of the Institute for Science and International Security.

"I think the Iranians want the world to believe that they are like North Korea -- they've accomplished the goal. 'You can't stop us.' But in fact, they are a long way from accomplishing the goal and they can be stopped through diplomatic means."

Lest anyone believe there is an easy military way to eliminate Iran's nuclear program, intelligence officials say they are aware of dozens of facilities in Iran that are connected with it. And some of them are deep underground in hardened facilities. They also believe there may be many more that they do not know about.

And the question remains: What exactly are Iran's nuclear scientists up to? There is no doubt the CIA will keep digging for the answer.

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