WASHINGTON — CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said Sunday that he believes Iran is still pursuing a nuclear bomb, even though the U.S. intelligence community, including his own agency, reached a consensus judgment last year that the Islamic Republic had halted its nuclear weapons work in 2003.
Asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" whether he thought Iran was trying to develop a nuclear weapon, Hayden said, "Yes," adding that his assessment was not based on "court-of-law stuff. . . . This is Mike Hayden looking at the body of evidence."
He said his conviction stemmed largely from Iran's willingness to endure international sanctions rather than comply with demands for nuclear inspections and abandon its efforts to develop technologies that can produce fissile material.
"Why would the Iranians be willing to pay the international tariff they appear willing to pay for what they're doing now if they did not have, at a minimum . . . the desire to keep the option open to develop a nuclear weapon and, perhaps even more so, that they've already decided to do that?" he said.
However, a sweeping assessment from the intelligence community issued in December concluded Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons work in 2003, soon after the United States invaded Iraq, and appeared not to have restarted it.
The CIA director is the latest senior Bush administration official to question the findings of the National Intelligence Estimate, which was widely seen as a setback to efforts by the United States and European nations to step up international pressure on Tehran.
Soon after the report was released, President Bush argued that it should not be seen as a sign that Iran was backing away from its pursuit of the bomb.
"Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous, and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon," he said in a Dec. 4 news conference.
In an interview with ABC News last week, Vice President Dick Cheney alleged that Iran was "heavily involved in trying to develop nuclear weapons enrichment, the enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade levels." International inspectors have not found evidence of such an effort.
Iran has said its nuclear program is strictly for peaceful energy purposes, to generate power. In its latest report, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' watchdog group, said that Iran's uranium enrichment operations at its Natanz plant are yielding material useful for civilian reactors, but far below the 80% or 90% grade needed for weapons production.
Still, the United States and other Western nations fear that Iran's pursuit of dual-use nuclear technologies will eventually enable it to develop nuclear weapons.
The National Intelligence Estimate on Iran represented a startling shift in the intelligence community's views of Tehran's nuclear activity. The report, issued after years of warnings that Tehran appeared bent on building a nuclear bomb, begins by saying that U.S. spy agencies had concluded "with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program."
The finding was cited as evidence that Tehran was susceptible to diplomatic pressure. It was subsequently attributed to new intelligence that had surfaced in the summer of 2007, including journals kept by senior Iranian officials that documented the decision to suspend the program.
But the report also notes that Tehran "at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons" and has not ceased civilian uranium enrichment activities that could possibly be converted to weapons development purposes.
The nation's top intelligence official, J. Michael McConnell, testified last month that he "probably would change a few things" if given a chance to redo the report, suggesting that its conclusions had been misinterpreted.
The document includes a footnote that specifies that Iran is believed to have stopped only its "weapon design and weaponization work," not the uranium-enrichment work that is widely considered the biggest obstacle to constructing a bomb.
Hayden acknowledged Sunday that U.S. estimates on such matters were now viewed with greater skepticism because assertions about Iraq's alleged stockpiles of banned weapons had been proven wrong.
The U.S. intelligence community "has additional burdens to carry because of the Iraq NIE, in which we got so much of that estimate wrong," he said.