The White House refused to comment Thursday on a bombshell Israeli media report that President Barack Obama recently received an updated intelligence assessment that Iran has made surprising strides towards being able to build a nuclear weapon.
The Haaretz newspaper reported that Obama had received a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE)—the consensus assessment of the American intelligence community—that "Iran has made surprising, notable progress in the research and development of key components of its military nuclear program." The daily cited unnamed "Western diplomats and Israeli officials."
Asked about the report, White House press secretary Jay Carney replied: "I don't comment on intelligence matters or intelligence reports the president may or may not have received."
"I can tell you that the president remains committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon," he said aboard Air Force One as Obama campaigned in the swing state of Colorado.
"We are leading an international effort to impose upon Iran what even the Iranian president has identified as the most stringent sanctions ever imposed on any country," Carney said. "And that effort is designed of what we believe remains to be a window of opportunity to persuade Iran through these sanctions and through diplomatic efforts to forgo its nuclear weapons ambitions and live to its international obligations." He added that "hardly a week goes by" without the economic vise tightening further.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israeli Radio that there was "apparently a report by American intelligence agencies" that was "making the rounds of high offices" and has heightened American worries about Iran's nuclear program.
"As far as we know, it comes very close to our own estimate, I would say, as opposed to earlier American estimates. It transforms the Iranian situation to an even more urgent one, and it is even less likely that we will know every development in time on the Iranian nuclear program," Barak said, according to a CBS report on the interview.
Israel, widely thought to be an undeclared nuclear power, has warned it cannot tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran and reserves the right to use military force to prevent that outcome. Obama has repeatedly said America shares Israel's concerns but has pleaded for time to let the sanctions and diplomatic efforts work. Iran has steadfastly denied that it seeks the bomb, but reports from the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency have cast doubt on those claims.
If the Haaretz report is correct, the new NIE would be yet another shift in American intelligence agencies' assessment of just what Tehran is doing. A 2007 NIE said Iran had halted its military nuclear program in 2003 and that there was no clear evidence that those efforts had resumed. Some American officials speculate that Iran wants the ability to build a nuclear weapon, not necessarily to actually acquire an atomic arsenal.
Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney has accused Obama of being soft on Israel, but has not suggested any major break with his policies if elected. And Republicans have loudly complained about national security disclosures regarding an unprecedented cyberwar effort by the Obama administration to sabotage Iran's nuclear program.