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Negroponte: Iran Nuclear Claims Exaggerated
WASHINGTON -- Despite the wild and threatening claims of its hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran may not be as close to building nuclear weapons as the world may think.
So says John Negroponte, U.S. National Intelligence Director, who thinks Iran would likely obtain nuclear weapons long before they had the ability to create their own.
Negroponte, in an interview with NBC News, shared his opinion of Iran's nuclear threat and an assessment of what it would take to neutralize an escalating threat in that region.
"According to the experts that I consult, achieving — getting 164 centrifuges to work is still a long way from having the capacity to manufacture sufficient fissile material for a nuclear weapon," Negroponte said. "It could still be a matter of years. ... In fact our assessment is that the prospects of an Iranian weapon are still a number of years off, and probably into the next decade."
Does that mean the United States is not taking Iran's nuclear threat seriously? Hardly.
"It's conceivable that they are exaggerating their progress, but I don't have any knowledge to confirm that," Negroponte said of Iran's boasts of growing nuclear strength. " ... This is a very, very high priority, acquiring information about their nuclear program."
Negroponte warned that U.S. action to pre-empt nuclear development in Iran may spark terrorist activities on the part of Hezbollah, an Iran-sponsored terror organization.
"Well, certainly, Hezbollah is an important organization," he said. "It's a political, it's a military and a terrorist organization. It has all three different components.
In recent years, they've limited their activity to the Middle East, particularly Lebanon and Israel. But we know from past experience that — that the Hezbollah have had a broader range of action. They carried out some terrorist acts in the 1980s in Europe."
Negroponte said Hezbollah's worldwide network of terror could bring attacks close to, if not in, the United States.
"We know that even today, they raise funds in other parts of the world, in Latin America, in Africa, and in Asia," Negroponte said of Hezbollah. "So, yes, Hezbollah is an important, significant terrorist organization, and it does benefit from support from Iran."
Negroponte made some other observations about nations and organizations that may pose a threat to the United States.
"I think China is a country with which we have a very important relationship. I think we want to have friendly — friendly relations with China."
On the threat of civil war in Iraq:
" ... it's important to say that it's urgent that a government, a national government in Iraq be formed as soon as possible."
On al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq:
"He was almost captured. Here, again, just like in the case of al-Qaida, a number of his key operatives have been killed or captured. A lot of good work has been done in that area. He remains elusive, but I think his organization has suffered some serious setbacks."
On the issue of terrorist surveillance:
"This is about international terrorism. It's about connections between al-Qaida and people in the United States. It is — it's certainly not about American civil liberties or American privacy, and we work with the utmost respect for American civil liberties and — privacy."
On the possibility of another 9/11-type terrorist attack on America:
"I don't think you can rule, ever rule out the possibility of a serious terrorist incident, because in intelligence work, you have to be right almost all of the time, and so that's a pretty high batting average to have to perform to ... We're more vigilant, I think we're better prepared, I think we're better integrated, I think the agencies are working better together.
"I really think that we have drawn the lessons from — 9/11, we continually work on them, we, we're in a constant process of self-appraisal. ... We're really on this case, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and in that sense, I think we're certainly safer than we were before 9/11."