WASHINGTON — Iran does not yet have any highly enriched uranium, the fuel needed to make a nuclear warhead, two top U.S. intelligence officials told Congress Tuesday, disputing a claim by an Israeli official.
U.S. National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Maples said Tuesday that Iran has only low-enriched uranium — which would need to be refined into highly enriched uranium before it can fuel a warhead.
Neither officials said there were indications that refining has occurred.
Their comments disputed a claim made last weekend by Israel's top intelligence military official, who said Iran has crossed a technical threshold and is now capable of producing atomic weapons.
The claim made by Israeli Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin runs counter to estimates by U.S. intelligence that the earliest Iran could produce a weapon is 2010, with some analysts saying it is more likely that it is 2015.
Maples said the United States and Israel are interpreting the same facts, but arriving at different conclusions.
"The Israelis are far more concerned about it," Maples told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The status of Iran's nuclear program has been the subject of conflicting public statements by top military and intelligence officials recently in the wake of U.N. revelations that Iran has more low-enriched uranium than previously thought.
Earlier this month, Defense Sec. Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm.. Mike Mullen differed over Iran's capability. While Mullen said Iran has sufficient fission material for a bomb, Gates insisted "they're not close to a weapon at this point."
Afghanistan fighting "more ferocious"
Maples also told the committee that insurgent violence in Afghanistan has gotten more ferocious in the last year even as violence in Iraq declined.
The use of roadside bombs in Afghanistan more than doubled in 2008 over the previous year, and attacks overall increased by 55 percent from 2007 to 2008. Suicide bombings increased by 21 percent and small-arms attacks increased by 33 percent.
Some of these trends reflect more aggressive military operations in Taliban strongholds by U.S. and other NATO forces, Maples said.
Somali extremists to merge with al-Qaida
Maples said the Somali extremist group al-Shabaab is poised to formally merge with al-Qaida, expanding the terrorist franchise in East Africa. An analysis of the propaganda released by both groups recently highlights their ideological similarities, suggesting a merger is forthcoming, Maples said.
Al-Shabaab conducts almost daily attacks in Somalia. A merger would strengthen al-Qaida's foothold in East Africa.
The two groups have long been suspected of working together, but they have not yet announced a formal alliance. Al-Qaida has operations in north Africa, Yemen and Iraq.