Lawmakers can’t confirm Israel’s intelligence on Iran’s nuke program

Lawmakers on intelligence panels with classified information have declined to verify or contradict Israel’s claims that Iran is close to developing a nuclear bomb.

Members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees told The Hill they couldn't speak to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's claims that Iran’s program is further along than thought, but suggested the United States may have different assessments.

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“There may not be full agreement anywhere as to exactly how far along they are, but I think they're sufficiently far along that the Israeli prime minister should be very concerned,” said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and a member of the Intelligence Committee.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who sits on the Senate Intelligence panel, echoed those remarks.

“I don't comment on anything about the intelligence committee,” Rubio told The Hill in a hallway interview. “Obviously he's the leader of a country that has deep concerns about Iran's ambitions, and rightfully so.”

Democrats sang the same tune. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told The Hill: “I know but that's classified.”

Netanyahu said in television interviews last week that the Iranians “are moving very rapidly to completing the enrichment of the uranium that they need to produce a nuclear bomb.”

“In six months or so, they will be 90 percent of the way there,” he told CNN.

The Israeli leader is pressing the Obama administration to issue “red lines” that Iran won't be permitted to cross in its alleged nuclear weapons program, and Netanyahu’s government leaked an internal American intelligence assessment last month to bolster its argument.

The Obama administration declined to comment at the time, with White House spokesman Jay Carney telling reporters he could not comment on “intelligence matters or intelligence reports the president may or may not have received.”

President Obama is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday.

While Netanyahu’s assessment hasn't been challenged by U.S. officials, nuclear weapons experts say he's not telling the whole story. While Iran's ability to produce enough weapons-grade uranium to build a nuclear weapon may indeed be just a few months away, they say there's still considerable obstacles to achieving the last 10 percent needed to make a bomb.

“Iran is making progress toward acquiring a bomb option,” Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told The Washington Post's fact-checker.

“This is a very serious challenge that should not be ignored. But for Iran to exercise that option – and go the last 10 percent – Tehran would need to reconfigure cascades and produce HEU [highly enriched uranium] over a long period of time during which IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspections are certain to occur, to say nothing of the possibility that any order to do so would leak or be intercepted.”

Bob Cusack contributed