“There was never even a ripple,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official involved in the previously undisclosed mission.
CIA stealth drones scoured dozens of sites throughout Iran, making hundreds of passes over suspicious facilities, before a version of the RQ-170 crashed inside Iran’s borders in December. The surveillance has been part of what current and former U.S. officials describe as an intelligence surge that is aimed at Iran’s nuclear program and that has been gaining momentum since the final years of George W. Bush’s administration.
The effort has included ramped-up eavesdropping by the National Security Agency, formation of an Iran task force among satellite-imagery analysts and an expanded network of spies, current and former U.S. officials said.
At a time of renewed debate over whether stopping Iran might require military strikes, the expanded intelligence collection has reinforced the view within the White House that it will have early warning of any move by Iran to assemble a nuclear bomb, officials said.
“There is confidence that we would see activity indicating that a decision had been made,” said a senior U.S. official involved in high-level discussions about Iran policy. “Across the board, our access has been significantly improved.”
The expanded intelligence effort has coincided with a covert campaign by the CIA and other agencies to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program and has enabled an escalation in the use of targeted economic sanctions by the United States and its allies to weaken Iran’s resolve.
The Obama administration has cited new intelligence reports in arguing against a preemptive military strike by Israel against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Israeli officials have pushed for a more aggressive response to Iran’s nuclear activities, arguing that Iran is nearing what some officials have called a “zone of immunity,” in which Iran can quickly complete the final steps toward becoming a nuclear power inside heavily fortified bunkers protected from Israeli airstrikes.
White House officials contend that Iran’s leaders have not decided to build a nuclear weapon, and they say it would take Iran at least a year to do so if it were to launch a crash program now.
“Even in the absolute worst case — six months — there is time for the president to have options,” said the senior U.S. official, one of seven current or former advisers on security policy who agreed to discuss U.S. options on Iran on the condition of anonymity.
The improved intelligence also strengthens the administration’s bargaining position ahead of nuclear talks with Iran, tentatively scheduled for Friday. The United States and five other countries — Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — are expected to press Iran to accept curbs on its nuclear program that would make it far more difficult for the country to build a nuclear weapon. A key demand, Western diplomats say, is for Iran to halt production at its uranium enrichment plant at Qom, which was built in mountain tunnels beyond the reach of all but the most advanced bombs and missiles. In return for such a concession, Iran could be allowed to keep some semblance of a commercial nuclear power program under heavy international oversight, diplomats say. It is unclear, however, whether Iran would agree to restrictions on its program. In recent days, Iran has refused even to commit to a venue for the talks.