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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In developing its nuclear program Iran is using strategies that allowed its enemy Israel to assemble the Middle East's only atomic arsenal without admitting it had one, according to a leading expert on the Israeli program.
"Whether deliberately or inadvertently, there are elements of resemblance between the way Iran is pursuing its nuclear program today and the way Israel was pursuing its own program in the 1960s," Avner Cohen, author of a landmark study entitled "Israel and the Bomb," in a telephone interview.
"This is a great irony of history but Iranian policymakers and nuclear technocrats may be strategically mimicking the Israeli model," said Cohen, senior research scholar at the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies.
As Cohen sees it, the elements the Israeli and Iranian nuclear programs have in common are secrecy, concealment, ambiguity, double talk and denial.
Iran's probable strategy, he says, is to create the perception of having a secret weapons program, or being close to it, without actually testing a bomb or declaring its possession or impending possession.
That echoes the Israeli program, which began in the late 1950s at the Dimona nuclear complex in the Negev Desert. Since then, Israel has declined to confirm or deny it has nuclear weapons, saying only it would not be the first to "introduce" them into the Middle East.
Over the decades, Israel's attitude has been "let the world guess" or as former Prime Minister Shimon Peres called it, "deterrence by uncertainty."
Intelligence agencies are guessing again. The current Washington debate on Iran features widely varying estimates of how close the Islamic state might be to a nuclear weapon.
Iran has consistently denied it is working on a weapons program and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, has found no evidence of one. Last month, the IAEA disputed a U.S. congressional report saying Iran was already producing weapons-grade uranium.
The Central Intelligence Agency and the 15 other U.S. intelligence agencies use equipment from spy satellites and supercomputers to subterranean listening devices. But there are few spies on the ground in Iran, where Washington has had no official presence for more than a quarter of a century.
"The ... nature of the Iranian target poses unique HUMINT (human intelligence) challenges; since American officials have so little physical access to Iran, it is difficult to collect information there," a congressional intelligence report said last month.
"There is a great deal about Iran that we do not know."
That includes, intelligence officials acknowledge, insight into the small circle of religious figures in Iran with the authority to decide whether to pursue building a nuclear bomb and how many resources to devote to the project.
U.S. intelligence czar John Negroponte said in February that Iran was 10 years away from a bomb but later talked about "the beginning of the next decade perhaps to the middle of the next decade" - four to ten years.
He added: "Iran is ... a hard (intelligence) target. They engage in denial and deception. They don't want us necessarily to know everything that they are doing. So we don't, for example, know whether there is a secret military program and to what extent that program has made progress."
While there are parallels between Iran now and Israel then, the political context is vastly different. Beginning with Richard Nixon, a succession of U.S. presidents looked the other way as Israel built up its arsenal, historians says. Published estimates of the number of Israel nuclear devices range from 75 to 200.
In contrast, the administration of George W. Bush has said it would not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran, a country the president has termed part of an "axis of evil."
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