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CIA Chief: Iranian Leaders Debating Nuclear Weapons

By Gary Thomas, VOA, Dearborn, Michigan

The United States and its allies have long contended that Iran is embarked on a path to becoming a nuclear weapons power.

In an exclusive VOA interview, CIA Director Leon Panetta says that Iran is acquiring nuclear knowledge and capability, but that there are differences among the country's leaders about whether to actually build a bomb.

"Our view is and our intelligence is that while they are proceeding to develop a nuclear capability in terms of power and low-grade uranium, that there is still very much a debate going on within Iran as to whether or not they ought to proceed further. To some extent that provides an opening, hopefully, to try to influence the future direction of Iran," he said.

Panetta spoke to VOA before speaking at a dinner of the Arab-American community in Dearborn, Michigan.

The Associated Press has reported that experts of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, believe Iran has already developed the capability to build a nuclear weapon. However, the IAEA issued a statement in response that it has no concrete proof that Iran is engaged in a nuclear weapons program.

Iran's June presidential election, in which incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner, was marred by opposition allegations of vote fraud. Thousands of protesters took to the streets, and the government responded with a massive crackdown, arresting and putting on trial many opposition supporters. The CIA chief says the political landscape in Iran is still shifting and moving as a result.

Photos: "Green Quds" Show of Force by Iranian Opposition

"The fact is, we're probably still not sure of all the implications coming out of this election," Panetta said. "One thing is for sure: that there continues to be turmoil in Iran as the result of the election. While the Supreme Leader and Ahmadinejad have consolidated their positions and seem to have control in Iran, there continues to be the voices of opposition that are raised."

Panetta says the implications of the election for the United States are also murky as the Obama administration seeks to engage with Iran.

"The end result of that is that it's still difficult to know whether or not it means the leaders there will be more hardline and therefore more difficult to engage in diplomatic relationships with the United States, or whether they view what happened in the election as a signal to them to try to see if they can establish a better relationship with the United States and with the rest of the world," Panetta said.

On Thursday President Obama announced he was scrapping plans for a controversial missile defense shield based in Eastern Europe and was ordering a new system designed to intercept Iranian short and medium-range missiles. The previous plan envisioned a greater threat from longer-range missiles. Analysts have said that even if Iran did develop a nuclear weapon, they would still need to develop the technology to deliver it.

The U.S. and five other countries - the so-called P5-plus-One - are set to begin wide-ranging talks with Iran. CIA director Panetta says the U.S. will be closely exploring in the coming few weeks whether a new relationship with Iran can work after the recent turmoil there.

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