Pressure lifts to move against Iran thanks to new intelligence report
National Intelligence Estimate means less urgency, more resistance to US push for further sanctions.
For much of the world, the bottom line of the new US intelligence assessment on Iran may be this: Past efforts to curtail Iran's nuclear program have had some success – so there may be time for diplomacy to solve the problem of Tehran's possible weapons ambitions, after all.Skip to next paragraph
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It now appears unlikely that the Bush administration will be able to win support for a fresh round of international sanctions against the Iranian regime, say experts. Furthermore, given the conclusions of the intelligence report, it's almost impossible to imagine any global support for a US military attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
"World War III is postponed indefinitely," says Michael Levi, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of a new book on nuclear terrorism.
President Bush said at a news conference Tuesday that Iran remains a danger and that "nothing's changed" in regard to US policy toward Tehran.
"I view this report as a warning signal that they had a program, they halted the program," Mr. Bush said. "The reason why it's a warning signal is they could restart it."
Some European officials also reacted cautiously to the US intelligence report, lest they be seen as giving in to Tehran and its often-belligerent approach to dealing with the world over its alleged weapons ambitions and open enrichment of uranium for civilian purposes. Newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for instance, had promised during his campaign to be tough on the issue.
"We must maintain pressure on Iran," said French Foreign Ministry spokesman Pascale Andreani.
But middle-level countries that have resisted yet more economic strictures on Iran now may have the talking points they need to resist such efforts.
Experts also found it curious that the new report was issued only a few days after the countries directly involved in Iranian negotiations – the US, Russia, China, France, Britain, and Germany – had decided to push for a new UN Security Council resolution on the issue.
"We are going to get a lot more pushback from a lot more countries," says Jon Wolfsthal with the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
In the past, both Russia and China have grudgingly approved two sets of UN sanctions against Iran due to its refusal to suspend enrichment activities. Both nations reacted cautiously to the new US intelligence assessment of Iran's activities.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meeting Tuesday with Iran's top nuclear negotiator, said that Tehran's nuclear program should remain transparent and under the control of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. Chinese officials acknowledged the importance of the new report but said they had no information to confirm it. They added that their own policies would remain consistent.
China hopes the parties involved will pursue negotiations to "seek an all-round, proper, and long-term settlement of this issue," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang.
The unclassified key judgments of the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) confirmed that US officials had high confidence that Iran has had a clandestine nuclear-weapons program.
However, the NIE also held with high confidence that the program was halted in 2003 and remained on hiatus for at least several years. The NIE assesses with moderate confidence that Iran had not restarted the program as of mid-2007.
"We do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons," states the document, which represents a consensus view of numerous US intelligence agencies.
Years of jousting with Iran
AUGUST: Iranian exiles charge that Iran has a covert program to enrich uranium.
SEPTEMBER: After inspecting Iranian facilities, International Atomic Energy Agencycalls on Tehran to halt enrichment activities.
NOVEMBER: Iran agrees to halt enrichment and reprocessing activities, after talks with three EU nations.
MARCH: IAEA says Iran did not report centrifuge research and has not suspended all activities.
SEPTEMBER: IAEA threatens to refer Iran to UN Security Council. US Secretary of State Colin Powell calls for global sanctions against Iran.
NOVEMBER: Iran again agrees to suspend enrichment activities.
AUGUST: Iran says it will start to convert uranium, a step toward enrichment. IAEA calls emergency meeting.
SEPTEMBER: Iran rejects EU incentives to stop producing nuclear fuel.
JANUARY: Iran removes seals from a nuclear facility. EU nations call off talks.
APRIL: Iran says it succeeded in enriching uranium.
DECEMBER: UN Security Council resolves to impose sanctions on Iran.
MARCH: Security Council tightens sanctions and freezes more Iranian assets.
NOVEMBER: IAEA reports Iran has disclosed its past nuclear activities, but continues to defy UN demands to suspend enrichment.
DECEMBER: A US intelligence report on Iran finds it halted its nuclear-weapons program in 2003.
Sources: AP, International Institute for Strategic Studies, United Nations