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.
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.
Officials did not explain why the US had backed off its view that Iran continued its nuclear-weapons efforts. Given the subject's importance, it is likely that intelligence agencies have been devoting more resources to the Iranian nuclear question, and it is possible that the new conclusions reflect this.
News reports indicated that the new NIE relied on everything from news organization photos of Iranian nuclear facilities to intercepts of Iranian military communications.
The NIE may also reflect the desire on the part of analysts to not be caught overinterpreting evidence and jumping to conclusions, as they did when judging that Iraq retained weapons of mass destruction prior to the 2003 US invasion.
"Intelligence analysis is an art, not a science," says Daniel Benjamin, a senior fellow on foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
Enrichment of uranium for what Iran says are civilian purposes continues in Iran, notes Mr. Benjamin. Such technology could give Tehran important experience that could help it quickly obtain a nuclear weapon if it decides to do so.
Another round of sanctions might help curb this effort. But now more sanctions will "be very, very difficult to achieve," says Benjamin.
The good news is that Iran does not appear to be intent on obtaining the bomb at all costs – at least, not if the NIE is correct. Outside economic sanctions and pressure caused Iran to halt its program, after all.
That will give the world breathing space with which to develop a coherent negotiating strategy, say experts.
"The US intelligence community analysis indicates that it is highly probable that the US and the international community have some 4 to 7 years to negotiate before Iran could become a nuclear power," writes CSIS military expert Anthony Cordesman in an analysis of the NIE. "It provides a major argument against any early military action against Iran, and it refutes much of the hard-line rhetoric emerging from various neoconservatives."
In broad terms, the NIE supports the pro-negotiation stance of Secretary of StateCondoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and others. "Two days ago, the smart approach to Iran was a mixture of pressure and engagement. Today, the smart approach to Iran is still a mix of pressure and engagement," says Mr. Levi.
One nation that does not appear swayed by the new report is Israel. Israeli government officials insisted Tuesday that Iran is still seeking nuclear weapons, despite the NIE's conclusions.
"Iran is probably continuing its program of producing a nuclear bomb," Defense Minster Ehud Barak told Israeli army radio.
Israel considers Iran a dire regional threat, due to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's continued threats that Israel should be wiped off the map and Iran's support for the Palestinian Hamas movement and Lebanon's Hizbullah militia.
It is possible that now Israel will appear "overconcerned" about Iran, says Meir Javedanfar, coauthor of the book "The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran."
"This makes Israel's job trying to get consensus for sanctions on Iran now rather than later difficult. It means more countries are going to be inclined to continue negotiations with Iran rather than opt for sanctions," says Mr. Javedanfar.
But the US has been known to fumble intelligence assessments before, as in the case of prewar judgments on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. And there is always the possibility that Israel's intelligence is, in fact, superior on this question.
"There's a rift between Israel's and American's intelligence communities for sure. It seriously sets the two apart," says Javedanfar. "Just because we are friends doesn't mean we are going to share everything."
Material from the wire services was used in this report.