Iranian and American officials are drawing diametrically opposed interpretations from the latest report by the United Nation's nuclear watchdog. That sets the stage this week for a third UN sanctions resolution against a defiant Iran.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported on Friday that Iran had made "quite good progress" in resolving longstanding questions, but that new issues raised by US intelligence documents means the agency can't yet determine the "full nature of Iran's nuclear program."
The IAEA says "alleged studies" into high-explosives testing and design of a missile reentry vehicle "could have a military nuclear dimension." Iran says the information – gleaned from a lap top computer that US officials say was stolen from inside Iran – is "baseless" and "fabricated."
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hailed the IAEA report as a "historic victory" for Iran, adding that "our schoolchildren can make forgeries better than they [US spy agencies] do."
The firebrand president dismissed any further UN sanctions over Iran's refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. "They could spend 100 years passing resolutions but it wouldn't change anything," said Mr. Ahmadinejad, warning of "firm reprisals."
The IAEA reported greater Iranian cooperation with access and documentation, a string of unannounced inspections, and no diversion of declared nuclear material. But it also said Iran has not suspended uranium enrichment – as required by the UN Security Council – and instead progressed with a more advanced centrifuge design that can enrich uranium 2.5 times faster.
American officials said the IAEA report energizes their push for another set of sanctions, an effort put in doubt since December when a US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concluded that Iran had halted a nuclear weapons program in late 2003.
"There is very good reason after this [IAEA] report to proceed to a third Security Council resolution," said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, adding that it "demonstrates that whatever the Iranians may be doing to try to clean up some elements of the past, it is inadequate."
The hard-line Tehran newspaper "Hizbullah" published a banner headline "Iran vindicated," the Associated Press reported. Hard-line students proclaiming victory against US charges handed out sweets in central Tehran.
"The most important thing about the third [set of UN sanctions] is to have a show of consensus; the substance of the sanctions is secondary," a Western diplomat in Tehran says.
But he raises questions about the utility of a US-led strategy that requires Iran to suspend uranium enrichment before any talks can begin.
"It is unfortunate that the whole focus is on suspension, as if that were the issue. The issue is a weapons program. So now there is a political deadlock that will lead to the loss of face with the world," says the diplomat. Iran is not likely now to suspend under any circumstances, he adds, because Iran has "reached a national consensus that 'it's our right, it's our achievement, it's our smartness.' How can you fight against that?"
Analysts in Iran say that Ahmadinejad's frequent vow not to retreat "one iota" from Iran's nuclear ambitions has built a sense of "atomic nationalism."
"Ahmadinejad already declared victory. He's reaped the benefits of that – especially after the NIE, which has at least weakened and eroded the [anti-Iran] coalition," says an Iranian political scientist who asked not to be named. The president has taken credit for "orchestrating this victory against the West," he says.
"Even middle-of-the-road reformists believe [Ahmadinejad] won," says the analyst. "The fact there was no military action and now little chance of it is a victory."
Still, the two sets of UN sanctions and one set of unilateral American ones already levied against Iran are having an impact. On Thursday, Britain and France introduced the new UN sanctions draft, which would expand travel bans and freeze the assets of more Iranian officials connected to the nuclear program.
"I personally think we should go for the bomb and have it. I don't think Saddam Hussein would have attacked us [in 1980]," says a Western-educated academic in Tehran. "Atomic bombs aren't for use. You must have them to sit at the table. I'm all for Iran having nukes; people would think twice before they attacked."
"Iran is in the eye of the storm," he says, noting that regional neighbor Pakistan and arch-foe Israel both have nuclear weapons, though neither are signatories like Iran of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. "It is the duty of every government to equip itself to defend itself. Any state in Iran's position should go after the latest military technology."
Since the NIE report, US officials have raised the bar for Iran's compliance, insisting that Tehran acknowledge that it once had a nuclear weapons program. The new US intelligence described in the IAEA report includes designs for a 400-meter shaft for remotely testing explosives from six miles away, which "would be relevant" to weapons research.
The laptop also had designs for the inner cone of a missile reentry vehicle that were, according to the IAEA report, "quite likely to be able to accommodate a nuclear device."
Iran on Sunday accused the US of deliberately delaying the hand over of the three-year-old intelligence to the IAEA to keep Iran's nuclear file open. "All of a sudden, the Americans notice this thing is going to be closed," Iran's delegate to the IAEA, Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, said in Vienna. "So ... suddenly ... they have additional and new documents. These dirty games should be stopped immediately."
"People have no idea about the nuclear issue because it can't be discussed in the newspapers – nobody knows the cost of this," says Saeed Laylaz, editor of the Sarmayeh economic newspaper in Tehran.
"The US threatens us day by day, and says 'Don't move, I will destroy you after Iraq,'" says Mr. Laylaz, a frequent regime critic.
"I believe the Iran nuclear project depends upon the US. They are pushing us to be a nuclear weapons power. Only as a deterrent [for Iran] does it make sense."