Middle East

Intelligence Report Opens Door for Policy Changes on Iran

Just a few weeks ago, President Bush had talked about the possibility of the Iranian nuclear crisis triggering a "third world war," a notion that at the time was greeted with sharp criticisms. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm / AFP-Getty Images)

Iran is not making an atom bomb. This is the core finding of the United States' latest National Intelligence Estimate, which represents the findings of 16 intelligence agencies. The release of the report has provided a sense of relief to millions of Iranians who have worriedly followed the developments of Iran's foreign policy conflicts over the past two years.

The findings reveals that Iran halted its nuclear weapons development program four years ago in 2003, in a concession to international pressure—an assertion that significantly reduces the threat of an imminent attack by the United States.

According to the report, under its current program of uranium enrichment, Iran will be able to develop an atomic bomb between 2010 and 2015, if it intends to do so—a claim that Tehran has repeatedly denied.

In an unexpected reversal the unclassified summary of the secret report said, "Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005." The findings come at a crucial period in Tehran and Washington's three decades long conflict, and may result in changes to Washington's recent policy toward the oil-rich non-Arab Middle Eastern country.

Just a few weeks ago, President Bush had talked about the possibility of the Iranian nuclear crisis triggering a "third world war," a notion that at the time was greeted with sharp criticisms.

"If you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them [Iran] from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon," Bush had said.

But now observers believe that the release of the report leaves Iran with little reason to fear a military attack.

"[The Report] essentially removes the possibility of a military confrontation between the United States and Iran over the nuclear issue," said Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, a think tank in Washington, D.C. "The president and the candidates for the presidency can go around and talk about all options on the table, but the military option at this point is not on the table."

According to the report, intelligence officials do not know why Iran halted its weapons program or what might prompt Iran to resume it. The report expressed confidence that diplomatic and political pressure played a key role, but said the invasion of Iraq, the termination of Libya's nuclear program, and the implosion of the illegal nuclear smuggling network run by Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan might also have influenced Iran.

Surprise or Deal?

The director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, decided last month that the major judgments of National Intelligence Estimates should not be declassified and released. In this case, however, intelligence officials said an exception was made because the last assessment of Iran's nuclear program in 2005 had influenced public debate about United States policy toward Iran and needed to be updated to reflect the latest findings.

But it remains unclear if the assessment has indeed come as surprise to Iran and the United States or reflects the result of a secret deal between the two countries.

Iran has recently begun a round of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, allowing the watchdog's inspectors to visit its essential nuclear facilities and answering key questions regarding the issue. Tehran's move has been viewed as an unexpected compromise in its top policy.

The world nuclear watchdog has since interpreted the cooperation as "a significant step forward"; at the same time, it has urged Tehran to reply to the remaining questions regarding the issue.

The intelligence report on Iran's nuclear program follows on the heels of a compromise in another significant clash between the two countries over Iraq.

"Iran seems to be honoring a commitment to stem the flow of deadly weapons into Iraq, contributing to nearly a 50 percent drop in the number of roadside bombs that kill and maim American troops," said Maj. Gen. James Simmons, deputy commander of Multinational Corps-Iraq, in late October. The October figure was the lowest since September 2005, he said.

American authorities have long insisted that the bombs were coming in from Iran, despite Iranian denials.

Also in October, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters that the Iranians had apparently assured the Iraqi government that it would stop the flow of bomb-making materials and other weaponry into Iraq. The comment was neither affirmed nor denied by Iraqi or Iranian authorities.

"We believe that the commitments that the Iranians have made appear to be holding up," Simmons said, adding that Iranian-made weaponry still being found in Iraq appeared to have been smuggled into the country months ago.

Simmons had told the Associated Press that the Iranian move to curb weapons shipments followed "a significant amount of negotiations," but he would not give details, saying he was not privy to the discussions.

Iran and the United States have so far held three rounds of direct talks in 2007 on the issue of stabilizing Iraq—two at the ambassador level and one at an expert level.

The talks were held behind closed doors and few details have been released.

Following the talks, which kicked off in May, the United States released nine Iranians that had been detained in Iraq for months on suspicion of smuggling weapons to Iraqi Shiite groups—a move that can be seen as a possible response to Iran's attempt to curb weapons shipments.

World Reacts

The release of the National Intelligence Estimate brought worldwide reactions as expected.

The International Atomic Energy Agency saw the report as a validation to its recent assumption that Iran is cooperating with the agency, and that there has been no evidence showing that the country has fallen off the civilian track.

In the United States, President Bush saw it as a confirmation of his administration's work to solve the problem via diplomatic efforts and called for tougher similar efforts to make sure Iran stays on the non-military program.

Bush also concluded that the report reveals the authenticity of the administration's worries, since it asserts that Iran had had a military nuclear program prior to 2003. He repeated his previous stance that "all options remain on the table."

In Iran, officials saw the findings as a justification of its claims regarding the peaceful and civil purposes of its program; however, none of its authorities commented on the covert plan that the report indicated Iran was pursuing until 2003.

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki welcomed the report as a suitable means to push the West toward revising its stance on Iran's nuclear program and acknowledging its peaceful nature.

Iran's government spokesman even demanded some form of compensation from the United States for accusations made in recent years by Washington regarding Tehran's nuclear program.

"The Americans have put a lot of pressure on us and manipulated world public opinion against Iran with their baseless accusations and should therefore pay the price for it," the official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Gholam-Hossein Elham as saying.

The main European countries involved in the negotiations, including France, Britain, and Germany, however, sided closer with Washington, insisting that Iran must halt uranium enrichment and go through a period of confidence building.

China and Russia, who, given their veto power at the United Nations Security Council, play a significant role in dealing with Iran's nuclear dossier, maintained their previous stance regarding the issue, emphasizing that Iran has a right to pursue a civilian nuclear program, and that the case must be dealt with patience.

The publication of the report has apparently led to a widening of the gap between the five permanent members of the Security Council, and could play an important role in hampering the effort to impose a tougher third round of United Nations sanctions on Iran.

"The U.N. Security Council should consider the implications of a new U.S. report saying Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 if it is asked to impose new sanctions," China's ambassador to the United Nations Guangya Wang said. "I think the council members will have to consider that, because I think we all start from the presumption that now things have changed."

Iran's arch-foe, Israel, for its part, sought to minimize the findings in the report.

"Israel's intelligence believes Iran is still trying to develop a nuclear weapon," Israel's defense minister said after publication of the report, disputing the United States' intelligence assessment.

"It's apparently true that in 2003 Iran stopped pursuing its military nuclear program for a time. But in our opinion, since then it has apparently continued that program," Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Army Radio. But he did not provide any evidence or reason for such a claim.

Israel remains the sole country that has so far refused to believe the United States' National Intelligence Estimate.

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