Iran’s foreign minister on Tuesday welcomed the U.S. decision to “correct” its claim that Tehran has an active nuclear weapons program, while Israel’s defense minister said Israeli intelligence believes Iran is still trying to develop an atomic weapon.
A U.S. intelligence assessment released Monday reversed earlier claims that Iran had restarted its weapons program in 2005 after suspending it in 2003 because of international pressure.
“It’s natural that we welcome ... countries that correct their views realistically which in the past had questions and ambiguities about (Iran’s nuclear activities),” Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said.
Conservative lawmaker Elham Aminzadeh told The Associated Press that “it proved that Iran is not a danger to the world, as some members of the Bush administration claim.”
U.N. watchdog agrees
In Vienna, the U.N. atomic watchdog agency said the U.S. finding is consistent with its own.
“Although Iran still needs to clarify some important aspects of its past and present nuclear activities, the agency has no concrete evidence of an ongoing nuclear weapons program or undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran,” International Atomic Energy Agency director-general Mohamed ElBaradei said.
The finding is part of a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran that also cautions that Tehran continues to enrich uranium and still could develop a bomb between 2010 and 2015 if it decided to do so.
The conclusion that Iran’s weapons program was still frozen, through at least mid-2007, represents a sharp turnaround from the previous intelligence assessment in 2005.
Then, U.S. intelligence agencies believed Tehran was determined to develop a nuclear weapons capability and was continuing its weapons development program. The new report concludes that Iran’s decisions are rational and pragmatic, and that Tehran is more susceptible to diplomatic and financial pressure than previously thought.
“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,” says the unclassified summary of the secret report.
Time of escalating tensions
The finding comes at a time of escalating tensions between the United States and Iran, which President Bush has labeled part of an “axis of evil,” along with Iraq and North Korea.
At an Oct. 17 news conference, Bush said, “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.”
Other Iranian officials also praised the new intelligence report.
“This confession from within the U.S. administration’s most sensitive ranks is proof ... that (Iran’s) nuclear program is peaceful,” top lawmaker Alaeddin Boroujerdi was quoted as saying by the official news agency IRNA.
Rand Beers, who resigned from Bush’s National Security Council just before the Iraq war, said the report should derail any appetite for war on the administration’s part, and should reinvigorate regional diplomacy. “The new NIE throws cold water on the efforts of those urging military confrontation with Iran,” he said.
In Israel, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said “it’s apparently true” that Iran stopped pursuing its military nuclear program in 2003.
“But in our opinion, since then it has apparently continued that program,” Barak told Army Radio. “There are differences in the assessments of different organizations in the world about this, and only time will tell who is right.”
Asked if the new U.S. assessment reduced chances that the U.S. will launch a military strike on Iran, Barak said that was “possible.”
However, he said, “We cannot allow ourselves to rest just because of an intelligence report from the other side of the earth, even if it is from our greatest friend.”
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stopped short of disputing the U.S. assessment, playing down the new gap between the Israeli and American views.
“According to this report, and to the American position, it is vital to continue efforts to prevent Iran from attaining (nuclear) capability,” Olmert told reporters before meeting with Italy’s deputy prime minister.
On Monday, senior intelligence officials said they failed to detect Iran’s fall 2003 halt in nuclear weapons development in time to reflect it in the 2005 estimate.
One of the officials said Iran is the most challenging country to spy on — harder even than North Korea, a notoriously closed society. “We put a lot more collection assets against this,” the official said, “but gaps remain.” The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said the risk of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon remains “a serious problem.”
“The bottom line is this: For that strategy to succeed, the international community has to turn up the pressure on Iran with diplomatic isolation, United Nations sanctions, and with other financial pressure and Iran has to decide it wants to negotiate a solution,” Hadley said.
Bush was briefed on the 100-page document on Nov. 28. National Intelligence Estimates represent the most authoritative written judgments of all 16 U.S. spy agencies. Congress and other executive agencies were briefed Monday, and foreign governments will be briefed beginning Tuesday, the officials said.
The intelligence officials said they do not know all the reasons why Iran halted its weapons program, or what might trigger its resumption. They said they are confident that diplomatic and political pressure played a key role, but said the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Libya’s termination of its nuclear program and the implosion of the illegal nuclear smuggling network run by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan also might have influenced Tehran.
To develop a nuclear weapon, Iran needs to design and engineer a warhead, obtain enough fissile material, and build a delivery vehicle such as a missile. The intelligence agencies now believe Iran halted warhead engineering four years ago and as of mid-2007 had not restarted it.
Still enriching uranium
But Iran is still enriching uranium for its civilian nuclear reactors that produce electricity. That leaves open the possibility that fissile material could be diverted to covert nuclear sites to produce highly enriched uranium for a warhead.
This national intelligence estimate was originally due in the spring of 2007 but was delayed because the agencies wanted more confidence their findings were accurate, given the inaccuracy of the 2002 intelligence estimate of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va., said the report showed “a level of independence from political leadership that was lacking in the recent past.”
Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell decided last month that key judgments of NIEs should not be declassified and released. The intelligence officials said an exception was made in this case because the last assessment of Iran’s nuclear program in 2005 has influenced public debate about U.S. policy toward Iran, and must be updated to reflect the latest findings.