A new US intelligence report released on December 3 "not only undercut the administration's alarming rhetoric over Iran's nuclear ambitions but could also throttle Bush's effort to ratchet up international sanctions and take off the table the possibility of preemptive military action before the end of his presidency", the December 4 Washington Post reported.
The new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), compiled by the CIA and 15 other US spy agencies, has backed away from previous ironclad claims that Iran is intent on building nuclear bombs. It says that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapons program.
In January, then US intelligence chief John Negroponte told Congress: "Our assessment is that Tehran is determined to develop nuclear weapons." Last month, US President George Bush, at a news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, said: "We talked about Iran and the desire to work jointly to convince the Iranian regime to give up their nuclear weapons ambitions, for the sake of peace."
More ominously, Bush told a news conference on October 17: "I've told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."
The new NIE on Iran however states that Tehran appears "less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005". It states "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program", and has not reactivated it since.
The nine-page declassified version of the 130-page NIE provided no evidence to back up the claim that Iran had a nuclear weapons program before "fall 2003" other than Iran's work on uranium enrichment.
Under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), to which Iran is a signatory, non-nuclear-armed states have a right to develop the full nuclear fuel cycle, including producing enriched uranium, provided they do not divert any nuclear material to military purposes.
Last month, Mohammed ElBaradei, director-general of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), again reported that his agency, which monitors Iran's nuclear program for NPT compliance, "has been able to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran" to military purposes.
But as part of laying the propaganda groundwork for a future Iraq-style regime-change invasion of oil- and gas-rich Iran, US officials have alleged since 2002 that Iran's research into the production of enriched uranium to fuel nuclear power plants is actually aimed at producing a nuclear bomb.
Despite the new NIE, US national security adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters that Iran's continued enrichment of uranium could eventually be used to assist a weapons program. Hadley said that "the international community has to turn up the pressure on Iran with diplomatic isolation, United Nations sanctions and with other financial pressure".
The December 4 Washington Post observed that, "Other countries may not see it that way, though, and diplomats said the report may cripple US attempts to win a third round of UN sanctions against Iran".
In July 2006, Washington seized on ambiguities arising from Iran's black-market acquisition of enrichment technology — made because the US and other Western countries, in violation of their obligations under the NPT, refused to sell it such technology — to pressure the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution calling on Iran, "as a confidence-building measure", to suspend all its enrichment activities.
Arguing that this violated its right under the NPT to develop "without discrimination" nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, Iran refused to do so.
Washington then pressured the Security Council into passing resolutions in December 2006 and March this year imposing limited international financial sanctions on Iran.
Since June, Washington has been pushing for a third, and tougher, UN sanctions resolution but has met opposition from Moscow and Beijing, and to a lesser extent, Berlin. Germany and China are Iran's leading trade partners, and Russia is building Iran's first nuclear power plant.
"You'd think that the effort to get a third resolution is dead", Bruce Riedel, a former senior official at the CIA and the Pentagon, told the Post. "This has got to be a very serious argument to be used by opponents of a third resolution. It will say America's own intelligence community says Iran has halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago."
Michael Rubin, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and a war hawk on Iran, agreed. "Certainly it makes diplomacy a lot more difficult", he told the Post. "It almost gives Berlin, Beijing and Moscow an excuse not to come together for a third round of sanctions."
The Post reported that the IAEA, "which was briefed on the US intelligence report two hours before its release, saw the judgments as validation of its own long-standing conclusion that there is 'no evidence' of an undeclared nuclear program in Iran".
The December 4 New York Times reported that Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the UN, praised the report as vindicating Moscow's position on Iran. "We have always been saying there is no proof they are pursuing nuclear weapons", Churkin told reporters. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow: "Data that we have don't allow to assert that Iran has ever had a nuclear weapons program."
Asked by a reporter if the new NIE made the prospect of new UN sanctions less likely, Wang Guangya, China's UN ambassador, 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."