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Nuclear hoax

Print edition : Jan 04, 2008 T+T-
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad greeting supporters on December 5. He said that the U.S. intelligence review was a declaration of victory for Irans nuclear programme.-MEHDI GHASEMI/AP

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad greeting supporters on December 5. He said that the U.S. intelligence review was a declaration of victory for Irans nuclear programme.-MEHDI GHASEMI/AP

The new NIE report states with high confidence that Irans nuclear weapons programme was closed in 2003.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

THE conclusion reached by the United States National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), and released in a report on December 3, that Iran halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003 has now brought sanity back to the debate in the West regarding the issue. The conclusion of the NIE, which represents the views of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, has also left the George W. Bush administration without a rationale to pursue the military option vis-a-vis Iran. The report comes on the heels of recent assertions by the President and other senior officials of the U.S. that Iran was actively pursuing a nuclear weapons programme.

John Negroponte, Deputy Secretary of State, told Congress in January 2007, when he was still the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), that Teheran was determined to develop nuclear weapons. More recently, Bush, in a joint press conference with the visiting French President Nicholas Sarkozy, said that the two countries would work together to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Vice-President Dick Cheney, the most vocal proponent of war in the Bush administration, claimed that Iran had a fairly robust new nuclear programme.

Top Israeli officials were calling for the U.S. to start military operations against the Islamic republic. The NIE report has come as a bigger shock to the government in Israel than to the neoconservatives in the U.S.

The 2005 NIE report had come to the opposite conclusion that Iran had an active arms programme. The new report, on the other hand, states with high confidence that the programme was closed in 2003. It also states with modest confidence that Teheran had not restarted its nuclear weapons programme as of mid-2007. The NIE, however, states with high confidence that Iran will not be technically capable of producing and reprocessing enough plutonium for a weapon before about 2015. The NIE has emphasised that it does not assume that Iran intends to acquire nuclear weapons. The majority in the international community knew for some time that Teheran was only interested in mastering the nuclear fuel cycle, which by itself is a sufficient deterrent.

Manouchehr Mottaki, Iranian Foreign Minister, said the report showed that the current trend of Irans nuclear activities is peaceful. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in its latest report, also states that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons programme and has allayed most of the doubts raised by the West. But Washington and its allies continued ratcheting up the pressure on Iran. Bush even went to the extent of predicting a Third World War on the issue. Meanwhile, Washington persuaded its close allies to tighten further the economic sanctions on Iran. Western banks had started pulling out of Iran. According to reports in the Indian media, the State Bank of India stopped issuing letters of credit to Iranian companies desirous of doing business in India.

The U.S. was also putting considerable pressure on Russia and China to make the United Nations Security Council pass an even more stringent third round of sanctions on Iran. Many observers were of the opinion that the passage of a new resolution would have been a prelude to a U.S. attack on Iran. After the NIE report, there is little possibility of another U.N. resolution on Iran in the near future. Vitaly Churkin, Russias Ambassador to the U.N., said that the report was a vindication of Moscows position on the issue. Russia, he said, had always said that there is no proof that Iran is pursuing a nuclear programme.

Officials of the IAEA in Vienna have valid reasons to be elated by the NIEs conclusions. The Bush administration tried to smear the reputations of the IAEA and its chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, when they concluded that Iran was not engaged in a clandestine nuclear weapons programme. ElBaradei, who was in Brazil when the NIE report came out, said that the findings of Americas intelligence agencies were similar to those of the IAEAs. He said the report opens a window of opportunity for Iran now because Iran obviously has been somewhat vindicated in saying that they have not been working on a weapons programme at least for the last few years.

In the light of the new revelations, there are indications that European governments have already started to reassess their position on Iran. Because of the arm-twisting by the Bush administration, European companies have not bid for many lucrative contracts in Iran. The U-turn taken by the Bush administration has strengthened their argument for negotiations with Teheran. Iran signed an agreement with Germany, France and Britain (the EU-3) in October 2003 renouncing nuclear weapons and promising to voluntarily suspend all uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities as defined by the IAEA. The EU-3 countries on their part pledged to cooperate with Iran to promote security and stability in the region, including the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East [West Asia] in accordance with the objectives of the United Nations.

In November 2004, Iran and the EU-3 signed an agreement under which Teheran pledged to provide objective guarantees that Irans nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes. The Europeans on their part promised firm guarantees on nuclear technological and economic cooperation and firm commitments on security issues. It is another story that the EU-3 soon backtracked on their commitments under U.S. pressure. The Bush administration was intent on speeding up the process of imposing international sanctions on Iran.

Reacting to the NIE report, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said that one of the legal outcomes is that the referral of the Iran nuclear dossier to the U.N. Security Council in 2006 was illegal as, according to the report, the Islamic Republic of Iran had no nuclear weapons programme in 2006. The referral was made on the basis of assessments made by U.S. intelligence agencies. Indias vote against Iran in the IAEA board still rankles with Teheran. Speaking at a rally, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Iran now would gain a greatness that is hundred times more precious than nuclear energy if it withstood pressure from the West over its nuclear programme.

President Bush at

In the U.S., leading members of Bushs party are calling for a quick reassessment of the countrys Iran policy. Chuck Hagel, a senior Republican Congressman, said that there was now no more justification for the Bush administration to talk about attacking Iran or targeting its nuclear facilities. Hagel instead wanted the Bush administration to show the kind of diplomatic flexibility it has been exhibiting towards North Korea, an avowed nuclear power (see separate story). The Democrats have come down heavily on the President, accusing him of exaggerating the threat Iran poses.

Leading Democrats, including those running for President, cast doubts about Bushs assertion that he came to know about the new findings only in the last week of November though Michael McConnell, the current DNI, had briefed him in early August. Bush claims that he was only told that there was some new intelligence on Iran and was not given a detailed briefing.

But the White House spokesperson confirmed that the President was told that Iran had frozen its quest for atomic weapons. Bush issued his most bellicose threats against Iran after he was briefed about the new findings. On August 28, Bush warned of a nuclear holocaust if Iran was allowed to develop nuclear weapons. There are reports in the American media that Bush was aware of the intelligence on Iran nine months ago, after the defection to the West of Ali Reza Asgari, a former Iranian Deputy Defence Minister. A report by the Inter Press Service (IPS) said that the NIE report was originally completed in late 2006 but was rewritten three times under pressure from the White House and Cheney.

Joseph Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate, said that Bushs contention was unbelievable. Biden, like many others, linked the Iran issue with Iraq. For this President to knowingly disregard or once again misrepresent intelligence about the issue of war and peace, I find it outrageous. This is exactly what he did in the run-up to the war against Iraq, Biden told the media. The U.S. media have used words such as dishonest, lying and misleading to describe Bushs reaction to the report. Harry M. Reid, Democratic Senate Majority Leader, called for a diplomatic surge to solve the disputes with Teheran. Many U.S. experts on disarmament issues are of the view that the U.S. now has no option but to re-evaluate its policies towards the Islamic republic.

Bush, however, continues to insist that Iran still remains a dangerous country, asserting that the NIE conclusions support his administrations position about Iran pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons policy. He did concede that the NIE report was a great discovery and that Iran had a sovereign right to a civilian nuclear programme. But he hastened to add that his administration continued to be suspicious about Irans enrichment programme because of their covert efforts at weapons development.

But there are signs that the tension between the U.S. and Iran could be easing a bit. Ahmadinejad was the first Iranian President to be invited to the Gulf Cooperation Summit in the first week of December. The pro-American governments in the region are making conciliatory noises towards Teheran. Some West Asia experts believe that after the NIE findings, the key issue between Washington and Teheran will be the future of Iraq. The U.S. is preparing for the endgame in Iraq and requires the help of Iran to ensure political stability in the region. Iran played an important though discreet role in helping the U.S. overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan. And of course, there was no love lost between the secular Baath government of Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran.