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The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate released Monday makes it harder to make the case for strikes against Iran
Tuesday 4 December 2007

Report takes steam out of Iran hawks

Story Highlights

* National Intelligence Estimate says Iran halted work on nuclear weapons in 2003

* Major turnaround from 2005 report that said Iran was determined to push ahead

* Report makes it harder to make the case for strikes against Iran

From Zain Verjee and Charley Keyes,

WASHINGTON (CNN) — After months of warning that Iran was racing along a one-way street to developing a nuclear bomb, and after toughening its own sanctions and pushing through restrictions in the United Nations, the U.S. is suddenly changing its tune about Iran’s intentions and the timetable of when it might be able to make a bomb.

The new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran says Iran halted work on nuclear weapons under international scrutiny in 2003 and is unlikely to be able to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb until 2010 to 2015.

The report says there’s "high confidence" Iran stopped developing nuclear weapons in autumn 2003, and did so because of international pressure. That’s a major turnaround from a 2005 report that Iran was determined to push ahead regardless of international pressure.

"Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it’s less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005," the report says.

Amid questions about why the administration got it so wrong, National Security adviser Stephen Hadley responded, saying, "I don’t think we were wrong about what it’s doing or what its intentions were. Our concern was that they were pursuing a nuclear weapon. We saw the enrichment, which we couldn’t really explain. We saw the ballistic missiles. And it led people to conclude we are concerned that they were pursuing a nuclear weapons program."

Gary Sick, a former National Security Council adviser on Iran during the Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan administrations, said the new take on Iran seemed to come out of the blue. "It was completely unexpected," he said, adding that Iran’s decision not to proceed rapidly on a nuclear program suggests that it’s open for discussion on the nuclear issue.

Sick says the administration will try to put the best face on this report, arguing that it shows U.S. pressure on Iran works, but the "reality is that this punches a hole in the push for sanctions and undercuts the conventional wisdom that Iran is close to a bomb."

He also noted the report could strengthen Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s own position in dealing with Iran. She’s been standing up to Vice President Dick Cheney and other Iran hawks, advocating direct contacts with Iran, while maintaining a tough posture.

The U.S. is pushing for a third sanctions resolution against Iran and is trying to get Russia and China on board. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called weekend discussions on more sanctions against Iran "constructive."

The NIE report will make it harder for the Bush administration to make the case for strikes against Iran.

Joe Cirincione of the Center for American Progress says the report "undercuts the argument for a military strike and strengthens the case for engagement." He says there was never any good evidence of a crash bomb program, and he and many experts always believed Iran was years away from the ability to make nuclear fuel or a nuclear bomb. "This is not a nuclear bomb crisis. This is a nuclear diplomacy crisis."

Hadley said the administration is already on the right track, saying "the estimate offers grounds for hope that the problem can be solved diplomatically without the use of force, as the administration has been trying to do, and it suggests we have the right strategy — intensified international pressure along with a willingness to negotiate a solution that serves Iranian interests while ensuring the world that it will never have to face a nuclear armed Iran."

Rand Beers, president of the National Security Network, says with this report comes a diplomatic window of opportunity. "This report demonstrates a clear opening for U.S. policy in terms of engaging on mutual interests with Iran throughout the Middle East. Anything short of doing this will be a missed opportunity."

Aljazeera 4Dec2007 NEWS AMERICAS

US: Iran halted atomic work in 2003

Iran is believed to have halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003 and US claims about Tehran’s goals have been overstated for years, the US intelligence community has said in a report.

The latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) contradicts a 2005 US assessment of Iran’s nuclear programme.

Then the findings were that Iran was determined to develop weapons despite international obligations and pressure.

But Monday’s declassified report also said Iran would be capable of producing enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon "sometime during the 2010-2015 timeframe".

It gave late 2009 as the "the earliest possible date" but added "that this is very unlikely".
The report, based on intelligence up to October 31, also found that the Islamic republic is "keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons", but admitted "we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons".

Weeks after George Bush, the US president, warned of "World War III" or a "nuclear holocaust" if Iran got nuclear weapons, the NIE cited "high confidence" that Tehran had halted its nuclear weapons programme in late 2003 and "moderate confidence" that it had not restarted as of mid-2007.

Iran appears "less determined to develop nuclear weapons" than the US government has been claiming for the past two years, the NIE report said, and Tehran may be more susceptible to global pressure than the US previously thought.

White House angle

Despite the report, the White House has urged global powers to "turn up the pressure" on Iran.

"The intelligence ... tells us that the risk of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon remains a very serious problem," Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, said on Monday.

"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," he said.

"The estimate offers grounds for hope that the problem can be solved diplomatically - without the use of force - as the administration has been trying to do," he added.

Britain also said it favoured increasing the pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme despite the latest NIE report.

"The report’s conclusions justify the action already taken by the international community to get to the bottom of Iran’s nuclear programme and to increase pressure on the regime to stop its enrichment and reprocessing activities," a British foreign ministry spokeswoman said on Monday.

Iran denies Western charges that it seeks nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian atomic energy programme, and has drawn UN sanctions for refusing to freeze its uranium enrichment, which can yield materials for a nuclear bomb.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, said the issue of Tehran’s controversial nuclear programme was "closed" and that his country was prepared for any eventuality.

"The nuclear issue is now closed. We do not feel threatened at all and we are prepared for any eventuality or conditions," he said during an annual summit of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) in Qatar’s capital, Doha.

US spies give shock verdict on Iran threat

Guardian UK

Intelligence agencies say Tehran halted weapons programme in 2003

Ewen MacAskill in Washington

Tuesday December 4, 2007

US intelligence agencies undercut the White House yesterday by disclosing for the first time that Iran has not been pursuing a nuclear weapons development programme for the past four years. The secret report, which was declassified yesterday and published, marked a significant shift from previous estimates. "Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons programme suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005," it said.

The disclosure makes it harder for President George Bush, to justify a military strike against Iran before he leaves office next year. It also makes it more difficult to persuade Russia and China to join the US, Britain and France in imposing a new round of sanctions on Tehran.

Bush and vice-president Dick Cheney have been claiming without equivocation that Tehran is bent on achieving a nuclear weapon, with the president warning in October of the risk of a third world war. They were briefed on the national intelligence estimate (NIE) on Wednesday.

The White House national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, at a press conference yesterday, denied there were echoes of the intelligence failure over Iraq’s phantom weapons of mass destruction. He said that Iran was "one of a handful of the hardest intelligence targets going" and the new intelligence had only arrived in the past few months. As soon as it did, both the president and Congress had been briefed. He warned that there would be a tendency now to think "the problem is less bad than we thought, let’s relax. Our view is that would be a mistake."

The NIE, which pulls together the work of the 16 American intelligence agencies, is entitled Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities. It concluded: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear weapons programme." It had not been restarted as of the middle of this year.

In a startling admission from an administration that regularly portrays Iran as the biggest threat to the Middle East and the world, the NIE said: "We do not know whether [Iran] currently intends to develop nuclear weapons." That contradicts the assessment two years ago that baldly stated that Tehran was "determined to develop nuclear weapons".

The British government, which is planning to discuss the report with its US counterparts during the next few days, has also repeatedly said it suspects President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government of seeking a nuclear weapons capability. It will claim that the weapons halt shows that diplomacy - in particular the threat of sanctions - can work.

The weapons halt roughly coincided with a visit by British, French and German foreign ministers to Tehran in October 2003.

The Iranian government has insisted throughout that it is only pursuing a civilian nuclear programme.

Although a halt to the nuclear weapons programme is significant, the NIE is far from a clean bill of health for Iran. Tehran is pushing ahead with its uranium enrichment programme, which has only limited civilian use and could be quickly converted to nuclear military use. The NIE warned that Iran could secure a nuclear weapon by 2010. The US state department’s intelligence and research office, one of the agencies involved, said the more likely timescale would be 2013. All the agencies concede that Iran may not have enough enriched uranium until after 2015.

The White House will continue to try to intensify international pressure on Iran. Russia and China, two of the permanent members of the UN security council, have scuppered attempts by the US over the past six months to impose tough new sanctions on Iran.

The decision to publish the NIE is aimed at trying to recover the public credibility lost when the agencies wrongly claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in the years leading up to 2003.

STRATFOR, Geopolitical Diary: Questions Raised by the NIE

December 04, 2007 03 00 GMT

The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate released Monday — the little bombshell that says Iran has had its nuclear weapons program on hold since 2003 — raises two fundamental questions. First, if Iran really does not have a military weapons program, why has it resisted international inspections? Second, why is the United States allowing this news to break?

The Iranian motive for resisting inspections should first be considered.

For the past five years, Washington and Tehran have been engaged in on-again, off-again negotiations over Iraq’s future. In these talks the Iranians have been at a sizable disadvantage. The United States has more than 100,000 troops in the country, while Iran’s leverage is largely limited to its influence with many of the country’s Shiite militias. This influence is a useful tool for denying the United States the ability to impose its desires, though it is not a powerful enough one to allow the Iranians to turn their own preferences into reality.

Moreover, given that the majority of Iran’s population is either in or behind the Zagros Mountains, Iran might be difficult to invade, but it lacks military expeditionary capability. Its infantry-heavy army is designed for population control, not power projection. Therefore, for Iran to have a lever in manipulating events in its region, it must develop other playing cards.

Its nuclear program is one of those cards. Iran has had a vested interest in convincing the world — unofficially, of course — that it possesses a nuclear program. For Iran, the nuclear program is a trump card to be traded away, not a goal in and of itself.

As to the U.S. motive, it also wanted to play up the nuclear threat. Part of Washington’s negotiation strategy has been to isolate Iran from the rest of the international community. Charges that Iran desired nukes were an excellent way to marshal international action. Both sides had a vested interest in making Iran look the part of the wolf.

That no longer is the case. There are only two reasons the U.S. government would choose to issue a report that publicly undermines the past four years of its foreign policy: a deal has been struck, or one is close enough that an international diplomatic coalition is no longer perceived as critical. This level of coordination across all branches of U.S. intelligence could not happen without the knowledge and approval of the CIA director, the secretaries of defense and state, the national security adviser and the president himself. This is not a power play; this is the real deal.

The full details of any deal are unlikely to be made public any time soon because the U.S. and Iranian publics probably are not yet ready to consider each other as anything short of foes. But the deal is by design integrated into both states’ national security posture. It will allow for a permanent deployment of U.S. forces in Iraq to provide minimal national security for Iraq, but not in large enough numbers to be able to launch a sizable attack against Iran. It will allow for the training and equipping of the Iraqi military forces so that Iraq can defend itself, but not so much that it could boast a meaningful offensive force. It will integrate Iranian intelligence and military personnel into the U.S. effort so there are no surprises on either side.

But those are the details. Here is the main thrust: Ultimately, both sides have nursed deep-seated fears. The Iranians do not want the Americans to assist in the rise of another militaristic Sunni power in Baghdad — the last one inflicted 1 million Iranian casualties during 1980-1988 war. The United States does not want to see Iran dominate Iraq and use it as a springboard to control Arabia; that would put some 20 million barrels per day of oil output under a single power. The real purpose of the deal is to install enough bilateral checks in Iraq to ensure that neither nightmare scenario happens.

Should such an arrangement stick, the two biggest winners obviously are the Americans and Iranians. That is not just because the two no longer would be in direct conflict, and not just because both would have freed up resources for other tasks.

U.S. geopolitical strategy is to prevent the rising of a power on a continental scale that has the potential to threaten North America. It does this by favoring isolated powers that are resisting larger forces. As powerful as Iran is, it is the runt of the neighborhood when one looks past the political lines on maps and takes a more holistic view. Sunnis outnumber Shia many times over, and Arabs outnumber Persians. Indeed, Persians make up only roughly half of Iran’s population, making Tehran consistently vulnerable to outside influence. Simply put, the United States and Iran — because of the former’s strategy and the latter’s circumstances — are natural allies.

On the flip side, the biggest losers are those entities that worry about footloose and fancy-free Americans and Iranians. The three groups at the top of that list are the Iraqis, the Russians and the Arabs. Washington and Tehran will each sell out their proxies in Iraq in a heartbeat for the promise of an overarching deal. Now is the time for the Kurds, Sunni and Shia of Iraq to prove their worth to either side; those who resist will be smears on the inside of history’s dustbin.

Separately, a core goal of U.S. foreign policy is to ensure that the Russians never again threaten North America, and to a lesser degree, Europe. An America that is not obsessed with Tehran is one that has the freedom to be obsessed with Moscow. And do not forget that the last state to occupy portions of Iran was not the United States, but Russia. Persia has a long memory and there are scores to settle in the Caucasus.

Back in the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy has often supported the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, favoring the weak against the strong in line with the broad strategy discussed above. A United States that does not need to contain Iran is a United States that can leverage an Iran that very much wishes to be leveraged. That potentially puts the Arabs on the defensive on topics ranging from investment to defense. The Arabs tend to get worried whenever the Americans or the Iranians look directly at them; that is nothing compared to the emotions that will swirl the first time that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and U.S. President George W. Bush shake hands.

We expect the days and weeks ahead to be obfuscated by a blizzard of activity as various players in Washington and Tehran attempt both to engage directly and to prepare the ground (still) for a final deal. Much will be dramatic, much will be contradictory, much will make no sense whatsoever. This is, after all, still the Middle East. But keep this in mind: With the nuclear issue out of the way, the heavy lifting has already been done and some level of understanding on Iraq’s future already is in place. All that remains is working out the "details."

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