For months, Bush administration officials have said Iran was actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program and called on collective international action, including sanctions, to force Tehran to stop. But a new U.S. intelligence report says Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, and that as of mid-2007, at least, had not restarted it. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, the public release of the estimate may alter perceptions and policies in both Washington and Tehran.
At some points, the rhetoric coming from Washington and Tehran was so harsh that it fueled speculation that the United States was planning to attack Iran.
But a new U.S. intelligence estimate on Iran's nuclear program stands in sharp contrast to earlier pronouncements by Bush administration officials that Iran is in active pursuit of nuclear weapons. The National Intelligence Estimate, which represents the collective judgment of the 16 U.S. agencies that deal in intelligence, says that Iran may not be as determined to develop nuclear weapons as the U.S. previously believed.
President Bush insists that the new intelligence report represents no change in U.S. policy or attitude towards Iran. If anything, he says, it should reinvigorate joint international efforts to keep nuclear arms knowledge out of Iran's hands.
"Our policy remains the same," said President Bush. "I see a danger. And many in the world see the same danger. This report is not an 'OK, everybody needs to relax and quit' report. This is a report that says what has happened in the past could be repeated and that the policies used to cause the regime to halt are effective policies, and let's keep them up. Let's continue to work together."
Vali Nasr, a senior fellow on Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the new National Intelligence Estimate undercuts U.S. efforts to get support for more sanctions against Iran.
"The mistake of the Bush administration was that it overreached," said Nasr. "In overstating Iran's capability, in overstating Iran's threat, it created a house of cards that has all of a sudden fallen down."
But Larry Wilkerson, who was former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff, says that Washington may be sending a signal to Tehran by the release of the report.
"We're releasing this National Intelligence Estimate which more or less reverses our previous appraisal of you as a monolithic entity that is absolutely impossible to talk to," he said. "We're actually saying it might be somewhat to our advantage to talk to you. We're actually saying you might be persuadable if we talk to you in the right way. If my optimistic side is interpreting it correctly, it's an incredibly sophisticated effort to lay down a carpet, so to speak, to eventual diplomacy and negotiations with Iran."
The report has upset some conservative American politicians and commentators who favor keeping up a hard line against Iran, including possible military action. Some Republican lawmakers have called for a commission to examine the estimate's findings.
The publicly released version is a carefully worded document that rates key points as having a high, moderate, or low degree of confidence. John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, says that, having been burned by its mistakes about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, the intelligence community is being very careful, especially on an issue as sensitive as Iran.
"One of the things to which intelligence agencies pay particular attention these days is making clear their levels of uncertainty," said McLaughlin. "This is one of the lessons of the Iraq WMD experience. And so for the agencies to say they believe this with high confidence is very noteworthy. It tells me that they have sources who have a demonstrated track record of producing accurate information, or they would not be saying that."
Not surprisingly, the report was welcomed in Iran, where it was termed a "victory" by officials, who have consistently denied that Iran seeks nuclear weapons. But some analysts believe there could be some domestic political fallout in Iran for the hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Vali Nasr says President Ahmadinejad has used the nuclear issue to rally political support and divert attention away from the country's continuing economic woes of high unemployment and inflation.
"Now, if war is off the table, it doesn't matter what Ahmadinejad says and how much bluster he puts out," he said. "If war is off the table, the Iranian electorate may pay a lot more attention to issues that don't favor Ahmadinejad in the elections. I think it might have a positive effect within Iran, ironically, of refocusing everybody on domestic issues at a time when elections are around the corner."
Iran's parliamentary elections are due in March, and the presidential election in 2009.