Intelligence on Iran
The new U.S. assessment has some good news -- but the reaction to it could be bad.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

THE NEW National Intelligence Estimate on Iran contains some unambiguously good news: that Tehran halted a covert nuclear weapons program in 2003, and that it is responsive to the sort of international pressure applied by the United States and other Western governments. Iran's "decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs," says the public summary released Monday. That sounds like an endorsement of the diplomatic strategy pursued by the Bush administration since 2005, which has been aimed at forcing Iran to choose between the nuclear program and normal economic and security relations with the outside world. It strengthens the view, which we have previously endorsed, that this administration should not have to resort to military action to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities.

But there is bad news, too, which seems likely to be overlooked by those who have been resisting sanctions and other pressure on the mullahs all along, such as Russia, China and some members of the European Union. While U.S. intelligence agencies have "high confidence" that covert work on a bomb was suspended "for at least several years" after 2003, there is only "moderate confidence" that Tehran has not restarted the military program. Iran's massive overt investment in uranium enrichment meanwhile proceeds in defiance of binding U.N. resolutions, even though Tehran has no legitimate use for enriched uranium. The U.S. estimate of when Iran might produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb -- sometime between late 2009 and the middle of the next decade -- hasn't changed.

"Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons," says the summary's second sentence. Yet within hours of the report's release, European diplomats and some U.S officials were saying that it could kill an arduous American effort to win support for a third U.N. Security Council resolution sanctioning Iran for failing to suspend uranium enrichment. It could also hinder separate U.S.-French efforts to create a new sanctions coalition outside the United Nations. In other words, the new report may have the effect of neutering the very strategy of pressure that it says might be effective if "intensified."

President Bush yesterday vowed to continue pushing for international sanctions. But Democrats and some Republicans are arguing that now is the time for the Bush administration to begin a broad dialogue with Iran -- and drop a precondition that the regime first suspend uranium enrichment. It's an odd time to recommend such a concession: The latest European Union talks with Iran last week were a disaster, in which a new hard-line envoy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad withdrew the previous, inadequate Iranian compromise proposals. Were the Bush administration to abandon its insistence on a suspension of enrichment, Mr. Ahmadinejad would declare victory over the relative moderates in Iran who have recently criticized his uncompromising stance.

That's not to say the United States should never attempt to negotiate directly with Iran about its nuclear program. But before doing so, the administration should have some indication that the Iranian regime is prepared to comply with binding U.N. resolutions and seriously address other U.S. concerns. A report by U.S. intelligence agencies is an unsatisfying substitute for a signal that has yet to come from Tehran.

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