Iran Nuclear NewsRelax? Don't. Iran can still build its bomb

Relax? Don’t. Iran can still build its bomb

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The Times: Iran says that a newly published US intelligence report proves that its intentions for its nuclear programme are benign. So does Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the United Nations watchdog, who has greeted the report as if it confirms what he has always maintained – that a resolution of the row with Iran is within reach. However, the offers no reassurance; on the contrary, it supports fears that Iran could soon have nuclear weapons. The Times

Bronwen Maddox, Chief Foreign Commentator

Iran says that a newly published US intelligence report proves that its intentions for its nuclear programme are benign. So does Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the United Nations watchdog, who has greeted the report as if it confirms what he has always maintained – that a resolution of the row with Iran is within reach. However, the offers no reassurance; on the contrary, it supports fears that Iran could soon have nuclear weapons. It argues that Iran has been deterred from pursuing them mainly by the fear of US military action, a fear that has now faded.

That may seem like support for the case for tough action against Iran, and yesterday Downing Street and President Bush were keen to emphasise the seriousness of the threat. But it seems that the report’s conclusions will be even more easily appropriated by the doves, partly because ElBaradei has thrown his weight behind that interpretation.

That is regrettable. The report makes clear the seriousness of the threat, not the opposite. But one rider is necessary: the report would have far more power to convince if it included evidence of the weapons programme that it says existed. Such evidence has eluded UN inspections, and there must be a whisper of doubt – which, after Iraq, the US cannot afford – that the US does not possess it in solid form. The National Intelligence Estimate, compiled from reports by US spies, says that Iran stopped pursuing nuclear weapons in 2003, after the invasion of Iraq. That marks a shift from two years ago, when a similar report concluded that Iran was still pursuing such efforts in secret, as well as the civilian work it openly discloses.

As diplomatic accusations go, this is something like “Did you stop beating your wife in 2003?” But Iran has appeared delighted to be challenged in this way, focusing only on the assertion that it has now stopped a programme whose existence it has never admitted to. Manouchehr Mottaki, the Foreign Minister, said that the report showed that “the current trend of Iran’s nuclear activities is peaceful”.

That isn’t quite what the report says, but it is a pity that it doesn’t say more. The unclassified summary, released on Monday, says that US agencies have concluded that Iran halted work to design a nuclear weapon in 2003 and that they are “moderately confident” that it has not resumed.

Iran, which has always denied military ambitions, says that its current work is designed to make reactor fuel. But alarm has risen because of its long history of concealment, its continued obstruction of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency and its mastery of uranium enrichment, which can make fuel but also fissile material for bombs.

It is a mystery how ElBaradei, director-general of the IAEA, can think that the report “will help defuse the current crisis”. He added that the US “has no concrete evidence of an ongoing nuclear weapons programme”. Nor does he, as his reports never fail to say. But the IAEA does have a record of consistent obstruction by Iran; ElBaradei’s latest report said that the IAEA’s confidence about the current state of the work had fallen.

It is hard to see why he can be so sanguine about the view that in the very recent past Iran had hopes of nuclear weapons. Or, come to that, about the deduction that the fear of military attack was what persuaded Iran to stop. In the past four years, Iran has become more confident, and its Government more hardline.

There are many good reasons to argue that diplomatic pressure on Iran could yet reap rewards. But the NIE report does not support that stance in the way that ElBaradei and Iran claim; instead, it is a warning of the result of failure.

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