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Iran: Tehran Seizes On U.S. Nuclear Turnaround

Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant. Tehran insists that its nuclear program is strictly peaceful ( Rare is a U.S. intelligence report that seems to strike joy in the hearts of Iranian leaders. But a new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which concludes that Iran is not currently at work on a nuclear weapons program, appears to have done just that.

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, speaking in Tehran after the NIE on Iran was released in Washington on December 3, welcomed the report, saying, "of course we are pleased."

The NIE, which is considered the most authoritative written U.S. intelligence judgment, represents the consensus view of 16 intelligence agencies.

The last NIE on Iran in 2005 expressed “high confidence that Iran currently is determined to have nuclear weapons.” Two years later, the new NIE states with an equal degree of “high confidence” that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The report, which said it is “moderately confident” the weapons program has remained inactive since then, is largely seen by Western analysts as likely to blunt arguments in Washington for military strikes to stop Iran’s nuclear drive.

So far, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have not yet publicly reacted to the report -- nor have any so-called moderates led by former President Mohammad Khatami. But Mottaki was echoed by officials from both the “pragmatic conservative” camp of former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and the “ultraconservative” grouping led by Ahmadinejad.

The head of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Borujerdi, who is considered a pragmatic conservative, was quoted by the IRNA news agency as saying that the report has "nullified" claims by U.S. administration officials that Iran "is thinking of producing nuclear bombs." He said those officials are "under the strong influence of the Zionist lobby" and had wanted to deflect attention from Israel’s nuclear program, but added that the NIE should now provide the basis for a new U.S. approach to Iran.

Another committee member, Elham Aminzadeh, told IRNA that the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush should apologize to Iranians, and that the UN Security Council should cancel economic sanctions on Iran. She added that the great powers and international bodies should compensate Iran for the moral and financial harm it has suffered from sanctions, and allow it to resume unrestricted trade and business around the world.

Iranian government spokesman Gholamhussein Elham also said the United States must pay for the damage its "lies" had inflicted on Iran, IRNA reported. He told reporters in Tehran that Iran would continue its nuclear program "on the basis of international treaties," and insisted that its activities are supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog.

Mohammad Ali Hosseini, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that the report “contains good news for the European partners” of the United States, such as Germany, Britain, and France -- all of which have been involved in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.

Those European Union countries, known as the EU-3 in their negotiations with Iran, have been considering backing a third round of harsher UN sanctions on Iran for failing to suspend uranium enrichment as demanded by Security Council resolutions. But Hosseini said that in light of the U.S. report, the EU-3 can revise their approach and choose “wise and practical" decisions rather than further punitive measures.

Hosseini added that the most important part of the NIE is that “it shows that what Bush and other U.S. officials claimed about the ‘dangers’ of Iran’s nuclear program is baseless and fabricated.”

Iranian officials have not commented on the NIE assessment "with high confidence" that "until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons." The U.S. intelligence agencies go on to conclude "with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons."

Meanwhile, observers were waiting with bated breath for Ahmadinejad's and Khamenei's reactions to set the tone of the Iranian debate. But moderates and pragmatic conservatives were expected to use the U.S. report as an opportunity to push for more talks with the United States. Indeed, IRNA quoted some "observers" as saying that "the U.S. is getting ready for a grand bargain with Iran.”

Shahram Chubin, an Iranian-born analyst, expressed a similar view in an interview with RFE/RL’s Radio Farda. “I think what happens now is a much more deliberate effort by the Europeans to push the U.S. to engage Iran across the board,” said Chubin, who is the director of research at the Geneva Centre for Security Studies. He said any such talks should “look for a solution that, on the one hand, allows Iran some [uranium] enrichment, and on the other hand, allows more intensified or more intrusive [nuclear] inspections.”

(RFE/RL's Golnaz Esfandiari, Iraj Gorgin, and Vahid Sepehri contributed to this report.)

RFE/RL Iran Report

RFE/RL Iran Report

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