Iran's nuclear ambitions fall long way short of weapons

Thu, Feb 23, 2012, 00:00

OPINION: US intelligence reports fail to endorse hawkish views of Tehran’s intent

EOGHAN MURPHY (“Best to avoid conflict over Iran’s nuclear ambitions”, February 20th) seems to regard Iran’s development of nuclear weapons as inevitable, but is understandably reluctant to contemplate military action to prevent this happening.

But is Tehran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons inevitable? The assessment of the US intelligence services is that Iran hasn’t got an active nuclear weapons programme. Director of the US National Intelligence Agency James Clapper reported this to the Senate armed services committee on February 16th last week. He said: “We assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons . . . We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”

Asked by the committee chairman to confirm that in his opinion Tehran has not yet made the decision, the director stated unequivocally: “That is the intelligence community’s assessment.”

US defence secretary Leon Panetta gave the same assessment to another congressional committee last week. He said Iran has not made a decision on whether to proceed with development of an atomic bomb.

This has been the consistent view of the US intelligence services since November 2007, when, in a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) they judged that Tehran had halted its nuclear weapons programme in the autumn of 2003. This assessment had a significant impact on US government policy – it caused then president George W Bush to abandon any thought of taking military action despite the prompting of then vice-president Cheney. In his memoir, Decision Points, Bush wrote that the assessment “tied my hands on the military side. After the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?”

Every year at this time, the US intelligence services give evidence to congressional committees about threats to the US. Every year since November 2007, the evidence has included the assessment that Iran hadn’t taken a decision to build nuclear weapons.

It also seems that the Israeli intelligence services take a similar view. In response to another committee member, Clapper said: “If your question is, do we and the Israelis largely agree, then the answer’s ‘yes’.” Director of the Defence Intelligence Agency Gen Roland Burgess agreed: “Generally speaking our assessments track with one another, they comport.”

Eoghan Murphy relies on last November’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report to justify his assumption that Iran is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. But does the report warrant such an interpretation?

In the Daily Telegraph on January 23rd, Peter Jenkins, the UK’s ambassador to the IAEA from 2001-2006, wrote of the report’s findings: “The IAEA says that prior to 2003 Iran researched some of the know-how needed for a weapon . . . The IAEA has not reported evidence of attempts to produce nuclear weapons, or of a decision to do so.”

And it is worth emphasising that the US intelligence assessment, as reported to Congress last week, has not changed at all from a year ago.

Is there a way out of the impasse? Jenkins suggested a possible basis for a deal between the West and Iran about its nuclear programme, based on an offer made by Iran in 2005. In a speech at the UN in September 2005, President Ahmadinejad proposed: “As a further confidence building measure and in order to provide the greatest degree of transparency, the Islamic Republic of Iran is prepared to engage in serious partnership with private and public sectors of other countries in the implementation of uranium enrichment program in Iran.”

The proposal went well beyond Iran’s obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to subject its enrichment facilities to international supervision. Unfortunately, the proposal was rejected by the UK, France and Germany, who were then engaged in negotiations with Iran about its nuclear programme.

The policy at that time, shared with the US, was to stop enrichment on Iranian soil permanently. This policy was integral to proposals made by the UK, France and Germany in August 2005 but rejected by Iran.

The UK, France and Germany, backed by the US, were proposing that Iran accept permanent second-class treatment under the treaty, with fewer rights than others. That was not on.

Is it still EU policy, and that of the US, to treat Iran as second-class party to the treaty? If so, no deal is possible. But if Iran is accorded its rights under the treaty to nuclear activity for peaceful purposes, then a deal may be possible along the lines proposed by Iran in 2005.

Pádraig Mac Lochlainn TD is Sinn Féin spokesman on foreign affairs and trade

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