Daily Telegraph – Leaders: Seldom can a single document have caused quite such a stir. The National Intelligence Estimate, compiled by the US government’s 16 intelligence agencies, has stood the conventional wisdom on Iran’s nuclear weapons programme on its head. The Daily Telegraph
Seldom can a single document have caused quite such a stir. The National Intelligence Estimate, compiled by the US government’s 16 intelligence agencies, has stood the conventional wisdom on Iran’s nuclear weapons programme on its head. Teheran is not, it seems, engaged in the development of nuclear warheads after all. That weapons programme was put on ice in 2003 and, as far as the NIE can tell, there it remains.
Before popping the champagne, it is as well to remember that the NIE issued a report just over two years ago saying exactly the opposite. In its May 2005 analysis, it said that it had “high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons”. Yet that gloomy assessment was made, according to this week’s report, when the nuclear programme had already been on hold for two years. Intelligence may be an inexact science but this looks positively perverse. It argues for taking the NIE assessment with a generous pinch of salt: another one could come along in a year or two saying something else again.
The report may require a health warning but its impact is clear cut. It marks a striking victory for Washington’s realists – notably Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – over the hawks who dominated foreign policy during George W Bush’s first term but whose influence has waned. The realists may, however, come to regret the consequences of this hand-brake turn. The prospects of a new UN resolution imposing tougher sanctions against Iran now look remote. Why should Iran’s cheerleaders in Moscow and Beijing support the intensification of pressure on Teheran when Washington itself is saying there is no nuclear threat? It also appears to kill the prospect of a pre-emptive unilateral military strike against Iran, certainly in the foreseeable future. This was thought by many to be President Bush’s last item of unfinished business. It looks now as though it will stay that way. The President’s language yesterday was telling. He insisted Iran would continue to be a danger as long as it has the knowledge to develop nuclear weapons. That is a markedly different tone from his warning in October that a nuclear-armed Iran could trigger World War Three. Teheran will be breathing a little easier today.
The British Government was right to put some distance between itself and the intelligence estimate by stressing that Iran remains a dangerous threat. It also happens to be an enemy of this country – its munitions and insurgents are killing British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel was also unmoved by the U-turn; the defence minister, Ehud Barak, said his government believed that while the nuclear programme may have been suspended for a while, it had been re-started. Such caution is surely sensible. It would be foolhardy on the strength of just one intelligence assessment to lower our guard. On the face of it, the world might seem a safer place. In reality, it is anything but.