Analysis: An exercise in mountain-climbing

If the threat of a US attack on Iran is now more distant, so is that of greatly strengthened sanctions.

ahmadinejad makes point  (photo credit: AP)
ahmadinejad makes point
(photo credit: AP)
The US State Department's No. 3 said Wednesday that the US would continue to press for UN sanctions against Iran and that its defiance of the international community remained as much a cause for concern as ever. "There is still an enrichment and reprocessing program which is overt," US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told reporters during a visit to Australia. "They still have a ballistic missile development program which the Iranians talk about and boast about." Speaking two days after a US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) found that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, Burns said, "Our view is that there's every reason for all of us to continue with the efforts in the UN Security Council." Burns noted America's continued efforts to get Russian and Chinese backing for stronger sanctions if Iran did not stop enriching uranium. "We are going to continue to work with the Chinese government, with the Russian government, with France and Germany on a third Security Council sanctions resolution," he said. But what was already an uphill battle by the United States to build an international consensus on the need to take strong action against Iran became an exercise in mountain-climbing following the intelligence report. Despite the insistence of the Bush administration - and many Iran experts - that the report's findings changed little, if anything, about the dangers of the Iranian regime, politically, both at home and abroad, everything's different. Iran experts echo the Bush administration's insistence that Iran is still a threat and that its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment - a key capability for building a nuclear bomb - creates a danger that it could easily weaponize even if it has halted its weapons program for now. "The NIE only suggests that Teheran has changed its sequence - something that does not slow the country's progress toward a nuclear weapon by a single day," wrote Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy following the release of the report. "The NIE states that Iran is making a headlong rush to produce enriched uranium - an attitude that does not support Teheran's claims of a strictly peaceful nuclear program. Indeed, the NIE's information about Iran's enrichment program is inconsistent with any claim that the regime has abandoned its interest in nuclear weapons," Clawson wrote, and cited the UN International Atomic Energy Agency's assessment that it would only take "a few months" for Iran to produce nuclear weapons once its openly acknowledged fuel-cycle facilities were completed. Yet even if the Iranian nuclear policy and its capabilities have changed little this week, the political fallout has been intense. Democrats, who have long criticized US President George W. Bush for intelligence failures that helped spur the war in Iraq, have seized on this intelligence report - and its seeming contradiction of recent administration statements that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons - to shed further doubt on how the president uses information to pursue his policy goals. That makes a public already wary of moves toward another military conflict in the Middle East even less likely to give the administration the benefit of the doubt in its warnings on Iran. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat running for president, pounded that point home in a teleconference Tuesday. "After all we've been through, for this president to knowingly disregard or once again misrepresent intelligence about the issue of war and peace, I find it outrageous," he told reporters. One Washington-based political observer noted that the liberal anti-war base of the Democratic party has already been hammering Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, for her past vote in favor of the war in Iraq and recent move to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist group. Her opponents, the observer said, would seize on this NIE report and urge restraint with Iran to show off their anti-war credentials. And if the report emboldens those on the Left who were always against the concept of military action in Iran, the impression the report gives that the Iranian threat is not immediate also lessens the feeling of fear that might motivate moderates to back a harsher stance. As Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and now a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution's Saban Center, said Tuesday, Bush is now seen as lacking a rationale for such an aggressive stand. The argument that "we don't care that it stopped, we're going to bomb it anyway" wouldn't, as he said, "pass the laugh test in Washington." And if the threat of a US attack on Iran is now more distant, so is that of greatly strengthened sanctions, which have long faced Russian and Chinese foot-dragging for economic and political reasons - and to some extent Europe. "Fear of American military action was always the primary reason Europeans pressured Teheran. Fear of an imminent Iranian bomb was secondary," Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in The Washington Post Wednesday. "Bringing Europeans together in support of serious sanctions was difficult before the NIE. Now it is impossible." AP contributed to this report.