By Shen Dingli
The US National Intelligence Committee (NIC) concludes in the 2007 assessment of Iran's nuclear program, published earlier this month, that the US intelligence community is now quite sure Iran suspended its nuclear arms program in fall 2003 and is very unlikely to be developing nuclear weapons right now.
The words rocked the world like a nuclear blast. Did the US intelligence community just prove itself wrong? Has it hogtied President Bush's Iran policy in the time left before he moves out of the White House by branding it ill-founded? What were they thinking?
How should we interpret the assessment anyway? Judging by the effect alone, this writer's analysis of the assessment report is this: Its core element should help President Bush out of a bind while keeping the noose around Iran's and some other countries' necks, and may contribute to casting Bush's place in history in a positive light.
First off, the report has confirmed that Iran was developing nuclear weapons between the 1980s and 2003, and that the secret program broke the country's promise to the international community that it would not build such weapons.
In other words, the pressure the international community has put on Iran over the nuclear issue all these years is justified. The International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) have not pressured and penalized Iran because they caught the Gulf nation building nuclear bombs, but because Teheran had been secretly pursuing a nuclear program and has been reluctant to come totally clean about it. That's why Iran has been banned from uranium enrichment.
The US intelligence assessment gives people no reason to assume the Iran nuclear issue is now resolved, or that it is time to stop or ease sanctions against the country. On the contrary, as long as people believe the US intelligence assessment is still worth something, then its conclusions that Iran was covertly developing nuclear weapons up until fall 2003 should stand.
Although Iran has suspended its nuclear program, the fact that it has not been very cooperative in clarifying its past nuclear work warrants continued sanctions by the international community. And as long as Teheran continues to enrich uranium in defiance of relevant UNSC resolutions, some believe the country deserves further punishments for thumbing its nose at the security council and for violating the UN Charter.
The bottom line laid out in the NIC report is: Iran did try to develop nuclear arms. That conclusion should keep Tehran's hands tied and stiffen the resolve of those countries that already back sanctions until Iran fully complies with relevant UNSC resolutions.
It is fair to say the NIC's conclusions are tougher on Iran than the IAEA's reports are. The latter has yet to say beyond reasonable doubt that it is sure Iran was developing nuclear weapons or intended to. All it has said so far is that there is no evidence Iran is developing nuclear arms or has any plans to do so.
The most recent IAEA report maintains there is no reason to believe Iran is developing nuclear arms, but the international watchdog cannot determine the nature of Iran's past secret nuclear program, and Teheran refuses to comply with an UNSC demand that it stop uranium enrichment, though the pace at which Iran is conducting uranium enrichment is not as fast as the rest of the world previously imagined.
Second, this intelligence assessment may help President Bush out of a bind. The Bush administration has succeeded in pulling two resolutions out of the UNSC authorizing sanctions against Iran, effectively banishing it on ethical and legal grounds.
Since there is basically no evidence that Iran has kept its nuclear program going since fall 2003, it would not make the US safer to continue its current Iran policy without a sound excuse.
Therefore, the NIC assessment helps lay the legal groundwork for the Bush administration to readjust its Iran policy and stop threatening Teheran with possible war. Since Iran is not developing nuclear arms at the moment, it would be a double mistake - in terms of policy goals and means - to keep pressuring Iran with war threats.
What the US is likely to do is, first, continue to press for a thorough investigation into the nature of Iran's past nuclear program so that the conclusions of its intelligence gathering would be verified in the eyes of the international community. That would simultaneously avoid exposing US intelligence agencies' sources and tarnishing Iran's image.
Another thing the US may do is limit Iran's freedom to develop nuclear energy for civilian use through long-term, close monitoring to prevent the country from stepping beyond the requirements of nuclear energy for civilian use. Once the US is let off the hook of threatening Iran with military force, Washington would be able to do more about other global issues.
Also, this assessment could help polish the Bush administration's record in history. It is widely believed the US was wrong to have launched the war in Iraq, which Bush probably knows very well, too.
But this war shocked and awed Libya so much that Tripoli voluntarily gave up its secret nuclear program. This unexpected benefit not only contributed to US security, but also struck a blow for global non-proliferation efforts. Why the Libyan government abandoned its nuclear ambitions is immaterial, the fact that it did so will contribute to regional stability and benefit the human race.
According to the intelligence assessment report, the 2003 war in Iraq might have scared Iran as well as Libya. The US mounted its "pre-emptive strike" against Iraq despite the lack of evidence to prove that Baghdad had weapons of mass destruction and was fiercely criticized by the international community for doing so.
However, the move might have curtailed Iran's secret efforts to develop nuclear weapons. It is possible that the pragmatic leaders of Iran found it necessary to halt the secret arms program after careful consideration.
The NIC's assessment report could enhance the president's place in history, allowing the US to be more assertive in international affairs by freeing Washington's hands in dealing with the Iran nuclear issue. At the same time, it prevents the UNSC from backing away from existing resolutions on sanctions against Teheran because the sanctions have not forced Iran to comply, and Iran could rekindle its nuclear arms ambition when it feels the time is right.
The author is a professor and executive dean of the Institute of International Studies, and director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University.
(China Daily December 18, 2007)