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Analysis: Report takes steam out of Iran hawks

  • Story Highlights
  • National Intelligence Estimate says Iran halted work on nuclear weapons in 2003
  • Major turnaround from 2005 report that said Iran was determined to push ahead
  • Report makes it harder to make the case for strikes against Iran
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From Zain Verjee and Charley Keyes
CNN
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- After months of warning that Iran was racing along a one-way street to developing a nuclear bomb, and after toughening its own sanctions and pushing through restrictions in the United Nations, the U.S. is suddenly changing its tune about Iran's intentions and the timetable of when it might be able to make a bomb.

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A file satellite image shows Iranian nuclear facilities.

The new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran says Iran halted work on nuclear weapons under international scrutiny in 2003 and is unlikely to be able to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb until 2010 to 2015.

The report says there's "high confidence" Iran stopped developing nuclear weapons in autumn 2003, and did so because of international pressure. That's a major turnaround from a 2005 report that Iran was determined to push ahead regardless of international pressure.

"Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it's less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005," the report says.

Amid questions about why the administration got it so wrong, National Security adviser Stephen Hadley responded, saying, "I don't think we were wrong about what it's doing or what its intentions were. Our concern was that they were pursuing a nuclear weapon. We saw the enrichment, which we couldn't really explain. We saw the ballistic missiles. And it led people to conclude we are concerned that they were pursuing a nuclear weapons program."

Gary Sick, a former National Security Council adviser on Iran during the Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan administrations, said the new take on Iran seemed to come out of the blue. "It was completely unexpected," he said, adding that Iran's decision not to proceed rapidly on a nuclear program suggests that it's open for discussion on the nuclear issue.

Sick says the administration will try to put the best face on this report, arguing that it shows U.S. pressure on Iran works, but the "reality is that this punches a hole in the push for sanctions and undercuts the conventional wisdom that Iran is close to a bomb."

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He also noted the report could strengthen Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's own position in dealing with Iran. She's been standing up to Vice President Dick Cheney and other Iran hawks, advocating direct contacts with Iran, while maintaining a tough posture.

The U.S. is pushing for a third sanctions resolution against Iran and is trying to get Russia and China on board. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called weekend discussions on more sanctions against Iran "constructive."

The NIE report will make it harder for the Bush administration to make the case for strikes against Iran.

Joe Cirincione of the Center for American Progress says the report "undercuts the argument for a military strike and strengthens the case for engagement." He says there was never any good evidence of a crash bomb program, and he and many experts always believed Iran was years away from the ability to make nuclear fuel or a nuclear bomb. "This is not a nuclear bomb crisis. This is a nuclear diplomacy crisis."

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Hadley said the administration is already on the right track, saying "the estimate offers grounds for hope that the problem can be solved diplomatically without the use of force, as the administration has been trying to do, and it suggests we have the right strategy -- intensified international pressure along with a willingness to negotiate a solution that serves Iranian interests while ensuring the world that it will never have to face a nuclear armed Iran."

Rand Beers, president of the National Security Network, says with this report comes a diplomatic window of opportunity. "This report demonstrates a clear opening for U.S. policy in terms of engaging on mutual interests with Iran throughout the Middle East. Anything short of doing this will be a missed opportunity." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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