Is Iran's nuclear program still active?
The Guardian quotes senior British diplomatic sources as saying that Teheran could still be developing nuclear weapons, despite an American NIE finding that work on building a bomb stopped in 2003.
For the first time, a senior British diplomat cast doubt on the US National Intelligence Estimate published last November which reported "with high confidence" that Tehran's nuclear weapons programme had been halted in autumn 2003. The NIE also judged "with moderate confidence" that the programme had not been restarted.
The intelligence report blocked momentum towards US military action and delayed the passing of a third sanctions resolution against Tehran - a mild version of which was approved this week in an effort to persuade Iran to suspend enrichment of uranium. But the senior British diplomat claimed there was no serious evidence that Iran's efforts to build a nuclear weapon had halted.
The British diplomat cited "evidence against Iran presented in Vienna last week by Olli Heinonen, the chief investigator at the International Atomic Energy Agency" who had documents including an organizational chart "linking a variety of nuclear weapons projects", instructions for concealing true names and a "report on a weapons project for a period up to January 14 2004, months after the end date suggested in the NIE".
My guess is that the British have classified information tending to support their belief the Iranians are still building nuclear weapons but are following the time-honored practice of citing only open source proof for conclusions their clandestine sources suggest are true.
All intelligence assessments are subject to change. In an ordinary world the NIE assessment of 2007 that Iran had stopped building weapons in 2003 would be revised the instant new information came in. It would have no special sanctity. But in the world of politics, intelligence is used not to provide a snapshot of the current best estimate but to anchor perceptions. And because the NIE of 2007 plays to the antiwar lobby's agenda it will tend to remain valid, whatever new evidence emerges, eternally. That inertia was already in evidence.
The forcefulness of Heinonen's presentation caused rifts within the IAEA, irritating the agency's director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, who has sought to defuse international tensions over Iran's nuclear programme.
Addressing the IAEA board on Monday, ElBaradei said his inspectors had resolved all but one of the unanswered questions over Iran's nuclear programme, the exception being the weaponisation studies.
However, Smith, speaking on behalf of Britain, Germany and France at the IAEA board yesterday, said Iran's cooperation had been "abysmal". "Over a wide range of issues on which the agency asked for clarification the answers are less than satisfactory," he said.
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