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Iran: Does the U.S. need a new policy?

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You’d think Iran’s apparent suspension of its nuclear weapons program would be good news, said Paul Richter in the Los Angeles Times. Why, then, are so many people unhappy? Last week, the National Intelligence Estimate, compiled from assessments by the nation’s 16 spy agencies, determined that Tehran stopped trying to make nuclear bombs in 2003. But that analysis, which contradicts previous Bush administration assertions, “is suddenly raising concerns” across the political spectrum. Many moderate and liberal foreign-policy experts believe the report is accurate. They fear, though, that it will “dissipate” the international pressure needed to keep Iran from resuming its weapons program in the near future. Meanwhile, conservatives suspect that the report is wrong, said Robin Wright and Glenn Kessler in The Washington Post. They insist that the NIE has become “politicized” by intelligence officials who dislike President Bush and skewed their findings to undermine his tough stance toward Tehran. So several Republican lawmakers are asking for an investigation into the report’s evidence and conclusions.

The critics are right to distrust this “misleading and dangerous” report, said Valerie Lincy and Gary Milhollin in The New York Times. The Iranians have merely halted nuclear work “that, if discovered, would unambiguously reveal intent to build a weapon.” But they’re proceeding at full speed with every other step of the process. They’re enriching uranium in 3,000 recently installed centrifuges, building a heavy water reactor to extract plutonium, and developing long-distance missile technology. None of this can be explained by mere “civilian applications,” as Tehran insists. With a single order from the mullahs, this activity could easily be redirected into building nuclear warheads. Even the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency recognizes that, said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. An IAEA official said last week, “We don’t buy the American analysis 100 percent.” Who would?

If you read the report, said Jim Walsh in The Boston Globe, you’d see that it rings true. Iran’s mullahs, the intelligence agencies concluded, aren’t mad; they’re rational, and acting out of pure self-interest. When it became clear that weapons research might lead to severe international sanctions, they suspended it. Remember: Even Saddam Hussein mothballed his WMD program in the face of inspections, exposure, and penalties. So the assumption by Bush administration hawks “that Tehran was determined to get the bomb no matter what” was wrong to begin with. By publicly correcting Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, said Thomas Powers in the Los Angeles Times, this NIE marks an important turning point. Clearly, “our intelligence agencies have reclaimed their independence” from an administration that has cherry-picked information to produce worst-case scenarios—and justify pre-emptive wars against unfriendly regimes.

Still, we now have a problem, said Dennis Ross in The New Repub­lic. The NIE may be accurate, but it “has created a new story line,” suggesting that the world can now relax its pressure on Iran. Russia and China already say no more sanctions are necessary, and Europe, with its extensive business ties to Iran, is also likely to take a softer line. That leaves but one option—direct negotiation with the Iranians, said Robert Kagan in The Washington Post. In these talks, the U.S. should insist on full IAEA inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities, demand Tehran stop supporting terrorist groups, and press for human rights within Iran. In return, Iran would be offered full membership in the international community, with all the economic and political benefits that implies. If Iran doesn’t meet these conditions, nothing has been lost. “Beginning talks today does not limit American options in the future.”

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