The Intelligence Report and U.S.-Iran Diplomacy

According to this week's National Intelligence Estimate, Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program four years ago. President Bush reacted to the report by saying it confirms that pressure on Iran has worked, and Iran is still dangerous.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Despite the current situation, NPR's senior news analyst Ted Koppel says the new NIE gives the U.S. and Iran an opportunity for a fresh start.

TED KOPPEL: How embarrassing - all l6 U.S. intelligence agencies have now concluded, with a high degree of confidence no less, that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003. This would seem to suggest that for the past four years, the Bush administration has been needlessly saber-rattling to prevent something that isn't happening.

Interesting though, isn't it? If U.S. intelligence is right - and remember, this is the same group that reached exactly the opposite conclusion two years ago. But if they are right now, how do we explain that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program four years ago? What happened back in 2003?

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl, the last in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was named best picture of the year and, oh, yes, the United States invaded Iran's neighbor, Iraq. Do you think the presence of 135,000 U.S. troops on the ground next door might suggest to Iran's leadership that the aggressive pursuit of the nuclear weapons program just then might not be the most sensible course of action?

It makes a certain amount of sense, doesn't it? Having said that, I'm reminded of what the late Israeli Foreign Minister Aba Eban said about the Palestinians. They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. If indeed the Iranians have frozen their nuclear weapons program - and since it looks as though a significant number of U.S. troops will still be in Iraq for sometime to come -why not engage in some active, direct diplomacy, Washington and Tehran? The Bush administration has been disinclined to reward bad behavior, but it has also punished good behavior.

While I was in Iran last year, more than one official asked why President Bush gave his speech, naming Iran as part of the axis of evil just after Iran had been very helpful to the United States in Afghanistan. If Iran really has frozen its nuclear weapons program, we're not going to get our allies, let alone the Russians and the Chinese, to impose additional economic sanctions. As for a preemptive strike, what exactly would we be targeting? This may, in fact, be the ideal time to engage Iran in serious bilateral discussions.

The Democrats can say that's what they've wanted all along, and the Republicans can claim credit, saying it's only possible because President Bush invaded Iraq. Everybody wins.

This is Ted Koppel.

SIEGEL: And you can read a sampling of opinion about Iran and the latest NIE from publications around the world at NPR.org.

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