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U.S. Intelligence Report Complicates Iran Debate

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U.S. Intelligence Report Complicates Iran Debate

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U.S. Intelligence Report Complicates Iran Debate

U.S. Intelligence Report Complicates Iran Debate

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Western diplomats at the United Nations are trying to persuade the Security Council to pass a new sanctions resolution on Iran. But some wonder why now, especially in the wake of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that said Iran suspended a secret nuclear weapons program in 2003.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Western diplomats at the United Nations are hoping the security council will pass a new round of sanctions on Iran before the end of this month to increase the pressure on that government to curb its nuclear ambitions. But the drive for sanctions has been a frustrating and some say futile effort. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The five permanent members may now be on board with a watered-down draft sanctions resolution, but Britain's ambassador to the U.N. John Sawers, says some others on the council are wondering what's the rush.

Amb. JOHN SAWERS (Britain's ambassador to the U.N.): Some of the members of the council are asking why do we deem to do this now? And we've got a very good answer for that, and that is that we do not have confidence that Iran's program is exclusively for peaceful purposes and until we are confident, we don't want Iran to develop the most sensitive nuclear technologies.

KELEMEN: The draft sanctions resolutions now circulating is not a dramatic departure from two previous security council resolutions. Ambassador Sawers says more Iranian individuals and companies will face travel bands and asset freezes.

Amb. SAWERS: And it's also empowering member states to search Iranian planes and ships that call at their airports and ports, if there is a reason to suspect they might be carrying proliferation-sensitive activity. Now these are measures which have been issues before, in the context for example of North Korea, and they have had an effect.

KELEMEN: But the language and the sanctions in the draft are softer than western diplomats had hoped. Ambassador Sawers says the U.S. intelligence estimate, that said Iran halted a nuclear weapons program back in 2003, made it tougher to agree on more punishing steps.

Amb. SAWERS: The NIE gave a rather, if I may put it this way, some false reassurance about Iranian intentions, because it focused on one particular dimension, i.e. whether there was a weaponization program under way.

KELEMEN: Mike McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, told senators this past week that if given more time to think about it, he probably would have written the unclassified version of the NIE a bit differently to emphasize other parts of Iran's nuclear research.

Vice Admiral MIKE MCCONNELL (Director of National Intelligence): There are three parts to a nuclear program. The only thing that they've halted was nuclear weapons design, which is probably the least significant part of the program.

KELEMEN: The Bush administration and its allies want to stop Iran from enriching uranium, which could be used for a bomb, and that is what the push for sanctions has been all about. They've also offered Iran a package of diplomatic and economic incentives and Iran hasn't responded to that. French Ambassador Pierre Vimont told members of the Middle East Institute at a recent luncheon that he thinks the West needs to recognize Iran's growing political influence in the region.

Amb. PIERRE VIMONT (Ambassador of France to the United States): If we all agree that really what Iran is looking for is to play a more influential part in the affairs of the region and maybe even further on in the affairs of the international community, then I think we have to make it clear to them that we're quite prepared to do that. But if we want to do that and if we want to go ahead with that, they have to be more flexible on the question of their nuclear program and accept the suspension.

KELEMEN: French officials say he wasn't signaling any shift in policy, just signaling frustration that the process diplomats set up hasn't yet succeeded. Gary Sick, a professor at Columbia University, thinks the process is bankrupt.

Dr. GARY SICK (Senior Research Scholar and Adjunct Professor of International Affairs, Columbia University): All we ever talk about is adding more sanctions until Iran finally gives up, and I don't know of anybody in the European side or the American side, who genuinely believes that another round of sanctions, which is likely to be pretty mild, is going to make Iran really change its policies. So what are we doing here?

KELEMEN: Sick doesn't believe the goal of zero uranium enrichment is feasible now that Iran is firmly on that path. He said diplomatic efforts should focus on ways to keep Iran as far away as possible from making a bomb. But while the need for a change in approach is percolating in think tanks and in academia, Sick says it's hard to see much happening before the next U.S. administration comes to office.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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