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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 December 2007, 10:55 GMT
US report cools crisis on Iran
By Paul Reynolds
BBC world affairs correspondent

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pictured last month
Iran will claim the NIE report as a victory, say analysts

The US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran has acted like a safety valve, letting off the steam that had been building up over a possible American military attack.

It is also likely to make it more difficult to significantly increase international sanctions.

Russia and China in particular might argue that Iran is contained for the moment.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin remarked the other day that there was no "concrete evidence" that Iran was building a bomb and his judgment is now accepted by the US intelligence report.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei had also expressed a similar opinion.

'Astounding'

"This is an astounding conclusion," said Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

"The assessment in 2005 that Iran had a nuclear weapons programme was based on evidence from a hard drive handed over by a defector.

George W Bush at White House in May 2006
George W Bush says Iran is building nuclear weapons

"Since then Western intelligence agencies have tried to find out if Iran had continued with that programme. In fact, they have decided that it did not.

"This is a new and important development. It removes any possibility of a military strike in the next year. There would be no substantive cause and no public support.

"It also shows that lessons have been learned from Iraq. The US intelligence agencies are determined to show their independence from political influence."

Sanctions still possible

The question of sanctions remains an active one, however, because Iran is still defying the UN Security Council over its enrichment of uranium.

As the NIE pointed out, Iran is still developing one of the key elements of building nuclear weapons.

The debate among Security Council members is reaching another decisive point.

Bushehr nuclear reactor
Iran will claim the NIE report as a victory, say analysts

The US, France and the UK have urged much tougher economic measures, including boycotts of Iran's oil and gas industry, the source of its income.

But neither Russia nor China look set to go that far.

China in particular has investments in Iran's energy fields that it needs to fuel its economic development.

If the Security Council fails to act, Britain and France will probably ask the EU to follow the US in taking unilateral measures, especially the reduction or cutting off of export credits to Iran.

But again, if the heat is off following the NIE report, some EU countries that export heavily to Iran might be reluctant to go as far as they otherwise might have.

Iran wins?

So does this mean that Iran has essentially won?

It will certainly be seen that way in Iran.

The Iranian government seems to prefer to live with sanctions than to give up what it has projected to its people as a national symbol of modernisation and independence.

The NIE judgment is very much in line with the views of those who thought Iran had probably not decided whether to build nuclear weapons (and after all, it always said that it did not intend to do so) but was keeping its options open for the future.

The prospect now is for the standoff to continue indefinitely but at a much lower temperature.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

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