Iran Celebrates the NIE Report

The new assessment by US intelligence agencies, which states that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, has been enthusiastically received by Iranian media and officials.

"Bush is the biggest loser of the US intelligence report" read the headline in Wednesday's edition of the Keyhan newspaper. Similar sentiments were shared by the pro-Ahmadinejad Raja News Agency, which called the report is "a disgrace for the White House."

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself joined in the exultations. While addressing a large crowd in the city of Ilam on Wednesday, he boasted that "the publication of the recent US intelligence report with regards to Iran's nuclear program can be considered as one of the biggest political victories for the people of Iran."

The biggest sigh of relief from inside of Iran comes from moderate and reformist elements who were worried that Ahmadinejad's controversial statements were exactly the excuse President Bush was looking for to launch a military attack against their country. In an article published in the Tehran-based Iran Economist news agency, the editors viewed the findings of the report as an "important block in Bush's efforts to launch a war against Iran."

As well as hoping that the report will avert a US military strike, other Iranian officials are hoping that the report will improve Iran's diplomatic position.

One such official is Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the head of the National Security Commission of the Iranian parliament. In an interview with Fars news agency on Wednesday, Boroujerdi predicted that the global coverage of the report would trigger a "change in the current anti-Iran atmosphere in the international community."

Boroujerdi's hopes are quite likely to be realized. The new US intelligence report will certainly be a very useful reference for such countries as Russia and China, who have been very hesitant to impose sanctions against Iran. After this report, they can back away from any effort to pressure Iran with more ease.

The biggest victor is likely to be Ahmadinejad. He has been saying all along that Iran is not making a bomb. Now he has the stamp of approval from Washington, no less, to back his claims.

This seems to be worrying some of his rivals, both outside and inside of Iran. The Israeli government is clearly its most concerned neighbor. Not only does Israel differ with Washington in its assessment of Iran's nuclear program; Jerusalem is worried that the report may be interpreted as a clean bill of health for Iran's nuclear program by its supporters. This would allow Tehran to continue with its enrichment program, as well as the hidden parallel program which Israel believes Iran continues to operate today, with little concern.

Meanwhile, there are officials inside Iran who are concerned that the political victory handed to Ahmadinejad by the report will enable him to walk away from negotiations. This is a valid concern. After the report, Ahmadinejad and his allies such as Saeed Jalili, the current top nuclear negotiator, can say that Iran has been exonerated and that therefore there is no need to negotiate with the EU because there is nothing to discuss.

One such concerned official is Ali Larijani, Ahmadinejad's rival and Iran's former top nuclear negotiator. In a special television interview with Iran's Channel One, which broadcast the day after the release of the US intelligence report, Larijani called for Iran to maintain its relationship with the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana. This is due to Solana's perceived closeness with Mohammad El Baradei, the head of the IAEA. Larijani reiterated this point by stating that Iran's improved relationship with the IAEA (evident in the IAEA's recent positive finding that "Iran has been generally truthful about key aspects of its nuclear history") was a result of Iran's good relationship with the EU. Ali Larijani, who is worried that his years of work and confidence-building with Solana may now be abandoned by Ahmadinejad, warned that ignoring negotiations with the EU may enable the US to start increasing pressure, despite the new US intelligence report's positive findings concerning Iran.

Larijani does have a point. President Bush is not about to give up his goal of forbidding Iran to procure the knowledge necessary to go nuclear, at least as long as he is in power.

Judging by Bush's speech this week, Iran may have won the battle but not the war.

Meir Javedanfar is the co-author of "The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran." He runs Middle East Economic and Political Analysis (Meepas)