WASHINGTON — The new U.S. intelligence report that says Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 is suddenly raising concerns among the political center and left, as well as conservatives who have long called for a hard line against the Islamic Republic.
Moderate and liberal foreign policy experts said that U.S. intelligence agencies, possibly eager to demonstrate independence from White House political pressure, may have produced a National Intelligence Estimate that is more reassuring than it should be on the potential risks of the Iranian nuclear program.
The report, made public Monday, contradicted the Bush administration's assertion that Iran has been secretly working to build nuclear weapons. It also found that Tehran, which says it is enriching uranium solely for civilian energy purposes, appears to have a pragmatic view and has responded to outside pressure and economic sanctions, in contrast to characterizations by administration hawks.
For years, President Bush's anti-Tehran vitriol has drowned out the more circumspect voices in the U.S. foreign policy establishment who nonetheless agree Iran poses a concern. But with this week's report, many experts worried that the pressure they believe is needed to counter Tehran now may dissipate.
Iran expert Ray Takeyh, a former professor at the National War College and National Defense University, said that although his own politics are left of the president's, he agrees with Bush that Iran's nuclear program is a continuing threat.
"The position I take is that President Bush is right on this," said Takeyh, now at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Takeyh, who has long argued for engaging Iran in diplomacy, said the intelligence report was too easy on Tehran by not objecting to the uranium enrichment program, which many Western governments have alleged is meant to build the knowledge base to eventually develop nuclear weapons. The American intelligence agencies, in effect, accepted Iran's contention that the enrichment is for peaceful purposes, Takeyh said.
After the report's release, Bush pledged to maintain pressure on Iran and lobbied for international support. On Thursday, French and German leaders meeting in Paris said they favored continued pressure, although German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not commit herself to backing harsher United Nations sanctions sought by the United States.
The new U.S. intelligence estimate has made any new economic sanctions unlikely, most analysts agree, since it has given nations such as Russia and China a reason to give the benefit of the doubt to Iran, their ally and business partner. As a result, experts of varying political affiliations in Washington believe that efforts to successfully apply pressure on Iran have been hurt by the report.
At the same time, they say, it is questionable whether the Islamic Republic has been responsive to international pressure, as the report suggests.
Sharon Squassoni, a former government nuclear safeguards expert now with the generally liberal Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, noted that the intelligence report said Iran suspended its enrichment program in 2003 and later signed an agreement allowing U.N. inspections.
But, she said, the portion of the report made public was silent on the fact that the Iranians reversed both actions in 2006.
The ability to develop fissile materials is the most important element of a nuclear weapons program, she told reporters.
Gary Samore, who was a top arms control official in the Clinton White House, agreed that the National Intelligence Estimate did not adequately emphasize Iran's continuing efforts to enrich uranium and build missiles.
"The halting of the weaponization program in 2003 is less important from a proliferation standpoint than resumption of the enrichment program in 2006," said Samore, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Samore said the report undermined Bush's warnings about Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons and left Tehran in a strong position, allowing it to develop its enrichment capacity without a substantial challenge from the United States and its allies. The secret weaponization program is "on ice," he said, but Iran preserves the option to resume that when it wishes.
Though American intelligence officials believe Iran has been enriching uranium at a concentration that could only be used for civilian energy purposes, analysts fear that the same basic technology could eventually be used to kick-start a weapons program.
Anthony Lake, who was a national security advisor to President Clinton, found no fault with the intelligence report. But he said a key message was the importance of taking action.
"While we've got more time, we've got to use the time, because the enrichment activities are continuing," Lake said in an interview.