The publication of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the Iranian nuclear weapons programme by the US intelligence community has taken the world by storm since that estimate contradicts the views of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and concludes that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons programme in the fall of 2003 and has not resumed it.
Firstly a word of appreciation is due to the US National Intelligence Council consisting of 16 Intelligence agencies to come out with such an estimate in opposition to the views of the president, vice president and many powerful senators and congressmen. Unfortunately the NIE has been misinterpreted in many parts of the world, including India.
Some who opposed the Indian government's vote in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in August 2005 and March 2006 are citing the NIE to prove that the Indian vote was unjustified and the US influenced the voting. Nothing can be further from the truth.
The voting in the IAEA in August 2005 and March 2006 was not about whether Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons programme though that consideration was there in the minds of every country represented in the board of governors. It was on the issue whether Iran collaborated adequately with the IAEA to enable that body to certify that there were no clandestine programmes, hidden materials etc.
Director General of IAEA Mohammed El Baradei, who stood up to the US pressure on the issue of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and won the Nobel Peace Prize, was telling the board of governors that Iran had not at that time satisfied the IAEA. There was no need for India to have an elaborate intelligence apparatus to know details of the Iranian nuclear weapons programme as has been queried by pro-Iranian lobbies in India.
Let us now see what El Baradei while welcoming the NIE said. He declared the agency had no concrete evidence of an ongoing nuclear weapons programme or undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran. At the same time he pointed out it should prompt Iran to work actively with the IAEA to clarify specific aspects of its past and present nuclear programme. He called on Iran to accelerate its cooperation with the IAEA and for all parties to enter without delay into negotiations.
Such negotiations were needed to build confidence about the future direction of Iran's nuclear programme. They were also needed to bring about a comprehensive and durable solution that would normalise the relationship between Iran and the international community. While clearing Tehran of an ongoing nuclear weapons programme, the IAEA chief has referred to the problems the agency still has with Iran.
The Iranians, the IAEA, the US and others are all playing a game by obfuscating the real issue. The unspoken issue is that for 16 years Iran dealt with A.Q. Khan of Pakistan to develop clandestine uranium enrichment centrifuge programme and kept it outside the purview of the IAEA and thereby breached its obligations under the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Till today the nature and scope of that programme have not been fully clarified to the full satisfaction of the IAEA. Therefore the NIE estimate cannot be interpreted to mean that Iran never had a weapons programme and never had clandestine dealings with A.Q. Khan in breach of its NPT obligations.
Two recent books, "Shopping for the bomb" by BBC Correspondent Gordon Correrra and "Deception: Pakistan, the US and the global nuclear weapons conspiracy" by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark of the Guardian have exposed in authoritative detail Khan's dealings with Iran over sixteen years. What should interest the world is while the published version of NIE has asserted that the Iranian weapons programme was halted in the fall of 2003 it has not offered any explanation why it happened.
It was on Oct 4, 2003, the ship carrying the centrifuge equipment from A.Q. Khan from his Dubai establishment to Libya was stopped at Taranto in Italy and boarded by the CIA and the British secret service. Thereby they ended Khan's nuclear Walmart. Some four months later Khan publicly confessed over Pakistan TV his proliferation activities.
It is likely the NIE is silent on the possible linkage between the Khan exposure and the Iranians halting their weapons programme because focusing on it at this stage would be extremely embarrassing to Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and the US itself. What the US Congress, think tanks and public have not adequately taken note of is Khan was a client of the CIA going back to 1975. This has been disclosed by the former Dutch prime minister Rudd Lubbers in a TV and radio interview. The CIA intervened with the Dutch security service when they arrested Khan in 1975 and 1986.
George Tenet, former director of the CIA, in his book "At the Center of the Storm: My years at the CIA" has tried to explain the CIA-Khan linkage.
He says: "Although CIA struggled to penetrate proliferation operation and learn about the depth of their dealings there is a tension when investigating these kinds of networks. The natural instinct when you find some shred of intelligence about nuclear proliferation is to act immediately. But you must control that urge and be patient, to follow the links where they take you, so that when action is launched, you can hope to remove the network both root and branch and not pull off the top, allowing it to regenerate and grow again".
There are other reports that General Aslam Beg told two US assistant secretaries as far back as 1990 that Pakistan would trade with Iran its nuclear technology if the Pressler Amendment was invoked and aid was cut off.
It is obvious the US would find it embarrassing to get these facts exposed. Therefore perhaps the published version of the NIE is silent on why the Iranian weapons programme was halted in the fall of 2003 when the Khan operation was wound up in Dubai.
The publication of this NIE itself appears to be the result of an internal struggle within the US administration. Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are reported to be against any military action against Iran. It may be recalled Gates, former director of the CIA, was a member of the James Baker-Lee Hamilton task force which recommended negotiations with Iran to improve the security situation in Iraq.
So there is no reason to regret our voting in the IAEA on the Iranian issue in 2005 and 2006.
(K. Subrahmanyam is India's most respected strategic analyst. He can be reached email@example.com