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. US boxed in after Iran surprise: analysts
WASHINGTON, Dec 5 (AFP) Dec 06, 2007
The threat of war with Iran has ebbed and with new UN sanctions now an even harder sell, the United States has scant options even if it were to reverse course and engage Tehran, experts say.

President George W. Bush insists that Iran remains a threat despite Monday's appraisal by US intelligence that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, a change of heart that has sent shockwaves around the world.

Ray Takeyh, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that in light of the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE): "The military option is not just off the table, it's out the window."

Russia and China all but ruled out fresh UN sanctions against Iran after the NIE, which for Takeyh was evidence of today's US spy leaders refusing to "roll over" to the Bush White House after skewed intelligence before the Iraq war.

The NIE undermined the case presented by Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that Iran poses an imminent threat that might require a military response, said Bruce Riedel, a former presidential advisor on Middle East affairs.

"A unilateral US military attack on Iran is off the table now, no matter what Bush says about 'all options are open'," Riedel, a Brookings Institution analyst, said.

"Russia and China have been vindicated in their argument that Iran does not have a weapons program. They will not support new sanctions now," he added.

"So, a bilateral dialogue makes sense," Riedel said.

"Will Bush do it? He will face pressure from the Democrats to be flexible but also pressure from the neo-cons to hang tough. My guess is he will not, and leave it to the next president to come up with a new approach."

The United States cut diplomatic ties with Iran following the 1979 Islamic revolution, but the two nations have had a series of contacts in Baghdad to discuss security in Iraq.

Experts say those discussions have contributed to a fall in Iraqi violence, and could be expanded in a hush-hush way to encompass other pressing matters including Iran's nuclear drive.

But while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says she is ready to meet Iranian counterparts any time and anywhere, the US precondition is that Iran must first stop enriching uranium.

However, Iran is within its international rights to reprocess nuclear fuel for civilian energy purposes, and the NIE said the United States had been wrong to suspect Iran of having an ongoing covert arms program.

"The mistake of the Bush administration was that it overreached in overstating Iran's nuclear capability, in overstating Iran's threat," said Vali Nasr, an Iranian-US professor of international politics at Tufts University.

"Even though the lay of the land has shifted," Nasr said, "I'm skeptical as to whether this administration is willing to do a new policy about Iran."

Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said: "The two people who are probably most disappointed in this NIE report are Dick Cheney and (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad."

Hawks on both sides had been undermined, he said, while stressing: "I don't think the US position is going to change. I don't think the US is now going to drop the precondition of (uranium) suspension.

"The best ally of the Europeans and Americans in isolating Iran is the Iranians themselves," Sadjadpour added, pointing to the "intransigence" of Ahmadinejad and Iran's new nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili.

Ahmadinejad has exploited the nuclear dispute to cast his political opponents as pro-US lackeys and so divert public attention from Iran's worsening economy, analysts said.

So for Nasr, the best US approach would be to stop giving fuel to Ahmadinejad's firebrand nationalism and hope that his conservative faction is defeated in Iranian parliamentary elections scheduled for March.

Other diplomatic fallout from the NIE may include a fraying of the anti-Iran assembly of Arab nations that Rice coaxed into attending a Middle East peace summit in Annapolis late last month, the experts said.

Israel meanwhile fears that whatever the status today of its atomic program, Iran is on track to have nuclear weapons know-how within a few years, and the missiles to deliver a warhead to the Jewish state.

But Takeyh said: "I don't believe the Israelis will attack Iran without the consent of the United States. And I don't believe that that consent will be proffered."

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