The government of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sought Tuesday to gain a diplomatic edge abroad and a political windfall at home following the release of a U.S. intelligence estimate concluding that Tehran had halted a secret nuclear weapons program four years ago.
Iranian officials openly gloated Tuesday, demanding that Washington apologize for accusing them of pursuing weapons of mass destruction.
"U.S. officials have so far inflicted [much] damage on the Iranian nation by spreading lies against the country and by disturbing public opinion. Therefore, they have to pay the price for their action," government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham told reporters, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
Iran's hard-line government, already under sanctions for its pursuit of a uranium enrichment program that could theoretically lead to the development of a nuclear weapon, had drawn ire of the international community in recent days after Iranian and European negotiators last week failed to make headway on the issue.
Even China, which has resisted U.S.-led efforts to further punish Tehran, edged toward endorsing a third round of economic sanctions on Iran later this month. Moderates and reformists within Iran's circle of power prepared to pounce ahead of parliamentary elections in March.
Analysts noted that the new U.S. intelligence estimate could leave Ahmadinejad better able to argue his case abroad, while telling his people at home that Iran can push forward full steam ahead with its enrichment program with less risk of a catastrophic war with the U.S.
"Although it is an internal issue in American politics, the report is well received here as it consolidates the Islamic Republic of Iran's nuclear stance," said Abul-Fazel Amouee, 28, a staff writer at the hard-line daily newspaper Hezbollah and commentator for Diplomatic Hamshahri, a magazine.
Though signatories to the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty such as Iran may enrich uranium to power nuclear electricity plants, the 2003 discovery of hidden nuclear sites in Iran raised suspicions that Tehran had been secretly pursuing a weapons program.
The U.S. estimate concluded that under the foreign policy team of former President Mohammad Khatami, a relative moderate, Iran suspended its nuclear enrichment program that year to bolster ongoing negotiations with Europeans.
Since Ahmadinejad took office in 2005, his government has ratcheted up its rhetoric and resumed enrichment of uranium. Iranian military leaders regularly issued declarations about their nation's military prowess and potential responses to any U.S. or Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities, often in response to American and Israeli threats to attack if Iran became close to acquiring a nuclear bomb.
For its part, the U.S. often raised its rhetoric in part to try to drive a wedge between Ahmadinejad's circle and those of reformists and relative moderates such as former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. Now Ahmadinejad is likely to argue to voters that his hard-line approach paid off, dividing instead Iran's critics in the international community while improving the nation's standing in the region.
Ahmadinejad this week became the first Iranian leader to attend a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council, formed in 1981 by the six oil-rich Arab kingdoms of the Persian Gulf to oppose Iran's regional ambition.
The new intelligence report may also have helped tamp down oil prices, which closed Tuesday at $88.32 in New York. Prices have dropped about $10 in the last week, largely because of expectations that OPEC might boost production.
Despite the report's more nuanced conclusions about Tehran's nuclear program, which noted that Iran could still enrich enough uranium to create a bomb between 2009 and 2015, observers sympathetic to Iran argued that it exonerated Tehran and would turn the diplomatic momentum against the U.S.
Iran's state-controlled radio and television channels Tuesday flooded airwaves with reports about the intelligence estimate, quoting leading Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling for a new approach to Iran. "The report acknowledged that it was becoming clear that Iran's plan is peaceful," a news reader announced.
But one Iranian analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he gleaned a more somber reading from the intelligence analysis.
"The report," he said, "endorses sanctions against Iran until 2015," the outside edge of when the estimate said Iran could possibly build a nuclear bomb. "So, with deeper thinking, Iran should not be happy."
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Daragahi from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.