Iran's supporters pleased, skeptical

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

With a sense of vindication and a touch of suspicion, Iran's embattled defenders absorbed the news this week: U.S. intelligence services no longer believe the Islamic Republic has an active nuclear weapons program.

Russia and China have struggled to stave off new United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iran, and both were quick to turn the latest U.S. intelligence report against the Bush administration. Any attempts to impose additional sanctions should be reconsidered in light of the latest findings, the two countries suggested.

Moscow and Beijing have long argued for diplomacy and negotiation instead of sanctions. Both countries also have flouted conventional American wisdom with repeated arguments that, in fact, Iran's nuclear program didn't pose a serious threat.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov told reporters Wednesday that even this latest U.S. assessment is off the mark: The U.S. assertion that Iranians were pursuing nuclear weapons until 2003 is false, he said.

"The data possessed by our American partners, or at least the data shown to us, give no reason to assume that Iran has ever pursued a military nuclear program," Lavrov said.

At the same time, Lavrov said, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin this week had again entreated Iran to freeze its uranium enrichment program, which Iran says is only for civilian energy purposes.

Western Europe, meanwhile, remains openly leery of Iran's intentions. A defiant Tehran is still ignoring two Security Council orders to halt uranium enrichment, Europeans pointed out, and new sanctions still can't be crossed off the list of possible repercussions.

"Our concerns are still there," German government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said Wednesday. "That's why we recommend a certain restraint of German companies in their business with Iran.

"It is still necessary to put Iran under pressure, combined with the offer of cooperation."

The new U.S. intelligence report, made public Monday, marked a fundamental retreat from the Bush administration's repeated accusations that Iran is working to develop nuclear weapons. Hounded by international pressure, the Islamic Republic dropped its weapons ambitions in 2003, the report said, but could resume the program at any time.

News of the report was gladly received in Russia, which stands to win or lose billions of dollars in business depending on whether Iran is further sanctioned.

A Russian firm won the contract to build Iran's first civilian nuclear power plant, and the government was to sell Tehran the needed fuel to operate the plant. But the project has been slowed amid international pressure and squabbles over whether Iran has paid its bills.

Russia and Iran also have a strategic alliance and shared interest in preserving stability in the Central Asian countries of the former Soviet Union.

"Russia feels it has always been right and now it has been confirmed, and it was even confirmed by the opposite side," said Alexander Umnov, senior researcher at Moscow's Institute of World Economy and International Relations. "The pressure of possible and existing sanctions prevented Russian companies from going deeper into cooperation with Iran. Now, because of the report, there is a chance to expand cooperation."

Yet despite Russia's repeated insistence that Iran's nuclear program is civilian in nature, even some officials in Moscow harbor underlying doubts, said analysts familiar with Russia's nuclear discussions.

Like their counterparts in Washington, Russian officials believe the technological groundwork in Iran could be used to quick-start a weapons program if Tehran felt the need, the analysts said.

As long ago as 1993, a Russian intelligence report suggested that Iran was conducting nuclear research that could have military applications.

"The Russian official statement on this issue has been there is no evidence that Iran is creating nuclear weapons," Anton Khlopkov, a nonproliferation expert at the PIR Center for Policy Studies in Moscow, said in a recent interview. "But I would say there is some concern, including in Russia. We don't have evidence, the U.S. doesn't have evidence, the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] doesn't have evidence. But we have concerns."

Still, there was a pervasive sense of hope in Russia and China that the report, coming from the U.S. government itself, would slow the rush to sanctions and buy extra time for negotiation.

Wang Guangya, China's U.N. ambassador, told reporters that moves to impose sanctions on Tehran should be reconsidered.

"Things have changed," he said.

Chinese analysts said they expect Beijing to maintain its low-key response until it can better assess Washington's change of heart, and that there's little immediate upside in gloating now that U.S. experts are supporting its long-standing arguments.

China has long viewed tighter sanctions skeptically. In part, this reflects a desire to avoid upsetting Iran, an ally and energy supplier. But self-interest also is at work: China has bridled, as has Russia, at the United States' global policeman role amid concern that it too might become the object of sanctions in some future showdown.

Western Europe may continue to push toward sanctions, but the report does create political discomfort for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has pointedly sided with Bush against Iran. The French leader sounded off against Tehran repeatedly as he campaigned for office this year. The U.S. report leaves Sarkozy uncomfortably exposed, French analysts said.

When the French and U.S. presidents met in Maine during August vacations, "certainly President Bush presented a picture of Iran which created much anxiety in Mr. Sarkozy's mind," said Francois Nicoullaud, the French ambassador to Iran from 2001 to 2005. Sarkozy returned to France convinced that Iran would soon have the bomb, and "it would be necessary to strike Iran to avoid such an eventuality," he said.

"Sarkozy's logic may have had less to do with imposing sanctions and more about being an ally of the United States," said Thierry Coville, a research fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations. "Maybe it's good to be an ally, no matter what. But maybe if you go to very extreme, it's difficult to come back."

In Moscow, the prospects of new contracts in Iran are tantalizing the business community and political elite.

When Putin received Iranian Supreme National Security Council secretary Saeed Jalili at his residence this week, the two discussed the construction of Iran's first nuclear power plant. The plant at Bushehr is being built by Russian firm Atomstroyexport. Putin assured the Iranians that the project would be completed on schedule, Iran's semiofficial Fars News Agency reported.

"Iran has not been violating any international laws implementing this project. It is clear to all," Atomstroyexport spokeswoman Irina Yesipova said. Still, she said, "any project is much easier to implement when there is clear perceptions and friendly attitudes."

Russia's largest oil company, Lukoil, has been trying to develop Iran's enormous Azar oil field, but found it slow going. The field is expected to yield 2.5 billion barrels of oil, company spokesman Grigory Volchek said, but progress has lapsed amid prolonged negotiations. He declined to say whether the delays were linked to sanctions.

"Right now it's in a very passive stage," he said.

But many observers were still struggling to understand what the intelligence assessments portend. Particularly in Moscow and Beijing, analysts were incredulous that the intelligence agencies would take a stance undercutting the president, and theorized that the report might herald a shift in Bush administration strategy.

"We wonder, not only China but the rest of the world: Should we believe this report, why now, what's behind it, is this political maneuvering or some sort of power struggle inside the White House," said Chu Shulong, professor and director of the Institute of Strategic Studies at Beijing's Qinghua University. "A lot of foreign governments are puzzled. The U.S. government is becoming much more inconsistent and less reliable."

Times staff writers Geraldine Baum in Paris, Kim Murphy in London, and Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow, and special correspondent Christian Retzlaff in Berlin contributed to this report.

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