The growing air of crisis is also obscuring other new factors concerning how western

countries act now.

The drumbeat of western disapproval accompanying Iran’s decision this week to resume uranium conversion at its nuclear plant in Isfahan looks likely to drown out more-considered approaches to the problem of nuclear weapons proliferation in general and Iran’s aspirations in particular. Largely unremarked by mainstream media, the foreign ministers of Australia, Chile, Indonesia, Norway, Romania, South Africa and the United Kingdom put forward a series of proposals last month to avoid exactly the sort of confrontation that now looms over Tehran. The seven countries affirmed ‘the inalienable right of all state parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination’. But crucially, they suggested that states wishing to develop nuclear power for civil purposes should be able to do so without first having to develop a domestic fuel cycle capability. It is Iran’s insistence on acquiring such a capability that, more than anything, has stre-ngthened American, Israeli and European suspicions that it is trying to build the bomb.

Internationally approved and monitored supplies of nuclear fuel would reduce the risk of diversion of the enriched product for non-peaceful purposes. Thus some of the suspicions surrounding the current Iranian programme would, in theory at least, be dispelled. The group of seven also bemoaned the failure of last May’s NPT review conference in New York and proposed a series of steps to reinforce the treaty. They included a reaffirmation by all signatory states of their treaty commitments; and the `universalisation of the treaty’. North Korea’s abandoning of its NPT membership in 2002, after it was found to be in breach of its obligations, was a precedent that should not be allowed to stand, the ministers said. The group said it would pursue its proposals at next month’s UN summit. Unfortunately, the Bush administration was not party to the initiative, and neither were Russia or China for that matter. And in any case, the initiative by itself cannot stop a Security Council showdown over Iran if the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) decides to refer the Iran `dossier’ to New York.

Internationally safeguarded and guaranteed nuclear fuel supplies, for example, were part of the `final offer’ put to Tehran last week by the EU3 - France, Germany and Britain. Unfortunately, the atmosphere of distrust and recrimination after two years of protracted negotiations - and following last month’s election of a conservative Iranian president - seems to have led Tehran to reject the deal out of hand. ‘The EU proposal was very insulting and humiliating,’ said Mohammad Saeedi of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation. The growing air of crisis over Iran’s nuclear programmes is also obscuring other new factors which could (and perhaps should) have a direct bearing on how western countries, and particularly the United States, act now. One such factor is the leaked assessment contained in a new Bush administration National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran. According to American newspaper reports, the NIE concluded that Iran was bent on acquiring the atomic bomb. But the study also expressed uncertainty that Iran’s clerical leaders had actually decided to go ahead. And it threw cold water on repeated Israeli claims that Iran was within six months of gaining a nuclear weapons capability. It estimated that, given Iran’s technical limitations, it would probably not deploy an atomic bomb, assuming it wanted to, until 2015.

The NIE’s considerably less dramatic conclusions are reminiscent of international weapons survey reports since the Iraq invasion that showed pre-war claims about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities and activities had been wildly inaccurate - and politically exaggerated. By leaking the findings, and taking a cautious line, the US intelligence officers may be trying to ensure they do not get caught on that hook again. And this leads to another largely under-reported and unconsidered nugget of information concerning Iran’s activities that emanated from the IAEA this week. It is that key evidence on which the charge of illicit bomb-making against Iran rested may have to be scrapped. Tests performed by the IAEA reportedly indicate that enriched uranium particles found on Iranian nuclear equipment came from Pakistan, from where the equipment was imported, and were not produced in Iran. Now the IAEA appears to agree.

Far from being able to brandish a smoking gun, Iran’s accusers hardly have a water pistol to share between them. That does not necessarily mean Tehran is innocent of all charges. It does not disguise the fact that Tehran suspiciously concealed its nuclear activities for many years. But when other factors are also taken into account, it does suggest that a more considered and consensual approach to Iran and other proliferation problems might be the wisest course. —The Guardian