A senior British diplomat has for the first time challenged the findings of a crucial American intelligence report which was considered to have removed the justification for military strikes against Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions.
The conclusion of the National Intelligence Estimate, reflecting a consensus of 16 US intelligence agencies, that it had "high confidence" Iran had shelved a nuclear weapons programme in 2003 was too "emphatic", the diplomat said.
"Many of us were surprised by how emphatic the writers of it were. That all the activities stopped in 2003 and had not resumed.
"I haven't seen any intelligence that gives me even medium confidence that these programmes haven't resumed. So we just don't know," the diplomat told journalists yesterday. The US intelligence report in December "had an impact on the international debate, but I don't think it ever took the military option off the table", he added, saying that the Iranians "continue to pursue a dangerous path, and we shouldn't underestimate the risk of miscalculation".
The US, Britain, France and Germany yesterday demanded answers from Iran about its suspected military research and development in the past at a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The issue was brought into sharp focus by a briefing to diplomats and experts at the IAEA's Vienna headquarters last week, in which documents, and a video that seemingly came from Iran's own military laboratories, were displayed.
European powers had been aware of the intelligence – dating from 2004 – since the following year, the British diplomat said. But it gained in "clarity" when it was laid out in Vienna.
Iran has rejected the documents as fabrication and says that experiments involved conventional weaponry only. The IAEA has acknowledged that it has not found any diversion to a military programme.
But the British diplomat said that concerns remain because of Iran's refusal to provide unfettered access to sites and to key officials.
Asked about a possible parallel with Iraq, where flawed intelligence was used to justify the invasion, the diplomat replied: "Just because we got it wrong on Iraq, it doesn't mean we're getting it wrong on Iran." But he stressed that the UK approach was to "pursue a diplomatic solution to this crisis. We remain absolutely committed to that."
The UN Security Council resolution adopted on Monday, which toughens sanctions against Iran, "gives momentum to this effort", he said.
Iran, which says that its nuclear programme is purely to obtain electricity, has been hit with three rounds of UN sanctions for refusing to halt uranium enrichment, which could theoretically lead to the country building a nuclear bomb.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad yesterday refused to back down and called the UN Security Council a political "instrument" of the big powers.
The heart of the problem is over Iran's right to a domestic fuel cycle, as enshrined in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The West is offering incentives if Iran agrees to uranium enrichment outside the country, something which the leadership has rejected.
Mr Ahmadinejad appeared to reject the West's offer of more talks, saying that in future Iran would only talk to the IAEA. "We won't negotiate with anyone outside the agency," he was quoted as saying.