France says "non" to Iran NIE

So now, in addition to the Director of National Intelligence, and the President of the United States, add the French government to the dissent column on the explosive National Intelligence Estimate on Iran‘s nuclear weapons program.

Herve Morin, the French defense minister, was in Washington yesterday, and he said that “coordinated information from a number of intelligence services leads us to believe that Iran has not given up its wish to pursue its [nuclear] program,” and is “continuing to develop” it. Morin (unsurprisingly) called upon the International Atomic Energy Agency to “continue carrying out all the necessary investigations” into Iran‘s nuclear activities. The IAEA has also doubted U.S. intelligence.

The French dissent is significant on a number of levels. First, France is a key ally in the administration’s hard line against the Iranian regime, and having their defense minister sound such a provocative note of caution could help put the wind back in the administration’s sails as it tries to rally international pressure on Iran. When the NIE reversed earlier claims that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapon, it presumably undercut the administration’s push to impose harsher international sanctions on Iran.

Second, note that Morin said “a number of intelligence services” had provided information that led France not to concur with the United States’ key judgments—ones, it should be noted, that the president sought to distance himself from the very day they were declassified. France is saying that a community of nations, which certainly includes Israel, have pooled their notes, and that they find plenty of reason to believe the United States is missing the mark. This contrary assessment probably hinges on Iran’s continued pursuit of enriched uranium, as well as its ongoing ballistic missile program. (See my previous post on how President Bush homed in on these legs in Iran’s nuclear platform.) France has expressed great concern over Iran’s pursuit of ballistic missiles, which could threaten Israel and U.S. bases in the Middle East.

The Russian and Chinese governments—whose support for sanctions is key at the United Nations—haven’t come out in opposition to the NIE, but it doesn’t hurt President Bush’s case to keep up the pressure by having a key European ally come over to his side, especially one that feels threatened by Iran. The United Nations Security Council this week considered a new proposal from the United States and France, among others, for new sanctions against Iran.