The new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) from the US government, published at the beginning of December 2007, is seen as a great triumph by the Iranian government and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The collective judgement of all 16 US government intelligence agencies confirms Tehran’s official line that the country is not developing nuclear weapons technology.

Unfortunately for Ahmadinejad, the NIE goes further than other US intelligence documents in accusing the Iranians of working on a nuclear weapons programme until late 2003. Speaking after its release, US President George Bush said: “Iran was dangerous. Iran is dangerous. Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.”

Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, real or imagined, will continue to dominate the country’s relationship with the West and its Arab neighbours for the foreseeable future.

Ahmadinejad has made some conciliatory steps. The Iranian president used unusually mod-erate language to respond to the NIE. He said the release should be followed by “one or two other steps” that could “open the way to resolve fundamental problems in the region”.

Ahmadinejad suggested the US should recognise Iran’s right to enrich uranium as a further gesture. “The second step can be the nuclear issue,” he said.

Meanwhile, 3,000 centrifuge machines at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility have been spinning since 2006. The Iranian government insists the centrifuges are being used to produce low-enriched uranium for its civilian nuclear energy programme. Iran’s enemies are not convinced.

The Russian contractor building the nuclear reactor at the much-delayed Bushehr power plant on the Gulf coast revealed on 20 Dec-ember 2007 that the plant would not be finished before 2009. The contractor, Atomstroyexport, sent the first shipment of Russian nuclear fuel to Bushehr on 17 December. The Russians will continue shipping fuel to the plant until at least the middle of February 2008, before work begins in earnest on the construction of the reactor.

Tehran claims that the facility will be operating at half capacity by the middle of the year. The development would leave the US and the other members of the UN Security Council – France and the UK – that have been pushing for sanctions to stop the Iranians from enriching any more uranium with few choices.

The first option will be to lobby the other Security Council members to apply harsher sanctions against key Iranian companies. The second will be to use diplomacy to stop Iran from using the Natanz centrifuges to produce weapons-grade uranium. The most radical option, military action, appears off the agenda for now.