Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Everybody's Talking about the NIE

Bush and friends may still be beating the war drums, but they've been harder to hear amid the cacophony of voices both on the Hill and around the world since Monday's release of the declassified key findings from the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran.

The intelligence community now judges that Tehran ended its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003. In other words, they acknowledge they were wrong. The 2005 NIE had incorrectly judged that, "Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure." The reality was far from that. The new report reveals that diplomacy and threats of sanctions were an effective tool in halting Iran's development of a nuclear weapon.

And everyone has been talking about it. Here's what they have to say:

The UN and the EU
"We told you so." Well, kind of. The findings of the NIE reaffirm the position of the EU and the UN that Iran does not have nuclear weapons and that the only effective solution to dealing with Tehran is strong diplomacy. Mohamed ElBaradei, IAEA director-general reacted, "Although Iran still needs to clarify some important aspects of its past and present nuclear activities, the agency has no concrete evidence of an ongoing nuclear weapons program or undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran." He later commented the next day that the findings should "help defuse the crisis."

Various members of the EU have also acknowledged that this finding validates their approach, which will therefore not change in response to the report. A spokesperson for Chief of EU foreign policy, Javier Solana, told AFP that the NIE "does not change our dialogue-pressure approach." British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's spokesman added, "The report confirms we were right to be worried about Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons. It also shows that the sanctions program and international pressure has had some effect." That last point is key to solving what remains of the nuclear issue with Iran. While other factors (the ending of Libya's nuclear program and the U.S. invasion of Iraq) may have influenced the decision to end their nuclear weapons program, this report reveals that Iran was (and likely still is) susceptible to international pressure and strong diplomacy.

"We told you so, too." Ahmadinejad has declared these findings a victory, since it validates his claim that Iran lacked a clandestine nuclear program. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki stated, "It's natural that we welcome...countries that correct their views realistically which in the past had questions about Iran's nuclear activities." Iranians realize that these findings will decrease what was already minimal support from the international community for the hawkish policy advocated by the Bush administration.

"We disagree." Israeli officials, while stopping short of directly contradicting their closest ally, have openly stated that they believe Iran has continued to develop nuclear weapons. Defense Minister Ehud Barak agreed that Iran ended its nuclear program in 2003, but stated that in Israel's opinion, it has since then "apparently continued that program...There are differences in the assessments of different organizations in the world about this, and only time will tell who is right."

Bush and friends
Oh, Bush and friends. In typical "whatever happens, it validates our point" style, the Bush administration is arguing that the NIE findings actually support their hawkish stance. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley stated Monday that the findings confirm "that we were right to be worried about Iran... [T]he international community has to turn up the pressure on Iran - with diplomatic isolation, United Nations sanctions, and with other financial pressure."

President Bush even said that the results do not increase the likelihood of him taking pre-emptive military action off the table. And despite the proven success of diplomatic engagement, "nor will the United States change its policy of trying to isolate Iran diplomatically and punish it with sanctions."

And, the ever-hawkish, but always interesting John Bolton agreed that the NIE "underscored the need for American toughness." According to the New York Times, he added that "the finding Iran halted a weapons program could just mean that it was better hidden now." Ahhh, truthiness.

So what do we do now?
Though the news that Iran has suspended its nuclear weapons program for four years is obviously positive, the NIE does leave room for concern. With some disagreement over time frame, the IC estimates with "moderate confidence" that Iran could be capable of producing enough weapons-grade HEU between 2010 and 2015. Furthermore, it estimates with "moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons."

So what do we do now? The most relevant part to pull from the NIE for policy development is that that Iran halted its weapons program in response to international pressure. As the Director of National Intelligence argues, "this, in turn, suggests that some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might--if perceived by Iran's leaders as credible - prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program."

In other words, Iranian leaders are rational actors, and a balance of carrots and sticks offered through strong diplomacy is essential for a resolution to the issue of their continued uranium enrichment. Mutual engagement holds the only potential for mutual security.


Baltimoron said...

Vali Nasr makes a number of goods points, but especially he points out that there is an Iranian parliamentary election in March, 2008. Iran's President Ahmadinejad might be in trouble, according to Nasr, because the Iranian economy is in bad shape. So, Ahmadinejad will likely use foreign policy to maintain support for his government. But, if the US, because of the NIE and its Iraq War problems, decides not to use military means to pressure Iran, then Ahmadinejad cannot make that case. So, the US could actually undermine Ahmadinejad by going slow. Or, Ahmadinejad could manufacture a crisis to put the Great Satan back in play for the election.

It will be an interesting few months. But, perhaps, the Bush administration has also considered a tactical turn like this. Or, like George Friedman has argued, Iran is about Iraq.

Anonymous said...

And what do you think of the very popular view by a leading Israeli analyst Obadiah Shoher? He argues (here, for example, www. ) that the Bush Administration made a deal with Iran: nuclear program in exchange for curtailing the Iranian support for Iraqi terrorists. His story seems plausible, isn't it?

Jeff Lindemyer said...

In regards to Alex's question, I don't think that any sort of deal between the Bush administration and Iran on suspending its nuclear program in exchange for curtailing the Iranian support for Iraqi terrorists is plausible for a number of reasons. This deal would likely have required approval at the highest levels in both countries, which would be a tall order to fill given their diplomatic relations and postures towards one another. Also worth bearing in mind is that this deal would have taken place in 2003, when the Iraq war was ramping up and before the insurgency had thoroughly taken hold. (The recent lull in violence in Iraq is largely due to other factors, including the "ceasefire" between Shia militias and US forces, as was the lessening of Iranian support for violence in Iraq.) Also, the willingness of Bush admin hardliners to stay quiet and not leak news of such an arrangement, if it existed, to the press to scuttle the deal would have been a problem. Given these and other factors, I can't imagine that sort of deal being the reason Iran halted its nuclear weapons program. More likely are the reasons the NIE cited: international pressure and sanctions.

As for what Baltimoron wrote, I agree with the points made. Hopefully, the NIE will lessen the militaristic impulses coming out of the White House regarding Iran, which could neutralize the rhetoric from Ahmadinejad that draws attention away from the domestic problems that Iranians are facing.