The NIE report that just came out regarding Iran’s nuclear program will be greeted with a sigh of relief by many who have been worried about the Bush Administration hardliners’ reported push for military action against Iran.
The report judges with high confidence that Iran currently does not have a nuclear weapons program. It further states the intelligence community's lack of knowledge about Iran’s intent to develop nuclear weapons. Also, while it judges with moderate confidence that “Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame," it goes on to say "all agencies recognize the possibility that this capability many not be attained until after 2015.” Finally the report judges with high confidence that Iran will not be technically capable of producing and reprocessing enough plutonium (I assume via its planned heavy water plant in Arak) for a weapon before about 2015.
So the report should undercut (or at least dent) any legitimacy the idea of military action has had in the United States. As such, the report should be seen as part and parcel of the debate that has been going on the in the United States between promoters of coercive diplomacy and military action. And, lo and behold, it can be easily interpreted as coming down on the side of the current policy of the Bush Administration, which is coercive “diplomacy”!
It judges with “high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons” and goes on to say, “Our assessment that the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously.”
In fact, the text issued today by the national security adviser Stephen Hadley, ends with the statement that the report “suggests the President has the right strategy, intensified international pressure along with the willingness to negotiate… The bottom line is this: for that strategy to succeed, the international community has to turn up the pressure on Iran – with diplomatic isolation, United Nations Sanctions, and with other financial pressure.”
This propitious convergence between the NIE and the Bush Administration’s current policy and the timing of the release of this report, which was according to a piece by Gareth Porter published on November 8 was finished a year ago, can be viewed from a couple of angles. From one angle, as mentioned above, there is the obvious rejection of Dick Cheney's militarily aggressive policy toward Iran.
This may well be the correct angle but, from my point of view, the timing of the public revelation about the support given by the report to Bush’s current policy of sanctions, exactly at a time when some people have been questioning the futility of continuing that policy and have called for direct and unconditional talks with Iran seems, to say the least, questionable.
For the past couple of years I have come to believe that at least some of the talk about military action against Iran has been about limiting the public dialogue about Iran in the United States. By raising the specter of military action, the Bush Administration has been rather successful, at least until recently, in limiting the debate about Iran to two options: coercive “diplomacy” (sanctions) or military action.
What these two options have in common is a determination not to engage with Iran directly without preconditions (i.e. without Iran’s suspension its enrichment program before talks begin). Iran’s recent cooperation with the IAEA and its continued lack of response to the sanctions regime (in its variety of forms) has been pushing a number of people to think in terms of the need for direct talks.
In short, the fact that this NIE can so easily become an instrument in support of the Bush Administration’s current policy raises a few questions for me, including:
• What explains the timing of the release of the report?
• On what basis the report is so confident that “Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons”?
• On what basis the report judges that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapons program?
• Given the report’s position that the halting of Iran’s nuclear weapons program came in 2003 as a result of international pressure, but also under a reformist government, what explains the continued confidence in the halting of the program in 2007 under a government controlled by hardliners?
• Considering that the report’s focus is on the asserted impact of pressure on Iran in halting Iran’s weapons program, how does this relate to the issue at hand which is the use of pressure to halt Iran’s declared non-weapons program; a program that Iran, under reformist and hard-line governments, has refused to abandon despite extensive international pressure?
Let me end by saying that the report does contain a couple of important paragraphs that can be used by supporters of direct and unconditional talks with Iran. It states:
"Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressures indicates Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs. This, in turn, suggest that some combination of threats of intensified international security 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… We assess with moderate confidence that convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult… In our judgment, only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons."
It is noteworthy that the policy recommendations stated here focus on Iran’s weapons program and not the declared program under supervision via NPT’s safeguards agreement. This can be taken as an implied attempted shift away from halting Iran’s nuclear program to the country’s weapons program (through verification and intrusive inspections).
The reference to Iran’s cost-benefit approach as well as the requirement of taking into account Iran’s concerns regarding “security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways” can also be seen as an acknowledgment of Iran’s legitimate concerns and objectives in the region that can only be addressed in direct and unconditional talks.
Finally, the same can be said about the statement that Iran’s nuclear weapons can only be permanently halted politically. It can be argued that only direct and unconditional talks will be “perceived by Iran’s leaders as credible” and will prompt Iran to take that political decision.
But it seems highly unlikely that the Bush Administration will read the NIE in that way. Coercive “diplomacy” will continue to be the name of the game, particularly now that China has reportedly shown signs of agreeing with the next set of sanctions.