December 11, 2007

December 11, 2007 | Commentary on International Organizations

Making history

The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran is unprecedented in the way it is likely to change U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic. Repercussions of the report go well beyond the Persian Gulf. They may influence U.S. relations with Russia and Europe and affect American standing in the world.

The report already has created winners and losers - domestically and internationally. Among the winners, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who claimed credit for Iran's entry into the ranks of "nuclear states" and derided the U.S. and its intelligence community which based the report on "faulty intelligence."

Mr. Ahmadinejad came close to admitting that Iran either has the bomb or is on track to get it. If the U.S. abandons pressure on Iran, the result might strengthen the hardliners in the clerical regime.

Other winners include Russia, China and European countries. Moscow and Beijing are positioned to oppose future U.S. demands in the United Nations Security Council on the grounds that, as U.S. intelligence assessment indicates, there is no Iranian nuclear weapons program today.

Vladimir Putin can reiterate that deploying a U.S. ballistic missile defense system in Europe is against Russia, not Iran, and continue to fervently oppose it - up to and including aiming his missiles at European targets.

Tehran spends billions building an arsenal of increasingly long-range ballistic and cruise missiles, with technology coming from North Korea, Russia and China. Iran also invested a fortune in educating hundreds of nuclear physicists and engineers in the best military technology colleges in Russia and around the world. It is unlikely it did it to develop toy factories.

Many in Europe will claim that as Iran is less dangerous, there is no rationale for banning energy investments there. French and German companies will be happy to continue business as usual.

Domestically, intelligence analysts are still trying to perform "mea culpa" for not standing up to the administration over the Iraq estimates. The intelligence community can celebrate having distanced itself from the White House's policy on Iran. Many believe that they were first pushed to tailor intelligence to fit a political agenda, and then were unjustly blamed for the Iraq failures.

Another executive branch winner is the State Department, which is now riding high after having lost several turf battles to the White House and the Pentagon in the run-up to the Iraq war.

Among the losers are President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, and the remnants of the neo-cons. The U.S. will be unlikely to provide credible world leadership, as our key policy on Iran has been called into question by our own intelligence community.

The neocons receive payback for beating the drums of the Iraq war. Perhaps they cried wolf too early - on Iraq. But now the real wolf may have fled the barn.

If the U.S. is sidelined on Iran, America's reputation from Warsaw and Prague to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia can easily be undermined. The moderate Gulf states are terrified of Tehran. They cannot stand up to Iran on their own and might acquiesce to its hegemony.

Another loser - if the U.S. permanently shelves the credible threat of the use of force - is Israel. Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Deputy Defense Minister Efrain Sneh, who spent the last 15 years tracking Iranian missiles and Tehran's nuclear program, have rejected the report. But today Israel's "alarmism" will be now used to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the Jewish state.

For the neocons, the loss may be tactical and political. For Israel, it may be existential and fatal.

Not since the Team A-Team B debate over the Soviet threat of the 1970s has an intelligence estimate played such a major role in U.S. foreign policy. But the NIE's real bottom line is this: The U.S. intelligence community is not sure whether the Iranian efforts to build or acquire nuclear weapons have been restarted.

This NIE is laying the groundwork for a dramatic turnaround in U.S. foreign policy, and heralding a further decline in the world's perception of American power.

Skeptics are already heaping criticism on the report, noting that its top three top authors are arms control analysts and diplomats, not Iranian experts or intelligence officers with experience in intelligence operations and tradecraft, and therefore, their understanding of Iranian politics and "sources and methods" of intelligence is somewhat limited. In addition, some commentators have accused the NIE's authors of harboring partisan agendas.

Moreover, the published Estimate excerpt (nine pages out of 150) declares that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003 without even mentioning the U.S. entry into Iraq following the liberation of Afghanistan as the probable cause of this interruption. Many in Iran, including then-president Mohammad Khatami, may have felt pressed to negotiate with the U.S. to prevent an encirclement by U.S. troops and pro-American regimes - or worse.

A temporary halt in the nuclear weapons program would have made sense as a negotiating tactic then, but its continuation since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with his blood-curdling rhetoric, took office in 2005 is questionable.

The NIE release is the latest battle in a long-running war between supporters of a hard line towards Iran, and those who give absolute preference to diplomacy over the use of force, or the threat to use force.

The main flaw of the report is that it may deny the administration the credible threat of the use of force as a foreign policy tool against a foe, which is unabashedly anti-American and genocidal. This should never be the case.

First-year international relations students are taught that in achieving foreign policy goals, all options should be on the table. That includes force. It does not mean you have to use it.

And whatever the preferred policy may be, those who spin this NIE into a claim that "Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program today" are utterly misleading - deliberately or otherwise.

Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and senior adviser to the U.S.-Ukraine Business Council.

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the Washington Times