Let’s hear it for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). After more than five years of effort, incorporating technologically advanced, exhaustive inspections of Iran’s declared nuclear facilities (and, to a lesser degree, some undeclared facilities as well), the fruit of its labor has been borne out in a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) produced by the U.S. intelligence community that finds that Iran is not currently pursuing a nuclear weapons program. While the analysis behind the NIE conclusion reflects the independent judgment of the 16 agencies which comprise the U.S. intelligence community, there is no doubt that the most influential information behind the assessment was that of the IAEA inspections, which had probed Iran’s nuclear program since November 2002. The IAEA had coordinated closely with the U.S. intelligence community in preparing for its inspections inside Iran, so much so that there was almost no stone left unturned and no major question left unanswered for U.S. analysts when it came to the nuclear facilities and activities of interest. The consensus-driven NIE puts to rest the notion that Iran represents any sort of imminent threat worthy of near-term pre-emptive military action.
Personally, the NIE (and its roots in the findings of the IAEA inspections) came as no surprise. In my 2006 book “Target Iran” I framed precisely the same argument using data virtually identical to that contained in the NIE. While I am tempted to utter the immortal words “I told you so,” such self-congratulation would not only reek of hubris but divert attention away from the fact that the NIE isn’t the final word on the framing and implementation of U.S.-Iran policy. It is but an empty document void of meaning unless life is breathed into its findings by an Executive rededicated to formulating policy founded in fact, not ideology, or a Congress awakened to its long-dormant status as a separate but equal branch of government.
There is, of course, considerable nuance contained in the NIE, enough to provide a safety net for those who had postulated a much more alarmist notion of Iran’s nuclear ambition. Without citing specific evidence to substantiate its claims, the NIE declares that although the Iranian program has remained dormant since 2003, there is uncertainty about what the ultimate objectives of Iran are regarding its “assessed” nuclear program. Some, such as Stephen Hadley, the current national security adviser for the Bush administration, have jumped on this conclusion as clear evidence of the efficacy of President Bush’s concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambition, the need for continued resolve in the face of Iranian noncompliance with international demands concerning the suspension of uranium enrichment, and the endorsement of the “diplomacy first” posture publicly embraced by the Bush foreign policy team.
This sort of “let the intelligence estimate justify the current policy” approach is extremely disconcerting, not only because of the obvious cart-before-the-horse aspect, but perhaps, more important, because of past patterns of behavior by the Bush administration. As in its approach to Iraq in 2002, the White House has embraced an unspoken policy direction regarding Iran which seeks “regional transformation” in the Middle East, including the targeting of select regimes (such as Iran’s theocracy) that are deemed to be incompatible with the United States’ (read George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s) vision of how the Middle East should operate politically. This policy was in place prior to the publication of the NIE and remains in place today. The president himself has made it clear that, far from discrediting his policy stance vis-à-vis Iran, the new NIE reinforces his belief that Iran was a threat in the past and continues to pose a threat for the future in the form of an undeclared nuclear weapons program which, even in its current “dormant” state, could be restarted in short order by taking advantage of the uranium enrichment program the Bush administration has said must be halted, something Iran has steadfastly refused to do.
Virtually unreferenced in all of the media buzz following the release of the NIE on Iran is the response of America’s No. 1 ally in the Middle East: Israel. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has dismissed the American NIE as irrelevant. The Israeli position has always been to oppose the development of any technology by Iran which provides material support to a nuclear weapons program, whether one formally exists or is currently dormant. The demonstrated capability of Iran to enrich uranium has crossed a red line previously declared by Israel to mark what is acceptable and unacceptable to its national security interests.
The recent Israeli airstrike against Syria only further clouds the issue. While it is increasingly clear that the target struck was neither a nuclear reactor under construction (despite the alarmist conclusions arrived at by David Albright and others) nor a plutonium extraction plant (an absurdity postulated without any factual basis by some Israeli nuclear “experts”), perception has a way of becoming its own reality. The ongoing Israeli paranoia about a nexus of nuclear proliferation among North Korea, Iran and Syria, void of any hard intelligence to back it up and yet hyped to the point that an abandoned military warehouse in the middle of the Syrian desert could be pre-emptively bombed, serves as a warning to any who believe that the newly published NIE will, by itself, inject a measure of sanity and objective thinking into a process that has created an ideologically driven self-fulfilling prophesy that no amount of fact and reasoning can make go away.