By Scott Ritter
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.
More telling would be if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reversed her earlier position that Congress could not restrict the president when it came to the potential of military force against Iran out of concern for the national security interests of Israel. The fact that she hasn’t, and won’t, speaks volumes about the degree to which a dangerously schizophrenic Israel continues to influence and drive the foreign and national security policy of the Bush administration.
The fact is, on its own the new NIE cannot stop the Bush administration’s desire to bring the Iran issue to a head by spring 2008. The framing of the “crisis,” which began with fears over the Iranian nuclear program, shifted months ago. The focus of attention is now on Iran’s status as a “state sponsor of terror,” a charge the administration has made over and over again, whether in the form of the president’s 2007 State of the Union speech or in the March 2006 National Security Strategy of the United States. Recent legislation passed by the Senate has only added fuel to the fire by naming the Iranian Revolutionary Guard command as a terrorist organization.
There is a school of thought that holds to the notion that because a military strike against Iran makes no sense, it will not happen. This, of course, is not only wishful thinking, it is also irresponsible. By continuing to focus on the Iran issue in terms of so-called threat models and ignoring the underlying reality of an ideologically driven policy objective of regime change in Tehran, those who could prevent a war between the United States and Iran are simply facilitating its inevitability. I’ve seen this pattern of behavior before, in the buildup to the invasion of Iraq. While the world debated the issue of weapons of mass destruction, left unmentioned was the decades-long policy of regime change in Baghdad, instituted during the administration of Bill Clinton and inherited by George W. Bush. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, put regime change on the fast track, and the end result is our current occupation. The WMD issue was simply a facilitator for conflict; war with Iraq for the purpose of removing Saddam Hussein was unavoidable so long as the ideological foundation of American policy remained unchanged. The same can be said of the situation facing the United States and Iran today. The nuclear and terror issues are simply vehicles for implementing a policy of regime change. Take away the nuclear issue and the policy remains. A new facilitator, such as terrorism, is then employed.
In short, the only way to prevent the full implementation of the Bush administration policy of regime change in Tehran is for Congress to directly challenge this policy. If there was ever a moment of redemption for the Democrats in Congress, this is it. Presidential contender Joe Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said that if the president were to bomb Iran without congressional consent, then he would push for impeachment. But this reactive posture ignores the fact that we would, regardless of Biden’s eventual maneuvering, be at war with Iran as a result of such a strike. Congress, by continuing to support existing war powers resolutions passed in 2001 and 2002, and through its ongoing support of the basic premise underwriting the administration’s policy toward Iran (i.e., the Senate resolution labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard command as a terror organization), has tied its hands in terms of constitutionally challenging the president’s contention that he has all the authority required to initiate an attack against Iran.
Rather than wait for disaster to strike, it would behoove Sen. Biden and others to use every parliamentary procedure available to subject the Bush Iran policy to the most critical scrutiny possible in order to deconstruct the unitary executive utopia the president (and vice president) currently resides in. Specific provisions that delink Iran from existing war powers authority, funding restrictions for any military action against Iran, and any measure that reinforces the notion that the president must seek the consent of Congress before military action against Iran would not only send a clear signal to the president about the limitations of his power but also establish clear legal foundation that could be applied, via the constitutional remedy of impeachment, should the president proceed in complete disregard of the will of Congress. But the will of Congress must be expressed, not implied, and soon.
The time for action is now. Joe Biden would be doing America, and the world, a huge favor if he would remove his candidate’s hat and resume the role which he has been empowered by his constituents to serve: overseer of American foreign policy. Hearings must be held, and time is not on our side. If the newly released NIE on Iran is to have any meaning, then let it be that it triggered a reawakening of the Congress of the United States to assert its authority and responsibility in a time of great need.
A former Marine Corps intelligence officer, Scott Ritter was a chief inspector for the United Nations Special Commission in Iraq from 1991 to 1998. He is the author of several books. His “Target Iran” (2006) was recently released in paperback by Nation Books.
AP photo / Lawrence Jackson