A sudden switch on Iran's nuclear threat
When the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies produce what are known as NIEs (National Intelligence Estimates) — essentially their best judgment of where things stand in various hotspots — official Washington and much of the rest of the world take notice. How much notice? In 2002, an NIE concluding — inaccurately — that Saddam Hussein was making weapons of mass destruction helped persuade a majority in Congress to authorize war.
A new NIE on Iran produced a very different kind of bombshell Monday. Seemingly at odds with recent bellicose statements from President Bush and Vice President Cheney, it concluded that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, appears "less determined" to develop nukes than previously thought and probably couldn't get one before 2010 to 2015. The reason: "international pressure," in the form of economic sanctions, United Nations inspections and a range of diplomatic overtures from the Europeans, Russia and China.
The report nevertheless cautions that Iran is continuing to enrich uranium, which can be used for nuclear power, and could re-start its weapons program at any time.
There are three reasons to cheer.
The first is that the bombers that might be used to strike Iran can be left in the hangar for now. The threat is not imminent.
The second is the apparent return of intelligence developed without political meddling. The pre-Iraq war NIE became notorious because of White House political interference and the lack of rigor in sourcing and reporting. Its assertions were almost all disproved, and Iraq's weapons of mass destruction proved to be a mirage. The latest NIE may or may not turn out to be right, but it at least appears to be untainted.
Third, the NIE lays a foundation for the more sophisticated statecraft that the Bush administration now seems more open to. The administration should continue to press sanctions. They've helped. But it can also open lines of communication with Iran — avoiding the unacceptable extremes of either bombing and risking wider regional war, or appeasing Iran at equal peril. It's worth remembering that the United States negotiated constantly with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War.
Despite obvious hostility, the United States and Iran have common interests. Part of the lowered violence in Iraq, for instance, is because Iran-backed militias have stood down.
Sensibly, the NIE acknowledges Iran will not easily repudiate nuclear weapons, which it sees as central to achieving "security, prestige and goals for regional influence." But there seems no doubt that the best way to alter that thinking is international pressure combined with negotiation.