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ISR Issue 57, January–February 2008


World War III postponed

The meaning of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran


ON OCTOBER 17, George W. Bush raised the specter of “World War III” if the international community did not stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Only a month and half later, the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) produced by the top intelligence agencies clearly contradicts the Bush administration’s claims and the main line of the argument that it has used to justify sanctions, isolation, and threats of a military attack on Iran—that Iran was developing nuclear weapons.

The estimate concludes “with a high degree of confidence” that Iran stopped its weapons program in 2003. More troubling for the lame-duck Bush administration is the revelation that the administration knew of these conclusions as early as August 2007, well before the latest push for further sanctions on Iran, before speeches against Iran at the opening of the general session of the United Nations in late September, and well before the fantastic threats of WWIII by Bush.

Of course, any intelligence estimate coming out of the United States cannot be trusted, as anyone familiar with the Iraq War knows. Just two years ago the NIE claimed “with high confidence” that Iran was bent on getting nuclear weapons. The report should be seen in a political rather than an intelligence light, as should most intelligence reports. The NIE is the latest blow to the neocons’ “damn the torpedoes” approach of preemptive, unilateral action (as the first and only option), which was put in place in the wake of 9-11 and has been in deeper and deeper trouble as the quagmire in Iraq has unfolded.

The Bush administration, with its bellicose approach, had managed to isolate itself, and to paint itself as deceitful, irrational, uncooperative, adventurous, dangerous, and a destabilizing element in world affairs. In the wake of its dishonesty about Iraq, its lies about Iran’s weapons program and outrageous threats of WWIII have only served to discredit and undermine the United States further. In contrast, the Iranian regime has managed to appear as more of a stabilizing factor and overall more reasonable in its claims than the U.S., led by the Bush/Cheney team.

The release of the NIE may signal the end of post 9-11 overreach. But long before the release of this assessment, elements of a new approach were put into action in the Middle East. The U.S. has come to rely on coordination with the European Union; using regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in building a political front in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine; using diplomatic pressures rather than threatening the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Iran as the first line of attack; and using negotiations backed with the implicit power of U.S. military might since the beginning of 2007.

The NIE was a blow to Bush’s old strategy, but there has already been a shift to pressure Iran through other means in order to achieve the overall strategic goal of containing Iran—the main challenger to the U.S. in the region.

The reaction of Iranian policy makers to the NIE has also been instructive. While Iran’s president Mahmood Ahmadinejad was celebrating the NIE as “a victory for Iran over the U.S.,” other more astute politicians were much more reserved. Manuchehr Mottaki, Iran’s foreign minister, gave a glimpse of possible fights to come when he suggested that International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director Mohammad Al-Baradei should not be elevated to the level of a “hero” for not caving in to U.S. accusations that Iran had a weapons program, because no one knows how he may change his tune now that the nuclear issue has shifted.

Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator until two months ago, also warned against over-exuberance. Larijani called the new NIE the end of the first phase of pressures on Iran and the opening of other avenues to pressure Iran. He further suggested that the intelligence estimate was not the result of partisan politics and divisions between Democrats and Republicans. His assessment is pretty close to the mark, as this represents a new consensus among the American ruling class to try to limit Iran’s influence and reverse its regional advances through diplomatic, financial, and, if necessary, military means, using regional allies and arrangements, and winning over Iranian allies (like Syria) through a combination of pressure and negotiations.

The United States has attempted to stabilize three areas to be able to better apply pressure on Iran—Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. It has been trying to limit Iran’s influence by weakening its allies and bolstering pro-U.S. collaborators, in addition to neutralizing Iranian allies in the government and the insurgency in Iraq, and isolating Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Last January, for example, the U.S. forged a bloc against Iran among the Gulf countries in the GCC and tapped this bloc to confront Iranian influence in Iraq. They’ve squeezed Hamas in Palestine, with the duplicity and support of ex-Fatah forces and the siege of Gaza by Israel. The Annapolis conference on Palestine was designed to bring together not just Israel and Palestine but a broader representation from the Arab League, and even Syria. And the Saudis have poured money into Lebanon to outdo Iran in its reconstruction efforts and weaken the appeal of Hezbollah.

So there is a combination of threats and the promise of talks—which is applied in Iraq, with Syria, and even with the Iranian regime—to identify those they might be able to cut a deal with and therefore split the opposing camp. And the overall project is partially subcontracted to regional players like the GCC and Saudi Arabia, and coordinated with newfound allies like President Nicolas Sarkozy in France and Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany.

Nuclear threat?

There is no denying that the new NIE on Iran is a major setback for the U.S., even on the nuclear front. This is an admission that the administration has once again been lying in order to pursue its war aims. It should be added as an aside that any effort by the United States, the world’s biggest nuclear power, along with its ally Israel, the only regional nuclear power, to raise alarm bells about other countries’ nuclear programs is the purest hypocrisy.

But in the long term, this strategic retreat actually brings the U.S. claims and demands on Iran back to a sustainable level. It may make it easier for the U.S. to build an international consensus to move the goalpost again by demanding that Iran end its nuclear enrichment program, when what had previously been demanded of Iran was that it not develop nuclear weaponry.

The IAEA has been at odds with the U.S. and the Bush administration over the U.S. insistence that Iran has an ongoing weapons program. Lacking any evidence for this claim and seeing a rerun of the same line of accusations leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the IAEA took the unprecedented step in fall 2006 of writing a letter to the U.S. Congress denouncing the House Select Committee on Intelligence report on Iran’s nuclear weapons program as containing “dishonest and outrageous” information.

It is likely that a new proposal will be unveiled for the creation of an international bank from which countries like Iran could get their nuclear fuel. There are a number of versions of this proposal, pushed by Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), other Democrats, and Al-Baradei.

If a deal is offered to supply fuel to Iran, and Iran still insists on having its own fuel cycle and enrichment program (as it is expected to do), then it will be much easier for the U.S. to line up the IAEA, the European Union, regional governments, liberal opinion, and even anti-nuclear sentiment here against the Iranian government.

Iran still remains the main challenger to U.S. hegemony in the region, and the U.S. still has Iran in its sights. But immediate military action appears to be off the table. Keep in mind, however, that the NIE, contrary to reports presented by the IAEA that it has found no evidence past or present that Iran seeks nuclear weapons, is claiming that Iran had a weapons program that ended in 2003. As the chair of the Westminster committee on Iran notes,

By recognizing that Iran has no current nuclear weapons program the findings undermine the central argument of those arguing for tougher sanctions and precipitant military strikes. But the claim that Iran had a nuclear weapons program in the past not only allows that Iran has breached its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but also that it could restart its weaponization program at any moment…

This claim—that Iran had a weapons program that could be restarted—places the U.S. in a position to return to a more belligerent posture when it considers the conditions for success are better.

Saman Sepehri is a frequent contributor to the ISR on the Middle East.
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