Six weeks after President George Bush threatened Iran with “World War III,” and nearly six years after he declared Iran part of an “axis of evil,” a new National Intelligence Estimate says Iran ended its nuclear weapons work four years ago. In an abrupt turnabout from previous estimates, the intelligence agencies of the executive branch conclude in the NIE that “Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggest it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005,” adding, “We do not know whether [Iran] currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.”
It may be just the jolt needed to correct a policy that has mishandled the Iranian challenge from day one of the administration. After years of neoconservative demands for war with Iran, the intelligence community has now made the case for diplomatic engagement. The NIE presents a far more nuanced picture of both the nuclear program and the Iranian government’s intentions than previous estimates, directly contradicting the one-dimensional portrait painted by arch conservatives, including many in the White House.
With former Defense Department officials Donald Rumsfeld, Steven Cambone, and Douglas Feith and their alternative intelligence operations now banished, the report may also signal that professionalism and integrity have been restored to the intelligence process, insulating the analysts from the political pressures responsible for the distorted estimates used to justify the Iraq war. The new report will also allow U.S. policymakers and the American public to engage in realistic debate over Iran’s uranium enrichment program, which without a doubt poses a significant challenge to U.S. interests in the Middle East and beyond.
Americans deserve a serious debate on both the nature of this challenge and the policies best capable of meeting it. The NIE is a welcome contribution to this debate.
A Return to Realism
The Iran NIE has a clear message to policymakers: Iran is not the caricature created by right-wing pundits of crazed, Hitler-esque mullahs bent on hastening Armageddon. “Tehran’s decisions,” according to the NIE, “are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.” This, perhaps, is the most significant finding and squares with what independent experts have been saying for years.
Indeed, we argued in our March 2007 report on Iran, “Contain and Engage,” that current U.S. policies “fall short of fundamentally changing Iran’s cost/benefit calculus." We concluded:
"The international community must constantly remind Iran of the potential benefits as well as the continued and escalating costs of its failure to comply with its nonproliferation obligations. Rather than pursue the faint hope that the organization of coercive measures will force Iran’s capitulation, our contain and engage strategy couples the pressures created by sanctions, diplomatic isolation and investment freezes with practical compromises and realizable security assurances to encourage Iran onto a verifiable, non-nuclear weapons path."
The NIE finding helps clarify the nature of the threat posed by Iran. The biggest threat is not that Iran would launch suicidal nuclear wars against its neighbors, or give nuclear weapons or fissile materials to terrorists groups. Rather, the greatest danger posed by Iran’s nuclear program is that it will inspire other countries in the region to follow suit, with dire consequences for regional and global security.
Time to Both Contain and Engage
National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley tried mightily on Monday to spin the findings as an endorsement of White House policy. But the NIE is a stinging rebuke of both the administration’s inflated rhetoric and its failure to negotiate deals that could have ended the uranium enrichment program in favor of the illusion of regime overthrow.
The NIE finding points the way for a new U.S. policy towards Iran. Specifically, “some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might—if perceived by Iran’s leaders as credible—prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.” Put differently, if Iran is backed into a corner and then offered a constructive, mutually beneficial way out, we might be able to get Iran to halt its nuclear program.
The NIE is right to note that “It is difficult to specify what such a combination might be,” but this is no excuse for not trying. The task of U.S. diplomacy now must be to determine the right combination of policies to contain and engage Iran.
See our report: Contain and Engage: A New Strategy for Resolving the Nuclear Crisis with Iran.