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Iran: The Unknown Unknown By: Alan W. Dowd
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, December 05, 2007


“Here’s what we know,” President George W. Bush began in response to a question about the latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran. “We know that they’re still trying to learn how to enrich uranium. We know that enriching uranium is an important step in a country who wants to develop a weapon. We know they had a program. We know the program is halted.”

If the intelligence is right this time, then this last piece of information is good news.

But there’s more to the story, as National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley explained a day earlier. “The intelligence community says they do not know whether Iran currently intends to develop nuclear weapons,” he cautioned, adding, “The risk of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapons remains a very serious problem.” He then cited the NIE to underscore his point: “Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons if a decision is made to do so.”

In other words, although the clandestine program was apparently halted in 2003, none of America’s 16 intelligence agencies can determine if it’s dead or dormant. “Halted” means paused, and paused means the story is far from over. Indeed, if history is any guide, Iran’s nuclear program is probably as dead as North Korea’s was in the 1990s.

Intelligence, it pays to recall, is a mix of science and art, guesswork and facts, gut instinct and calculation. When humans interpret the motives and actions of other humans, we are bound to get it wrong sometimes.

All of this calls to mind something Donald Rumsfeld once said, something his critics mocked but something that is profound in its simplicity. “The are known knowns; there are things we know we know,” he explained. “There are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

These are the most worrisome, the things men like Ahmadinejad are hatching, the things that cause intelligence analysts to hedge and presidents to worry, the things that start wars.

Predictably, the administration’s critics pounced on the NIE as proof that Washington’s threat of war in the event of Iran’s going nuclear was reckless and unneeded. “They should have stopped the saber rattling; should have never started it,” according to Sen. Barack Obama.

Sen. Joe Biden suggested that Bush might be “one of the most incompetent presidents in modern American history.”

“How could American intelligence agencies have overstated Iran’s intentions…so soon after being reprimanded for making similar errors involving Iraq?” intoned a New York Times piece.

Indeed, it pays to recall that NIEs can be wrong. After all, many of these same critics heaped scorn on the Bush administration for accepting the premise of the 2002 NIE, which concluded that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. One wonders why we should be so certain about this NIE, which includes the ominous caveat that “Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 timeframe.”

Plus, it’s worth noting, as Hadley explained, that if this NIE is correct, then it serves to validate the carrot-and-stick approach of the last few years, which has included “intensified international pressure,” “diplomatic isolation,” sanctions, negotiations and the threat of force.

In other words, the “saber rattling” Obama so derides may have actually been useful in persuading Iran and thus avoiding war.

Perhaps purposely, perhaps by happenstance, Europe and the U.S. had been playing good cop/bad cop with Tehran—one offering the prospect of trade and normalization, the other JDAMs and B-2s. Perhaps the game was working, perhaps not.

One thing seems certain: Thanks to the release of this NIE, that game is over. As one Tehran-based analyst told The New York Times, “a military strike by the U.S. might be off the table.” And as Robert Kagan notes, “Fear of American military action was always the primary reason Europeans pressured Tehran. Fear of an imminent Iranian bomb was secondary. Bringing Europeans together in support of serious sanctions was difficult before the NIE. Now it is impossible.”

It’s too bad that we have landed in such an unenviable place, but it’s not surprising.

Americans want their country’s foreign policy to be guileless yet Machiavellian enough to play off the PRC against the USSR, or to back-channel and bluster the world to the brink and back over Cuba. They want it to be as idealistic as Wilson at Versailles or Carter at Camp David but as hard-nosed as TR during the Perdicaris incident or Reagan at Reykjavik. They want it to be compassionate enough to feed Somalia and protect the Kurds and rebuild Western Europe but cold and calculating enough to ignore Nanking and Cambodia and Eastern Europe.

They want their country’s foreign policy to speak softly yet loud enough to call the Soviet Union evil and to condemn apartheid and to denounce the laogai. They want it to wield the big stick—in Dresden and Hiroshima, Korea and Kuwait and Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq—but only in such a way that innocent life is spared.

And they want their country’s foreign policy to keep nukes out of places like Iran, while keeping their sons out of harm’s way. To borrow a phrase from Don Rumsfeld, that may depend not on this president’s or his successor’s foreign policy, but rather on an “unknown unknown.”


Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Fraser Institute.


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