Opponents of confrontation with Iran were quick to hail release of an unclassified summary of a National Intelligence Estimate report, Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities. The report concluded that Tehran had halted its nuclear weapons program in late 2003. The Washington Post ran a story with the headline “A Blow to Bush’s Tehran Policy.” The leftist New American Foundation held a snap event on the theme “Iran Policy After the NIE.” It proclaimed, “Today, the administration's Iran policy is in doubt.” Yet two years ago, when there was an NIE that concluded Iran was “determined to develop nuclear weapons,” these same voices cast doubts on the credibility of the intelligence community that had put the report together. So, have the spies changed their minds? Is the 2007 NIE at odds with the 2005 NIE? Or is the issue more complex than the headline writers and partisan pundits want to admit?
If one actually reads the new NIE summary, one finds vindication for the hard-line that the Bush administration has taken towards Iran, up to and including the initial invasion of Iraq. The NIE argues that the reason Iran “does not currently have a nuclear weapons program” is that “the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure.” And from where has that pressure primarily come? The United States, which has applied sanctions, pushed the Europeans and the UN to apply multilateral sanctions, and has repeatedly threatened military action to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities (in diplomatic language, refusing to take the military option off the table). But perhaps the most important action that got Tehran’s attention was the invasion of Iran’s neighbor, Iraq, to preempt Baghdad’s development of Weapons of Mass Destruction.
The NIE states, “We assess with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons.” This effort had been underway since “at least the late 1980s.” So, why the sudden decision to halt in 2003? What happened that year to send Tehran a message? The capture of Baghdad by U.S. forces that April.
President George W. Bush showed he was willing to follow up his earlier characterization of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil” by destroying one of the “axis” regimes. This action sent a shock wave through the other two rogue states. By August, both North Korea and Iran had entered negotiations to head off feared military strikes by the United States. The Six Party talks with North Korea were hosted by Pyongyang’s ally China to promote a “peaceful diplomatic solution” to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Iran was meeting with England, France and Germany (the European Union 3), also seeking diplomatic cover with other powers to avoid a direct confrontation with Washington.
Libya, another rogue state with nuclear ambitions, was cowered even more by U.S. action and disarmed completely in early 2004. As former UN Ambassador and non-proliferation expert John Bolton recounts in his memoir Surrender Is Not An Option, “discussions started after Muammar al-Qaddafi watched the ease with which we overthrew Saddam Hussein, and worried he might be next...The final step was Saddam’s capture in Iraq in December, which was all Qaddafi needed to see before making the final decision to allow us to transport his entire nuclear program to Oak Ridge.”
Unfortunately, by 2006 the U.S. military threat was fading as the Iraq insurgency dragged on and American popular support for the war effort declined. Tehran and Pyongyang were both heartened by the rise of Democratic political opposition in Congress to the assertive policies of the Bush administration. Calls for troop withdrawals from Iraq ran in tandem with calls for backing off on any wider confrontations with either Iran or North Korea. In Pyongyang, Kim Jong-il felt bold enough to conduct not only missile tests but a nuclear test. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad broke the IAEA seals on the Natanz facility and declared that 60,000 centrifuges would be set up to enrich uranium that could be used for weapons (though he claimed it would only be used for fuel).
It has been very important for President Bush to show unwillingness to give in to Congressional pressure, or to conduct national strategy based on weekly poll numbers. That he will remain the commander-in-chief until the end of 2008 still gives adversaries pause. Rather than back off in Iraq, he ordered a surge of combat units to break the insurgency. Across the region, the U.S. has sought to strengthen a coalition of Sunni Arab states to balance Shi’ite Iran. Carrier battlegroups have been periodically surged into the region to keep the military option credible.
There was also renewed talk of military options against North Korea in the wake of its weapons tests. To cool the crisis in Asia, China brokered an agreement that traded economic aid and other concessions to North Korea in exchange for the shutting down of its plutonium enrichment operation at Yongbyon. Beijing’s aim is to keep Pyongyang scary enough to prompt acts of appeasement, but not so scary as to provoke counterattacks that could threaten the survival of the buffer-state regime. And Kim Jong-il has not yet agreed to turn over any nuclear weapons he may have built. As negotiator Asst. Secretary of State Christopher Hill testified to Congress on October 25, “we hope to move forward early next year to the Third and final Phase, which will be aimed at dismantling all of North Korea’s nuclear facilities, capturing all fissile material the DPRK has produced, and the abandonment of its nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.”
So, though the North Korean issue is not truly resolved, the crisis has cooled. The calm has given Pyongyang more time, perhaps enough to wait for the end of the Bush administration in hopes of a less resolute successor in 2009. After the heat was off in the late 1990s, Pyongyang resumed its covert nuclear program. The NIE says that Iran maintains the capability to resume a program, as if the continued processing of weapons-grade uranium does not in itself constitute a continuing program.
The NIE summary states, “we cannot rule out that Iran has acquired from abroad – or will acquire in the future – a nuclear weapon or enough fissile material for a weapon.” In September, Israel attacked a site in Syria believed to have been a conduit for North Korean-Iranian nuclear cooperation. On November 27, German authorities arrested a man with joint German-Iranian citizenship for exporting to Iran material that could be used for “military or nuclear projects.” It should be stressed that the exact statement in the NIE summary reads, “We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.” The NIE defines “moderate confidence” as a case where “information is credibility sources and plausible, but not of sufficient quality or corroborated sufficiently to warrant a higher level of confidence.” In other words, there is still a substantial amount of doubt. Sixteen agencies contribute to the NIE process, so ambiguous and cautiously worded generalities are the norm to cover possible disagreements between agency assessments.
Several Democratic member of Congress expressed the hope that the NIE would cool the crisis with Iran. But if this means weakening vigilance and pressure, the outcome could be even more dangerous in the Middle East than in Northeast Asia. As a nation-state with vast oil reserves, a large population and a militant Shi’a religious creed that claims universal appeal, Iran is a much greater threat to its neighbors than is North Korea. Tehran arms and trains militia groups in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza. It wants the strength to deter intervention against its regional ambitions.
It was the backing off of international pressure on Saddam’s regime that led to the U.S. invasion. As stated in The Final Report of the Special Advisor to the Director of Central Intelligence on Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction (30 September 2004):
Saddam wanted to recreate Iraq’s WMD capability—which was essentially destroyed in 1991—after sanctions were removed and Iraq’s economy stabilized...Saddam aspired to develop a nuclear capability—in an incremental fashion, irrespective of international pressure and the resulting economic risks—but he intended to focus on ballistic missile and tactical chemical warfare (CW) capabilities.
This is the pattern seen in Iran. The invasion of Iraq was a pre-emptive strike. The U.S. does not want to have to fight an enemy after they have acquired WMD, especially nuclear weapons, in order to clean up a mess that could have been prevented.
The desire to back off on Tehran was manifest in the exchange on December 4 between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and John Edwards during an NPR radio debate. The issue was whether the Iranian Revolutionary Guards should be labeled a terrorist organization. The IRG is undeniably a terrorist organization, independent of whether Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, but Edwards thought it was “counter productive” to use confrontational rhetoric with Tehran on any topic.
The Bush hard line cannot be called “counter productive” if it has been successful in forcing Iran to halt its nuclear weapons program. Is that not what the objective has been? A successful outcome, even if partial or tentative, should not be abandoned, especially when facing leaders like Ahmadinejad and Kim who have a record of deception and violence. As the new NIE notes, “Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.” The United States and its allies must continue to tell Tehran in no uncertain terms that it must not decide to build such weapons, and to block Iran from acquiring the specific means needed to build such weapons as long as the country is ruled by an “axis” regime. What one of America’s greatest presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, said remains true today, “Diplomacy is utterly useless where there is no force behind it.”