The Iranian National Intelligence Estimate: Winners and Losers

Date: 12-07-2007 | Category: Articles, Middle East

The Iranian National Intelligence Estimate: Winners and Losers

Not since the Team A – Team B debate over the Soviet threat of the 1970s has an intelligence estimate played such a major role in US foreign policy. Released earlier this week, the Iran National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) bottom line is this: whether or not Iran took a breather in doomsday weapons development in 2003, the US intelligence community is not sure whether these activities have been restarted. Those who spin this into a claim that “Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program today” are utterly misleading – deliberately or otherwise.
 This NIE is a pivotal event, laying the groundwork for a dramatic turnaround in US foreign policy, with repercussions beyond 2008 and heralding a further decline in the world’s perception of American power.
The NIE acknowledges that Iran managed a clandestine and sophisticated nuclear weapons program until the fall of 2003, but alleges that Teheran brought it to a halt due to international diplomatic pressure and sanctions.
The main flaw of the report is that it may deny the Administration the credible threat of the use of force as a foreign policy tool. This should never be the case.
Skeptics are already heaping criticism on the report, noting that its top three top authors are arms control analysts and diplomats, not Iranian experts or intelligence officers with experience in field operations and spy tradecraft, and therefore, their understanding of Iranian politics and “sources and methods” of intelligence is somewhat limited.
In addition, some commentators accuse the NIE’s authors, Thomas Fingar, former head of the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), Ambassador Kenneth Brill, and Vann H. Van Diepen, National Intelligence Officer for Weapons of Mass Destruction and Non-Proliferation, of harboring partisan agendas.
Moreover, the published partial Estimate  (9 pages out of 150) declares that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003 without even mentioning the US entry into Iraq following the liberation of Afghanistan. Many in Iran, including then-president Mohammad Khatami, may have felt pressed to negotiate with the US to prevent an encirclement by US troops and pro-American regimes at the time.
A temporary halt in the nuclear weapons program would have made sense as a negotiating tactic then, but its continuation since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with his blood-curling rhetoric, took office in 2005 is questionable.
The NIE release is the latest battle in a long-running war between supporters of a hard line towards Iran, and those who give absolute preference to diplomacy over the use of force, or the threat to use force. The former include Vice President Dick Cheney, while the latter currently include Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs; and Admiral William Fallon of Central Command, who would be waging war if one was started. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte is also among the NIE supporters, according to government sources. Outside the executive branch, the NIE is being cheered by members of the Baker-Hamilton Commission, including the George H.W. Bush Administration heavyweights.
The report already has created winners and losers – domestically and internationally. Among the winners, President Ahmadinejad, who claimed credit for Iran’s entry into the  ranks of “nuclear states” and derided the US and its intelligence community which based the report on “faulty intelligence.” He also takes credit for the repudiation of previous Iranian promises and rejection of Western demands by his London negotiator Saeed Jalili. Ahmadinejad came awfully close to admitting that Iran either has the bomb or is on track to get it.
Other winners include Russia, China and Germany. Now they are positioned to oppose future US demands in the UN Security Council on the grounds that the sanctions are unnecessary, as US intelligence assessments indicate there is no Iranian nuclear program.
Vladimir Putin can also reiterate that deploying a US ballistic missile defense system in Europe is against Russia, not Iran, and continue to fervidly oppose it.
Russia and China are major suppliers of military and nuclear technology to the mullocracy. Teheran spends billions building an arsenal of increasingly long range ballistic missiles. Iran also invested a fortune in educating hundreds of nuclear physicists and engineers in the best military technology colleges in Russia and around the world. German companies will be happy to continue business as usual in Iran.
Domestically, the US intelligence community can celebrate having distanced itself from the White House’s policy on Iran. Intelligence analysts are still trying to perform “mea culpa” for not standing up to the Administration over the Iraq estimates. They believe that they were first pushed to tailor intelligence and then were unjustly blamed for the initial failures. Another executive branch winner is the State Department, which is now riding high after having lost several turf battles to the White House and the Pentagon in the run-up to the Iraq war.
Among the losers are President Bush and Dick Cheney, US credibility, and the remnants of the neo-cons. The US will be unlikely to provide credible world leadership, as our key policy on Iran has been called into question by our own intelligence community.
If the US is sidelined on Iran, America’s reputation from Warsaw and Prague to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia can easily be undermined. The moderate Gulf states are terrified of Teheran.  Yes, the neo-cons get the pay-back for beating the drums of the Iraq war. Perhaps they cried wolf too early – on Iraq. But now the real wolf may have fled the barn with his mouth full.
Another loser, if the US permanently shelves the credible threat of the use of force,  is Israel. Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Deputy Defense Minister Efrain Sneh, who spent the last fifteen years tracking Iranian missiles and Teheran’s nuclear program, have rejected the report. But today Israel’s “alarmism” will be now used to drive a wedge between the US and the Jewish state.
For the neo-cons, the loss may be tactical and political. For Israel, it may be existential and fatal. 
Finally, the biggest loser -- the Iranian people. Now the chances of the US going after the mullahs, militarily or through regime change, are minimal.
The Iranians are on their own.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation

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