I’m still on the road in Europe and thus have had limited time to surf the internet, let alone check with sources back in Washington, regarding the impact of both Annapolis and release of the NIE on Iran’s nuclear program. But the latter event, in particular, naturally required me to rejigger my presentation, entitled “Iran in 2008? The Changing Balance of Power in the Bush Administration and its Impact on the War on Terror,” to the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva last night, as the NIE has already clearly tilted the balance of power within the administration more strongly in favor of the realists. At the moment, I don’t have time to give a detailed reaction to the NIE and certainly none that would offer a unique insight that has not been alluded to by others, including the mainstream media. Needless to say, the NIE is a bombshell and will, of course, not only dramatically impact the domestic political debate in the coming year, but will certainly wreck havoc on the administration’s diplomatic strategy.
What I think is particularly remarkable about the NIE — aside from its conclusions and willingness to virtually repudiate the main conclusions of the 2005 NIE (a reflection no doubt — in addition to new intelligence and analysis — of the political space created by the hawks’ decline and the realist rise in the intervening period) is its implicit policy recommendations which (surprise, surprise) echo that the realists (particularly SecDef Gates and Zbigniew Brzezinski who co-chaired the Council on Foreign Relations task force on Iran in July 2004 — less than a year after Iran’s decision to suspend its apparently secret military nuclear program) have long argued:
“Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs. This, in turn, suggests that some international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achiedve 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.”
Aside from the factual findings of the NIE, this is by far the most important passage in the NIE, because it asserts that the Iranian leadership is a fundamentally rational actor — a traditional nation-state, if you will — that calculates what it does in recognizable terms and that, in any event, is not a an ideologically-crazed, fanatical regime of the kind that neo-conservatives and their aggressive nationalist allies have tried so hard to depict. This depiction, if accepted by the mainstream media, completely undermines the hawks’ efforts to compare the Islamic Republic with the Nazis. (For the latest example of this comparison — and a particularly strained one, at that — see Max Boot’s piece today’s Wall Street Journal in which, reacting to the NIE, he quotes “one senior Arab official” as saying, “If we accept Iran as a nuclear power that is like accepting Hitler in 1933-34.”) And, while it professes not to be certain about what carrots and sticks will do the trick with Iran, the underlying message is, as I read it, engage without preconditions, even while maintaining sanctions. It reinforces what Baker was shouting from the rooftops after publication of the Baker-Hamilton report almost exactly one year ago.
A couple of other quick points on the NIE:
The neo-cons have predictably launched a campaign against the NIE, arguing that the rejection of the 2005 predecessor begs the question why the 2007 conclusions should be taken seriously and (a la Podhoretz and Ledeen) that the the intelligence community is deliberately trying to undermine the president’s policies with which they disagree (Podhoretz’ “darker suspicion” — a phrase that should elicit some kind of comment by Guiliani, hopefully).
Second, the fact that the main conclusions of the report were known in top policy circles since at least last summer, if not well before then, helps explain why the administration’s hawks (and their neo-con allies) — culminating in Cheney’s late October speech to the Washington Institute on Near East Policy (WINEP) — started hyping Iran’s alleged direction of attacks on U.S. soldiers and marines in Iraq in August. It was clear by then that the nuclear pretext for war would suffer a serious setback whenever the NIE would be published, so that a new pretext needed to be pressed hard. Of course, the senior ranks of the Pentagon, including Gates, have since pushed back pretty hard against Cheney’s allegations, as I pointed out in this space most recently one month ago, although that particular pretext — and the opportunity for an “incident” in Iraq that could quickly escalate into a major U.S. attack — remains a distinct possibility. (Al Qaeda has probably been trying to figure out how to arrange such an incident for some time.)