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A December Surprise on Iran Intelligence

Author: Greg Bruno
Updated: December 5, 2007

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Curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions has become the focal point of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy in late 2007 and the source of bellicose rhetoric among those vying to replace Bush in the 2008 election. Claims by Washington about Tehran’s intent to produce an atomic bomb underpinned a campaign to isolate the Islamic regime economically in concert with the European Union and other powers. Indeed, Bush invoked “World War III” in an October news conference, and Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns just this week has been rehearsing these arguments (Reuters) in an effort to win Chinese and EU support for a third round of sanctions.

But the surprise December 3 release of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear program has rewritten the script somewhat, upending Iran hawks in the administration. “It moves this beyond this administration’s time in office, and essentially gives more time for diplomacy, conceivably, to work,” CFR President Richard N. Haass told CBS Evening News. CFR’s top Iran expert, Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh, puts it bluntly: “It essentially removes the possibility of a military confrontation between the United States and Iran over the nuclear issue.” A new analysis of Washington's approach to Iran casts further doubt on the Bush administration's strategy of containment. It is "unsound, it cannot be implemented effectively, and it will probably make matters worse," Takeyh and fellow CFR Middle East expert Vali Nasr write in Foreign Affairs.

Among the intelligence report’s eight primary findings: Iran appears to have “halted its nuclear weapons program” in the fall of 2003. If accurate, the timeframe is two years earlier than the intelligence community’s previous conjecture, contained in a 2005 National Intelligence Estimate, which formed the basis for U.S. allegations. That NIE determined Iran was “currently determined to develop nuclear weapons,” and intelligence officials renewed the charge repeatedly, most comprehensively in testimony before the Senate last January by the former Director of National Intelligence, John D. Negroponte.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the new NIE is that it was released at all. On November 13, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell said the new Iran report would not be released publicly (AP). No official explanation for his change of heart has been made so far, but the report set off a round of reassessments among policymakers, officials, lawmakers, presidential candidates, and foreign governments.

Some experts say the new NIE—which represents the consensus view of Iran’s nuclear ambitions by all sixteen of the United States’ spy agencies—will complicate support (Dow Jones) for a new round of economic sanctions aimed at pressing Iran to give up its nuclear pursuits. The United States, Britain, and France have pushed for a third round of sanctions, while Russia and China have taken a measured position. China, which had indicated clear support (FT) for new sanctions before the NIE release, sounded a more cautious tone (AP) on December 4. Russia made no immediate comment on the NIE. But Russian President Vladimir Putin, meeting with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili a day after its release, stressed that cooperation between Moscow and Tehran has “intensified recently” (Interfax).

Takeyh notes that the NIE offers something for everyone. Iran’s ability to easily restart its nuclear weapons program is noted, and the report also suggests past economic pressures may have played a role in forcing Iran to cease its weapons program in the first place. Bush administration officials have highlighted that point, suggesting that the administration’s isolationist approach toward Iran has been successful. “Many of the world are going to take heart in noting that it's diplomatic pressure that caused them to change their mind,” Bush told reporters.

Critics, meanwhile, question the accuracy (NYT) of the intelligence. On the left, many cited discrepancies with the 2005 report, as well as the infamous 2002 NIE on Iraq whose primary assertions turned out to be almost universally incorrect. On the right, neoconservatives fumed about what they saw as a decision by Bush to “punt” the Iran nuclear issue into the next administration. “Where’s Our Churchill?” writes Frank J. Gaffney Jr. on the National Review’s website. Valerie Lincy and Gary Milhollin, writing in the New York Times, argue “any document that suddenly gives the Bush administration a pass on a big national security problem” should be viewed with the deepest suspicion.

Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan notes that the NIE effectively killed the option of a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear targets, and made winning European support for sanctions “impossible.” As a result, Kagan concludes, the United States should look to engage Iran, a conclusion colleague David Ignatius says the NIE supports. “The analysts forcefully posit an alternative view of an Iran that is rational, susceptible to diplomatic pressure and, in that sense, can be ‘deterred,’” writes Ignatius.  

But not all sides are ready to talk, chief among them Israel. Defense Minister Ehud Barak rejected the report initially, though Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, was more diplomatic afterward, insisting that the report showed a need for tougher sanctions (Haaretz). For their part, Iranian officials have responded positively to the NIE. Iranian television declared the new report a “victory” (BBC) for Iran’s foreign policy, vindicating its “honest” diplomatic approach.

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