A new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report on Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities, released by the U.S. government earlier this week, has stunned the world by announcing “in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program,” and assessing, with moderate confidence, that the program is still on ice. That appears to differ sharply from its judgment just two years ago that Iran was engaged in an active effort to develop nuclear weapons, and strikes a discordant note with the recent push by the Bush administration to not-so-subtly insinuate that Iran was an imminent threat. It was no surprise, then, that pundits quickly concluded that the NIE heralded a major shift in U.S. policy. Wrote Steven Lee Meyers of The New York Times: “Rarely, if ever, has a single intelligence report so completely, so suddenly, and so surprisingly altered a foreign policy debate here.”
Forgive me, then, for pointing out that the debate I hear sounds pretty similar to how it did last week. The intelligence report will do little to change the position and strategy of the United States, nor will it have much of an effect on the approaches taken by Russia, China, and Israel. It will have more of an effect in Europe—notably Britain and France—but not as much of one as many suppose. (Those six countries, along with Iran, are the major players: they include every permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, along with the state most clearly in Tehran’s crosshairs.) There should be no doubt that the administration has a political opportunity to use the new intelligence to justify a long overdue change of course, engaging directly with Tehran while continuing to apply pressure. But there is no indication that the administration will seize that opportunity and change its strategy.
In Washington, the real debate has long been between those who see some value in direct and immediate discussions with Tehran, and those who, like the administration, believe that engagement would be counterproductive, at least it if were pursued while Iran continues to enrich uranium. Military action has never been a significant near-term possibility, despite breathless media reports suggesting the contrary, while intensified sanctions, an administration priority, have long enjoyed bipartisan support.