War Stories

After the Iran NIE

Diplomacy might be a good idea.

Fred Kaplan was online on Dec. 6 to chat with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

George W. Bush

Nearly everyone now agrees that Monday’s National Intelligence Estimate takes war with Iran off the table. Even those who lament the fact, or who question the NIE’s findings, realize that the case for airstrikes has just gone up in smoke.

But the question remains: What should President George W. Bush do now? At Tuesday’s press conference, he tried to act as if nothing had changed, as if the proclamation by all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies—that Iran “halted its nuclear weapons program” four years ago—confirms, rather than undermines, his position that Iran was, is, and shall be a huge threat.

Bush’s credibility is further diminished by his remark on Tuesday that he’d been briefed on the NIE only last week. This may be literally correct (the final draft, after all, wasn’t written until last week), but it’s wildly misleading. We now know that Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, told him about the impending report in August, when analysts were reaching their conclusions.

This is no minor discrepancy. It was in October that Bush publicly warned of “World War III” if Iran continued its work toward a nuclear weapon—two months after he learned from McConnell that Iran had stopped such work long ago.

Bush said at Tuesday’s press conference that McConnell had mentioned the report back in August but that he had not revealed its contents.

As Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., rightly noted in a conference call with reporters shortly afterward, this claim is “not believable.” Here’s a president who is “fixated on Iran,” who is briefed on intelligence every morning—and when his intelligence chief tells him that a new NIE on Iran is nearly finished, he doesn’t ask what it’s going to say?

Credibility is one of many things that Bush has long lost, but on this issue in particular, he needs to earn some back right away—because he’s right about some of the things that he warned about on Tuesday, and he has to give foreign leaders a reason to believe him.

It’s worth noting, for instance, that, according to the NIE, the intelligence agencies conclude “with high confidence” that Iran halted its nuclear-weapons program in the fall of 2003. But they state only “with moderate confidence” that Iran has not since resumed the program.

The agencies note that Iran probably hasn’t enriched enough uranium or reprocessed enough plutonium to build a bomb; that it “still faces significant technical problems” in trying to do so; and that, as a result of these problems, it may not be able to produce enough nuclear materials—much less pack them into an A-bomb—until after the year 2015.

However, the intelligence agencies caution, also “with high confidence,” that Iran “has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.” And they admit that they “do not know” whether Iran “intends to develop nuclear weapons” at some point down the road.

Finally, the NIE states that Iran halted its program “primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.”

In short, a full reading of the NIE—at least the unclassified version—leads to three conclusions. First, Iran poses no nuclear threat now or in the next few years. Second, it may develop nuclear weapons at some point; work has been halted but not dismantled, and long-term intentions are unclear. Finally, Iran’s decisions are influenced by external pressures; they are less likely to develop a bomb if pressures exist—and, by implication, they may be more likely to do so if the pressure is dropped.

One upshot of the NIE is that the United States is extremely unlikely to launch airstrikes on Iran. One downside, however, is that most countries are now unlikely to keep up diplomatic pressure on Iran. At least a few countries that have reluctantly gone along with Bush’s call for “smart sanctions,” notably China and Russia, may well back out, now that the rationale for such action—the allegedly imminent prospect of a nuclear-armed Tehran—has been nullified.

Since the NIE’s release, Bush has emphasized the passages of the report that continue to sound warning bells. But this effort will be dismissed as—and, in fact, will be—lame propaganda unless he also acknowledges, and embraces, the positive passages.

If Bush wants the rest of the world to acknowledge the caveats, he has to acknowledge—and act on—the main message. In other words, if he wants Russia, China, and the European Union to continue the diplomatic pressure on Iran, he has to offer Iran diplomatic inducements. Pressure may be needed to keep the Iranians from resuming their nuclear-weapons program. But negotiations should be started, as a reward for halting their program—and the prospect of further rewards should be held out if they unwind their program still further.

Bush should have started serious talks with Iran two years ago, for a variety of reasons. The NIE offers two additional, compelling reasons for starting them now.

First, the estimate reveals that the window of opportunity—the span of time before Iran can pose a nuclear threat—is much wider than anyone had thought. We can afford to take some risks and try out new approaches.

Second, the estimate will unavoidably, and understandably, spur many world leaders to drop all concerns about Iran and push for an end to all sanctions. This may, in turn, spur Iran’s leaders to resume and step up their nuclear program while the pressure is off.

Under the present circumstances, very few countries will join the United States in squeezing Iran—unless the United States offers to let up on the squeeze if Iran continues to cooperate. Even if talks lead nowhere, it’s important that this offer be widely seen as genuine. And who knows? Maybe talks will lead somewhere after all. There is no downside in trying.