As the Bush administration has never had a reality-based foreign policy, it is disappointing though not surprising that they feel vindicated in their misguided Iran policy. Despite the fact that the administration has not indicated that they will pursue broader diplomacy with Iran, the positive effects of the NIE’s release are clear—it has taken the wind out of arguments that Iran is an imminent threat and demonstrated that there is ample time for diplomacy.
Conservatives who refuse to accept that Iran does not pose urgent danger to the US are pushing back against the consensus of the intelligence community. Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) says he plans to introduce legislation to establish a commission to review the NIE’s conclusions:
"Iran is one of the greatest threats in the world today. Getting the intelligence right is absolutely critical, not only on Iran’s capability but its intent. So now there is a huge question raised, and instead of politicizing that report, let’s have a fresh set of eyes — objective, yes — look at it," he said in an interview.
Ensign’s proposal calls for Senate leaders to put an equal number of Republicans and Democrats on a panel to study the NIE and report back in six months. "There are a lot of people out there who do question [the NIE]. There is a huge difference between the 2005 and 2007 estimates," he said. The 2005 intelligence estimate reported that Iran was still working on a clandestine military program, and the new assessment basically says the previous judgment was wrong on a key point.
"If it’s inaccurate, it could result in very serious damage to legitimate American policy," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). As recently as July, he noted, intelligence officials said in congressional testimony that they had a high degree of confidence that Iran was intent on developing the world’s deadliest weapon. "We need to update our conclusions, but this is a substantial change," he said in an interview.
As Dr. Jeffrey Lewis at Arms Control Wonk puts it, “There is a fine line between taking a second look and asking the question until you get the answer you want. This is on the wrong side of that line.”
Though there has been a reversal since the 2005 NIE, it is not quite as dramatic as many people have portrayed it. Those of us at Peace Action West who have been pushing for diplomacy with Iran are obviously pleased with the conclusions of the NIE, but it is logical to ask the question of how much confidence we should put in this assessment. Jim Walsh of MIT gives a list of reasons in today’s Boston Globe why we should believe the conclusions in the NIE this time around:
The intelligence community has clearly gotten the message. There are strong indications that this intelligence estimate is on target.
First, the idea that Iran suspended nuclear weapons activities in fall 2003 is consistent with how countries typically behave. Throughout the nuclear age, governments have been reluctant to carry on clandestine nuclear programs when inspectors are on the ground. Saddam Hussein, for example, shut down his WMD programs in the early 1990s, because he feared inspectors might uncover his efforts. In fall 2003, Iran was under intense scrutiny regarding its nuclear program. As a consequence, Tehran agreed to join an upgraded inspections regime called the Additional Protocol. From an Iranian perspective, it would have been foolhardy to invite inspectors in only to get caught with an active program.
Second, it is consistent with what we know about Iran. This new intelligence estimate reverses a 2005 conclusion that Tehran was determined to get the bomb no matter what. That earlier conclusion always seemed at odds with the history of Iran’s nuclear efforts, which could be called inconsistent at best. Though Tehran showed an interest in nuclear technology under the shah and again beginning in the mid-1980s, the program was slow to make progress, even though it was receiving help from Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan’s secret nuclear network. For a country that was "determined" to become a nuclear weapons state, Iran was taking its time.
Third, the fact that this intelligence estimate contradicts a previous report is itself a healthy development. When graduate students at MIT present their research, I often ask if they were surprised by anything. I always worry about the ones who say they found exactly what they expected. A good intelligence process is one that is open to being wrong and not afraid to report it.
Finally, this intelligence estimate offers its new conclusions despite the political consequences. The vice president and those of like mind are probably pretty upset right now. And the president, who can still make a case against enrichment in Iran, nevertheless finds himself on the defensive about his past statements. As for policy, the intelligence estimate makes it less likely that the United States will use military force, which is good, but that it may also have the effect of taking the pressure off or even emboldening Iran, which is bad.