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Excerpt: 'Myths, Illusions, And Peace'

The National Intelligence Estimate and its Impact

The December 3, 2007 public release of the NIE title Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities transformed the landscape on dealing with Iran. The report asserted that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. In making this statement, it created the impression that Iran was not pursuing nuclear weapons and was not a near-term threat. This produced a slew of obvious questions: If Iran was not a near-term threat, why pursue sanctions? Why build pressure on that regime? And, of course, why should all options, including military, be on the table?

The report was a collective effort of the intelligence community. It probably reflected a desire to ensure that intelligence could not be used to justify a war on Iran the way the Bush administration had used the war in Iraq. However, given the way the NIE was drafted, it was bound to create several ironies and have a number of unintended consequences. It is ironic that Iran was not sanctioned by the United Nations for its covert nuclear weapons program; it was sanctioned for its open pursuit of uranium enrichment, which, if continued over time (something the NIE acknowledged was occurring), could be used to develop nuclear weapons. It is also ironic that the NIE concluded that Iran had stopped its weapons program in 2003 "primarily in response to international pressures," which "indicates Tehran's decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach." Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that by framing its judgments the way it did — emphasizing the covert nuclear weapons program and efforts rather than the overt enrichment developments — the NIE inadvertently succeeded in considerably reducing the "cost" factor in the ongoing international approach to Iran.

Though the British, French, and Germans generally tried to hold the line, the international reaction after the NIE was markedly different from what it had been before. One almost needs to divide the approach toward dealing with Iran into the pre-NIE and post-NIE periods. Pre-NIE, Russia and China were prepared to act immediately on a third UNSC sanctions resolution against Iran; post-NIE, they both raised questions about doing so and postponed consideration of such a resolution (1803), and like its predecessors, the resolution was quite limited and sent a signal as much for what it did not cover as for what it did.

Pre-NIE, the Saudis were trying to raise the pressure on the Iranians over their nuclear program. In early November 2007, Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, called on Iran to respond to a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) proposal to "create a consortium for all users of enriched uranium in the Middle East. The consortium will distribute according to needs... and ensure no use of this enriched uranium for atomic weapons." Faisal suggested that Switzerland could be the site of the enrichment plan for the consortium and made clear that this proposal, which he revealed had been conveyed privately to Iran one year earlier but had not produced a response, would answer the Iranian desire for civil nuclear power and not prejudice Iranian rights in any way. Why go public at this point unless the purpose was to put pressure on Iran?

But that was pre-NIE; post-NIE, there has been no additional mention of the proposal. On the contrary, the GCC invited Ahmadinejad to attend their December meeting (an unprecedented invitation), and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia also invited the Iranian president to go to Mecca — hardly signs of increasing pressure on Iran. Similarly, after keeping Iran at arm's length, Egypt invited Iranian official Ali Larijani to Cairo for discussions after the NIE; and former Egyptian ambassador to the United States Ahmad Maher wrote in a January 2008 commentary that Israel, not Iran, was the problem for the Arab world and that the "disputes between Arabs and Iran" can be resolved "through a dialogue."

In Iran itself, one also sees a pre-NIE reality and a different post-NIE reality. Ahmadinejad was clearly on the defensive prior to the NIE, and he went on the offensive after it. He seized on the NIE, proclaiming a great victory and at one point referring to the intelligence report as a "declaration of surrender." But he was not content only to claim a great victory over the United States and others who opposed the Iranian nuclear activities; according to his office's news service, he also "belittled" those in Iran who had criticized the high cost Iran was said to be paying over the nuclear issue.

If nothing else, those like Rafsanjani who were warning about the costs of Ahmadinejad's nuclear approach seem to have been undercut. Certainly, their complaints that he was actually threatening Iran's security with his belligerent language lost credibility, and following the publication of the NIE, he was subjected to far less criticism for "his inflammatory rhetoric."

Even more to the point, Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, became more vocal in his support for Ahmadinejad on the nuclear issue after the NIE — actually lauding the "personal role of the president and his resistance in the nuclear case." In addition, the Supreme Leader began to assert his responsibility for decision making on the nuclear question. In a January 3, 2008 speech, Khamenei for the first time "admitted that Iran's shift in nuclear policy — which began right after Ahmadinejad came to office — was by his order." Whether coincidence or not, the Supreme Leader also assumed a more visible role on the nuclear issue post-NIE, meeting with Dr. ElBaradei on January 12. While it is probably too much to claim that the NIE has changed Khamenei's view, his readiness to be clearly identified with the nuclear program nonetheless became far more apparent.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the leverage and choices that could be employed vis-à-vis Iran in the aftermath of the NIE have been reduced. Having fewer choices or options, however, does not mean that we have none. Iran has vulnerabilities and interests that might be susceptible to both positive and negative incentives and disincentives.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky. Copyright 2009 by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky.

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Dennis Ross and David Makovsky