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Spooky Action At A Distance

Report from Brazil: Can they spin it?

By Daniel Nedal

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The Bush administration has been eager to stop Iran’s drive towards becoming a nuclear power. It spent years pushing for Security Council sanctions, pressuring for international inspections, etcetera; everything short of declaring war (but coming pretty damn close to it). And then along came the last U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear weapons program informing that the program has been halted since 2003. Many have been quick to point out the seemingly obvious, how that ruins the American case against Iran. However, cooked up with another purpose in mind, the November 2007 (released in December) NIE is NOT a definitive blow to Bush’s Iran policy; it can work either for it or against it. It all depends on how the administration sells the report.

First of all, let’s take a second to look back at NIE records and ponder just how reliable they are, and thus how seriously this one should be taken. Misinformed NIEs were at the heart of most major misperceptions and subsequent foreign policy screw-ups during the Cold War and beyond. Faulty intelligence assessments led to Eisenhower’s “bomber gap” of the late 50’s and JFK’s “missile gap” of the late 50’s/early 60’s which helped re-fuel the tensions among both superpowers. NIEs backed Khrushchev’s boasts of “burying the US” in the economic and military race and led many to believe the USSR might surpass the US, while the Soviet economy was really holding by strings. Later NIEs came out to dispel these misperceptions, but only when reality was already clear enough. More recently, NIEs came out supporting and then denying claims of Iraqi WMDs, Al Qaeda’s ties with Saddam and, of course, Iran’s nuclear weapon program. So, the best we can say about intelligence estimates is that they are right 50% of the time. The worst we can say is that they’re just as biased as any other government document and serve a policy purpose; they’re as much a cause of policy as a consequence of it.

The NIE in question is no different. It shouldn’t be regarded as an input that can change policy directives, but as a result of changes which already occurred and made it necessary - and possible - for the government to ease the pressure on Iran. Some of the main ones are the deepening of the financial crisis in the US and now creeping recession, the relative improvement in Iraq (which can be traced to less Iranian interference, some argue), sky-rocketing oil prices, worsening Russian-American relations, and the political crisis in Pakistan. If an intervention (multilateral or otherwise) in Pakistan is to be considered even as ultima ratio the US must be at relative ease with Iran. The presidential election should probably be factored in as well, but not to the same extent as the above, since it doesn’t pose such unambiguous incentive regarding the Iranian situation. All these elements make it extremely hard for the US government to push against Iran. For that alone the NIE, by minimizing the sense of urgency and impending doom that had been previously overplayed by American diplomats and pundits, can be accounted favoring American policy.

On the other hand, to the extent that the report can be interpreted as evidence that the US has been wasting time and energy, it’s largely a push on a shove. Talks with Iran have been clearly going nowhere for some time now. Ahmadinejad has only profited from the attention, boosted his confidence and sounds as provocative as ever. Meanwhile, Iranian uranium processing capabilities are developing and sanctions are yet to have a serious effect on the country’s economy. Iran is far from isolated: its relations with central- and east-Asian countries are holding up fine. China, for example, already relies on Iran for over 10% of its crude oil imports and has recently signed a multi-billionaire agreement to partner up with Iran to explore the Yadavaran oilfield. That the US has been wasting a lot of time and energy on Iran is a given, and we don’t need the NIE to tell us that.

Herein lies the twist: While the NIE states that, contrary to all previous expectations, from 2003 to at least mid-2007 the Iranian nuke program was halted, it also states - and that’s the part we ought to stress – that “Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so," BUT “may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously.” It goes on to say that “some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might—if perceived by Iran’s leaders as credible—prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.” So, far from detracting from American efforts against Iran, the report actually upholds them as the cause undelying the suspension of the Iranian nuclear program in the first place! And it calls for more of the same.

Countries who gave up their nuclear weapon programs are not unheard of: South Africa, Libya and Brazil are just a few examples. And there is some truth to the claim that international pressure has had a hand in delaying the Iranian nuke program. The main problem with that line of reasoning, though, is that it seems to blissfully ignore the side-effects of mismanaged international pressure. For the greater part it has been worst than useless, actually adding to Ahmadinejad’s appeal, justifying his drive for an insurance against foreign (read American) intervention, and bringing Iran together with other “victims of imperialist harassment,” like Hugo Chavez's Venezuela.

The NIE comes, then, not to damage Bush’s Iran policy, but to save face and flip history on its head. No longer an oil-powered hatemonger bent on spreading nukes to terrorists and wiping Israel and their American patrons off the map, Tehran is supposed to be now a rational actor, “guided by a cost-benefit approach”. So all the US has to do is keep up the good work. Great news, huh?

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© Daniel Nedal 2008