Intelligence and Hope for Iraq

Lots of buzz this week about the revelation that US intelligence agencies now believe Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. This is jarringly inconsistent with Bush Administration efforts to convince us that Iran poses an imminent threat to world peace. Only a few weeks ago the president himself talked about a possible World War III if Iran acquires nuclear weapons.

Partisans on both ends of the spectrum quickly formulated their own explanations how the National Intelligence Estimate (or "NIE" as the cool people call it) could have such a surprising conclusion. War hawks and neoconservatives say it can't possibly be true since Iran is so obviously trying to acquire nukes. They suspect anti-Bush forces in the CIA and State Department are spinning the information to discredit the president's policy. Liberals and Democrats say the opposite: the NIE proves that the Bush Administration was once again trying to lie its way into war and this time got caught with its hand in the cookie jar.

As usual, the truth is probably somewhere in between. We need to keep several things in mind in order to evaluate this story properly. First, we are all operating in a vacuum. Most of the NIE is classified and pundits on both side haven't seen the whole thing. Some reports suggest there is "new information" that caused analysts to reassess their previous conclusions. What they new information is, and whether it even exists, is something none of us know for sure.

Second, this NIE comes from the same intelligence community that thought it was a "slam dunk" that Saddam Hussein had an active nuclear, biological and chemical weapons program in Iraq. For the last few years they've consistently said the same about Iran, until now. I would like to think they couldn't possibly be so spectacularly wrong twice in a row, but stranger things have happened.

Third, it's hard to believe the White House was surprised about this. An NIE is published only after months of dialogue between the CIA, DIA, NSA, State Department, Pentagon, and assorted other agencies. It's not something that sneaks up on you. The president's staff had to know this was coming weeks ago. If they really were blindsided, it suggests that Bush has utterly failed to get control of the intelligence bureaucracy after seven years in office. I'm not sure that even this Administration could be that incompetent.

Fourth, it is exceedingly unusual for an intelligence report to underestimate a threat to the United States. The normal practice is to err on the side of caution and overstate the potential danger. That's what happened all through the Cold War, when we were told that the Soviet Army was a highly-trained, well-equipped disciplined fighting force that could pour across the Fulda Gap and overwhelm NATO anytime it wished. None of this was true, we later learned. Having been there myself, I can assure you the U.S. was extremely worried about it at the time. There must be a serious reason that this NIE breaks the pattern.

So what's going on? I agree with George Friedman at that the NIE is most likely correct; Iran probably does not have a nuclear weapons program, and never did. There is no doubt they have a nuclear energy program, but that's not surprising. They know as well as we do that the oil won't last forever. Meanwhile nuclear energy for their domestic needs means they can sell more oil for export.

The mullahs who control Iran are many things but they are not stupid. They know that there is little to gain from having nukes except the certainty of complete destruction if they ever used on on Israel or anyone else. There is, however, a lot they can gain from having the world think they are pursuing nuclear weapons. It worked for Saddam, at least until he pushed a little too far. They think they can be The Mouse That Roared.

Friedman points out that the release of the NIE at this particular juncture, intentional or not, solves a thorny geopolitical problem for both the United States and Iran. That problem is Iraq. The U.S. cannot sustain current force levels for much longer. Iran, for its part, cannot allow Iraq to become an American outpost on its border. Some compromise needs to be reached, but that cannot happen as long as the world thinks Iran has nuclear ambitions.

By removing this factor from the equation, the NIE sets the stage for serious discussions between the U.S. and Iran about the Iraq question. In fact, in an odd way the NIE could be very helpful to the U.S. in such discussions. As Friedman says, if Iran has no nuclear program then the U.S. need not make any concessions to get rid of it. We just called their bluff, in other words.

If this thesis is correct, then there may be light at the end of the tunnel for American involvement in Iraq. The Bush Administration would like nothing more than an opportunity to declare victory and leave. Iran has the power to grant that wish, but won't do so without extracting some favors from the U.S. I suspect some sort of grand bargain is being designed behind the scenes.

It's funny how hope seems to come when you least expect it - and from the places you least expect it. If the U.S. and Iran can work out their differences there is hope for a broader stability in the Middle East. Time magazine recently reported that Iran would like to have the Vatican - which has diplomatic relations on both sides - mediate in talks with the United States. Given that Pope Benedict XVI just released a new encyclical about hope called Spe Salvi, there may be a chance for a happy ending here. We should all pray for it.

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