Amid heated debate about American President George W. Bush's claim that Iran's nuclear ambitions could start World War III, the official US National Intelligence Estimate on the matter came as a shock to all. Whatever the true intention behind this NIE on Iran's nuclear project, it had the following immediate consequences:
- it prompted the Islamic regime to construe the report as proof of the innocent and peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear activities;
- it gave Iranian hardliners a degree of self-confidence and reassurance about their defiant stance;
- it encouraged the "revolutionary coast guard" to challenge US warships' "transit passage" through the Straits of Hormuz during Bush's recent trip to the region;
- it prompted Russia to deliver its first shipment of enriched uranium for Iran's nuclear power plant at Bushehr as a deterrent safeguard against any eventual preemptive strike;
- it induced Russia and China to stiffen their position regarding sanctions in the United Nations Security Council;
- it relieved Bush of the mounting psychological pressure exerted by neo-conservatives in Washington to adopt a military option against Iran, and finally;
- it assured pacifists in America and elsewhere that the United States will not venture into another war in the Middle East.
This whole conjuncture is rather optimistic as far as the actual course of events with respect to Iran's nuclear crisis. Indeed, we should not loose sight of the pessimistic interpretation of the NIE. With a bit of imagination and skepticism, we may visualize the gloomy side of the report as follows. First, based on a common sense approach we may conclude that the American intelligence community is not so naive as to divulge even declassified materials and documents that could jeopardize US strategic interests. Second, the entire affair could involve disinformation issued to mislead Iranian decision-makers and a trap laid with the objective of evaluating Iranian hardliners' reaction. And third, the report could have been intended to convince Americans and the international community that the United States was right in its rigid strategy vis-a-vis Iran insofar as that country abandoned its evil nuclear intentions in 2003 following mounting pressure, but by the same token could restart its nuclear program anytime in the future.
In fact, the declassified summary of the report, which draws together information from 16 American intelligence agencies, says with "high confidence" that Iran ceased its nuclear weapons program in 2003 "in response to international pressure". The assessment also says with "moderate confidence" that the program has not been restarted. However, the report claims that Iran is keeping its options open regarding the development of nuclear weapons.
High officials and advisers close to the US president, while considering the report "positive", also believe that the risk of a nuclear Iran remains "serious". In their view, the report's findings confirm that the US was "right to be worried" about Iran's nuclear ambitions and had "the right strategy". This clearly conveys the message that the White House is in no way prepared to back down from its earlier position on Iran.
In Bush's words, the NIE was a "warning signal"; his view that a nuclear Iran would be a danger "hasn't changed" since Iran is still trying to enrich uranium and could restart its weapons program at any time: "they had the program, they halted it and they could restart it." In his opinion, the report was "an opportunity for the US to rally the international community" to further pressure the Iranian regime to suspend its efforts to enrich uranium.
Despite the fact that the US president has been more cautious in his public statements after earlier having argued that Iran's nuclear threat could ignite a third world war, he still seems to reflect the view of military-minded neo-conservatives in Washington. True, the intelligence report will make it harder for proponents of military action against Iran to argue their case. Nonetheless, when asked if military action was a possibility, Bush said, "The best diplomacy--effective diplomacy--is one in which all options are on the table." In his view, Iran remains a threat to the world despite new intelligence saying the country may not be building nuclear weapons.
Seen in this context, Bush's recent trip to the Middle East could be in part an attempt to dispel any misapprehension regarding the NIE on the part of America's allies in the region and to assure them of the US commitment against Iran's nuclear challenge. Still, there can be little doubt that the NIE has had the effect of cooling down Iran's nuclear hot spot as a high priority foreign policy issue for the five-plus-one states and the US in particular. For example, French President Nicholas Sarkozy and his foreign minister, who had warned Iran regarding a preemptive strike, now themselves became the target of harsh domestic criticism and suddenly adopted a more compromising stance on the issue. This was the first major foreign policy setback for Sarkozy, who started his tenure as the most vocal critic of Iran and had sought to use it as a common cause in order to align himself with the United States.
Similarly, the United Kingdom and Germany have started to take their distance from the perplexing American position. Bearing in mind Russia's and China's earlier positions, it now appears increasingly difficult to reach a consensus among the five-plus-one states for the adoption of a harsh UN Security Council resolution against Iran. This is indeed good news for hardliners in Tehran, who had claimed victory over the United States after the NIE was issued.
Yet all in all, the NIE provoked only momentary confusion. Nothing substantial has taken place in order to change the course of Iran's nuclear crisis. Notwithstanding certain disagreements among the permanent members of the Security Council on the issue, there seems to be little difference among them in terms of securing the credibility and reputation of this major world body. Because Iran is still defying UN Security Council demands regarding its enrichment of uranium, the question of sanctions remains active. The debate among Council members concerning the harshness of a third sanctions resolution will reach a decisive point in the coming weeks.- Published 24/1/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org