International efforts to increase pressure on Iran are undeniably made more difficult by the judgment of the December US National Intelligence Estimate that Iran halted work on nuclear weapons in 2003. It is unfortunate that the NIE was cast in a way that gave headline-grabbing attention to this element rather than to the other parts of the estimate that confirmed why the world should be concerned about Iran's efforts to acquire a nuclear weapons capability.
Despite the damage the report did to US diplomatic strategy, however, there are reasons to be optimistic about the NIE's longer-term impact. There is now a greater window of opportunity for moving ahead on a path that does include war among its more probable outcomes. The NIE assessment that Iranian decision-makers are rational is one sign of hope. Although there is no hint in sight that Iranian leaders will ever give up the nuclear weapons option, important elements of the leadership have demonstrated a willingness to pause in pursuit of some aspects of it. They need to be persuaded to make a rational cost/benefit analysis that will give them reason to put the whole enrichment program on ice.
With the military option gone, the US and additional western countries must make a concerted effort to strengthen other tools. This means, first of all, increasing the economic pressure, best of all through the United Nations, where sanctions can be applied comprehensively, but also through the EU and other means of applying western financial, political and technological leverage. At the same time, the US should take the suggestion of an increasing number of policy thinkers, including conservative commentator Robert Kagan, and seize the initiative by opening direct talks with Tehran. Iran will not bend to pressure alone, and only through US engagement will Iran be persuaded that proffered incentives are real.
Increasing pressure will be harder without the threat of US military action that was the strongest motivator for some countries to go along with sanctions on Iran. While not supportive of sanctions in principle, they believed that by imposing economic penalties they could hold off an American inclination to bring military power to bear on the problem. Joining sanctions because they are a preferable alternative to war was never a very sound justification, however. The more durable and genuine rationale for economic pressure is in order to dissuade Iran from acquiring a capability that is useful mainly for weapons and that could prompt a cascade of nuclear proliferation throughout the region.
By taking US-led war off the table, the NIE assessment conceivably could make it easier for countries such as China to accept sanctions, given that one of Beijing's strongest arguments against such Security Council action was that it would be a slippery slope to war. Now China can make a more clear-minded calculation about the benefits to its national interests of joining collective pressure that can offer the best means of keeping Iran from joining the nuclear club.
Inside Iran, the NIE has played out in unpredicted and potentially promising ways. On one hand, the report gave President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad a new reason for boastfulness. On the other hand, it is hard for him to propagandize the NIE without also drawing attention to the confirmation that Iran did in fact have a weaponization program to which it has never admitted. This is further reason for the International Atomic Energy Agency not to declare the Iranian file closed.
Removing the threat of war weakened Ahmadinezhad's ability to continue to rally popular support behind his hard-line policies. Without the unifying power of an external military threat, fissures within the regime are deepening. In the lead-up to the March parliamentary elections, Ahmadinezhad's economic policies are coming under increasingly strident criticism. Most importantly, a public rift between Ahmadinezhad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has taken on new dimensions. On January 21, Khamenei unceremoniously overruled the president and ordered his government to carry out a parliamentary law to supply cheap gas to villages suffering power cuts this winter. Seen as a humiliation for the president, the order followed Khamenei's blunt talk earlier in January of government "mistakes and shortcomings" and his recent re-appointment to key positions of two senior officials Ahmadinezhad had dismissed.
Promoting such internal divisions has long been an American policy objective. However, ill-conceived programs to promote reform by passing around American money serve only to stigmatize the recipients of American aid. It is far better to allow Iran's internal contradictions to play out on their own. In the end, this could be one of the most important contributions of the December NIE.- Published 24/1/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org