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NIE Report is Propaganda Victory for Iran

By Robert Tracinski

The Islamic Republic of Iran has just achieved a major victory in its battle for dominance of the Middle East. America's military might in the region has largely been neutralized as a threat to Tehran, buying the regime at least a few years' reprieve from threats of US air strikes, and our diplomatic effort to choke off the Iranian economy with economic sanctions has also, in all likelihood, just collapsed.

All of this has been achieved merely through a propaganda victory in the American media--and, most disturbingly, this victory has been delivered to Iran by officials at the top levels of our own intelligence agencies.

By now you have seen the headlines declaring that the recently released National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear weapons program--a consensus cobbled together from the views of 16 separate intelligence agencies--has dealt "A Blow to Bush's Tehran Policy." And so it has, to the extent that Bush was considering any credible threat of using military force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The new NIE report contains two lines that have effectively removed such strikes as a politically feasible option.

The NIE declares, first, that "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program...primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure." Second, it concludes that "Tehran's decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs." The conclusion drawn from these two statements by most commentators is simple: all this war-mongering talk from the administration about the Iranian threat has been totally overblown. The Iranians are reasonable fellows after all, and all we need to do is just to sit down and talk with them.

Or as the NIE puts it: "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."

This report has virtually foreclosed the possibility that President Bush will use military force against Iran before he leaves office--even if he wants to do so. Even in this day and age, when Congress no longer has the courage to declare war on our enemies and cedes the initiative on the use of force to the commander in chief, the president still has limits on his power. He must at least have significant support in Congress before he launches any new military assault--and this report will wipe out any such support for strikes against Iran.

Not only does this report offer political cover for any politician who wants to block the use of force against Iran; it will also seriously undermine the administration's diplomatic efforts against Iran. We are already seeing a general scattering of our European allies and a display of gloating by Russia, which cites the NIE as evidence that it was right all along to shield Iran from UN economic sanctions. And the report is being celebrated as a "declaration of victory for the Iranian nation against the world powers over the nuclear issue" by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who will exploit this report internally as well as internationally, using it to argue that, rather than pushing Iran on a dangerous collision course with the United States, he has instead scored a nationalistic victory against the Great Satan.

In short, this is a stunning propaganda victory for the enemy, delivered by our own national intelligence establishment. But it is just propaganda, not backed by any actual, substantial new intelligence. It is an exercise in writing pro-Iran headlines over text that doesn't support it.

The National Intelligence Estimate on Iran is a surprisingly short and thin document that offers nothing substantively new. It does not reveal any major new evidence about Iran's nuclear program or its intentions, nor does it even refer to the existence of such evidence. It does not deny, for example, that Iran has obtained blueprints and technical guidance on how to build the core of a nuclear weapon and on how to mount nuclear bombs on a missile. These facts have already been admitted by Iran and acknowledged by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency. The NIE does not deny that Iran is enriching uranium on an industrial scale, because that is also public knowledge, loudly and boastfully announced by Ahmadinejad.

All that the new NIE does is to add a prominent statement that Iran suspended its covert enrichment program--which Iran then exchanged for an open, ostensibly civilian enrichment program. But this makes little difference; uranium enriched by a civilian program can still be diverted to make a bomb. And then the NIE adds its opinion that this relatively minor change was in response to "international pressure."

This is an exercise in the power of a few top-level bureaucrats to shape the meaning of the work of hundreds of others, simply by re-writing the headlines. We should be used to this from the global warming reports periodically issued by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change--reports whose body, which is prepared by scientists, is always far less alarmist than the "summary for policymakers" tacked on to it by politicians and diplomats and then amplified in the press.

The Wall Street Journal and a few other sources have speculated that some of the NIE's authors, who have a reputation as "hyper-partisan anti-Bush officials," deliberately set out to sabotage the administration. Whatever the case, the authors certainly knew that their lines about Iran allegedly suspending its weapons program and not "rushing" to produce a weapon would be picked up by the media. And they must have realized that this would eclipse the rest of the substance of the report.

And the rest of that substance undercuts the story now being trumpeted by the mainstream media. The NIE acknowledges, for example, that it has no evidence that Iran has actually halted its entire nuclear weapons program: "Because of intelligence gaps..., DOE and the NIC assess with only moderate confidence that the halt to those activities represents a halt to Iran's entire nuclear weapons program." It acknowledged that "Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so." And: "We assess with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so."

But here is the real blockbuster concession in the report:

We assess with moderate confidence that convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult given the linkage many within the leadership probably see between nuclear weapons development and Iran's key national security and foreign policy objectives, and given Iran's considerable effort from at least the late 1980s to 2003 to develop such weapons.

In other words, Iran devoted two decades and billions of dollars to developing nuclear weapons, which it needs if it's going to thwart the Great Satan--so why should it stop trying?

This is the only time the NIE includes in its assessment the real long-term pattern and meaning of Iran's actions. In this respect, it is especially egregious that the NIE portrays late 2003 as the time at which Iran suddenly became compliant and cooperative in response to international pressure.

In reality, what has Iran actually been up to since late 2003 and today? During those four years, Iran has provided political and military support to both Sunni and Shiite insurgents in Iraq, helping to kill US troops and plunge Iraq into a brutal sectarian civil war. More recently, Iran has provided weapons and training to the Taliban in Afghanistan. During these years, Iran has also forged a closer relationship with its satellite Syria, which has encouraged the flow of insurgents into Iraq while assassinating opposition political leaders in Lebanon. In Southern Lebanon, Iran armed Hezbollah with rockets, which it rained down by the thousands in a terror war against Israel; Iran has subsequently re-armed Hezbollah with more and better rockets. And Iran has supported Hamas as it has launched its own rocket attacks on Israel and staged a brutal Islamist takeover of Gaza.

The full picture of Iran's activity over the past four years is that of a dangerous power seeking to assert regional dominance and to spread its ideology of radical Islam by encouraging the aggression of an "Islamist Axis" of terrorist militias across the greater Middle East. Yet all of this is completely evaded in the NIE's benevolent assessment of Iran's intentions.

And that, ultimately, is what makes this report an exercise in propaganda--propaganda for a brutal Islamist dictatorship, composed and broadcast by the supposed guardians of the leading power of the free world.

Robert Tracinski writes daily commentary at TIADaily.com. He is the editor of The Intellectual Activist and TIADaily.com.

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