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More NIE (Updated)

Robert Baer of TIME speculates:


The real story behind this NIE is that the Bush Administration has finally concluded Iran is a bridge too far. With Iranian-backed Shi'a groups behaving themselves, things are looking up in Iraq. In Lebanon, the anti-Syrian coalition and pro-Syrian coalition, which includes Iran's surrogate Hizballah, reportedly have settled on a compromise candidate, the army commander General Michel Suleiman. Bombing Iran now would upset the fragile balance in these two countries. Not to mention that Hizballah has threatened to shell Israel if we as much as touch a hair on Iran's head.

Then there are the Gulf Arabs. For the last year and a half, ever since the Bush Administration started to hint that it might hit Iran, they have been sending emissaries to Tehran to assure the Iranians they're not going to help the United States. But in private, the Gulf Arabs have been reminding Washington that Iran is a rabid dog: Don't even think about kicking it, the Arabs tell us. If you have to do something, shoot it dead. Which is something the United States can't do.

So how far is Iran from a nuke? The new NIE says 10 to 15 years, maybe. But that's a wild guess. The truth is that Iran is a black hole, and it's entirely conceivable Iran could build a bomb and we wouldn't know until they tested it.


When considering what a major shift this NIE was, the Bush leak theory almost makes some sense. The extreme Left won't want to hear it, but thus far, the Bush administration (with perhaps the exception of our VP) has taken a rather middle-of-the-road approach with Iran. They have utilized all of the UN channels, they've pressured actors such as China to get involved and they've worked with Europe to freeze economic investment there.

The Bush stance--that Iran was pursuing WMDs until late 2003, and could do so again--is pretty reasonable. We know the invasion of Iraq may have played a part in the program's suspension. Couple this with the IAEA's own speculation about Libya and Iran sharing the same material sources for their respective programs, and you can understand why the republic would make such a pragmatic decision. Releasing this information may have been a way to regain control of the sanctions agenda, repudiate the Israeli position or even repudiate a few elements from within his own administration.

But our complete turnabout on this has left even the IAEA a little bit perplexed. Read through ElBaradei's reports over the last few years, and you can see why. Nobody can know for certain where the Iranian nuclear program stands, and for the American intelligence community to change course so assertively in just two years is kind of puzzling.

It will be interesting to see how the Democrats respond. Thus far, they have used this as a wedge between Senator Clinton and themselves. But all of the candidates seem to acknowledge that a not-so-nuclear Iran poses just as many problems for us and our allies in the region, leaving the discussion between sanctions and a not-so-likely military assault.

I think most of us could live with that.


UPDATE:

James Joyner has a must-read on the NIE of 2007, and how a change in methodology may account for its sharp contrasts with 2005.

Also, read Kevin Drum's take on all of this--I believe he has it right, although I would like to know what's so "indefensible" about the current policy towards Iran.

Elsewhere, Robert Kagan says it's "time to talk to Iran":


Initiating the talks now would give the United States a better chance to frame the discussion, at home and abroad. Any negotiations should aim at getting the Iranians to finally answer all of the International Atomic Energy Agency's outstanding questions about the country's programs, agree to intrusive inspections and monitoring of its facilities, and address the U.N. Security Council's requirement that it suspend its enrichment of uranium.

The talks should go beyond the nuclear issue and include Iran's support for terrorism, its harboring of al-Qaeda leaders, its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and its supplying of weapons to violent extremists in Iraq.

They should also address the Iranian government's violation of human rights and its tightening political repression. Some argue that you can't talk to a country while seeking political change within it. This is nonsense. The United States simultaneously contained the Soviet Union, negotiated with the Soviet Union and pressed for political change in the Soviet Union -- supporting dissidents, communicating directly to the Russian people through radio and other media, and holding the Soviet government to account under such international human rights agreements as the Helsinki Accords. There's no reason the United States cannot talk to Iran while beefing up containment in the region and pressing for change within Iran.

What, no "Nixon goes to China" reference? Where's the call for diplomatic creativity?

Kagan's argument isn't totally unfair, but he just threw a whole lot on the table for the Iranians to chew on. The biggest piece--their defiance on uranium enrichment--has already been removed from the table, as far as Tehran is concerned. Do you set preconditions? Do you offer more incentives?

We also should not forget that these carrots have been offered by the Bush administration in the past, only to be snubbed by the Iranians.


UPDATE II:

From Matthew Levitt at Counterterrorism Blog:


The declassification of these key judgments suggests the Bush administration intends to pursue non-military tools. Some might say that the NIE shows that sanctions are not needed. That is hardly the case; the U.N. Security Council and IAEA concern has always been about Iran's enrichment facilities, not about a weaponization program. In fact, what the NIE shows is that carrots and sticks work. The estimate concludes Iran might be convinced to extend the halt to its nuclear weapons program with "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."

The declassified key judgments are sure to spark fierce debate over the nature of the nuclear threat posed by Iran. But on the pressing issue of how to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions the intelligence assessment is clear: financial and political sanctions can be effective.

Evidence suggests Iran is indeed vulnerable to outside influence and, unlike the blanket sanctions applied against Iraq under Saddam Hussein, today's sanctions are both targeted and graduated. First, the sanctions are aimed only at those regime elements specifically engaged in illicit conduct (such as banks engaged in deceptive financial practices, nuclear proliferation front companies, the Revolutionary Guards and Qods Force). Second, they are applied in phases in order to demonstrate that their purpose is not simply to punish Iran but to encourage a change in behavior. Should that behavior not change, additional targeted and graduated sanctions must be implemented for the threat of sanctions to remain credible.

It is perhaps ironic that the new NIE was released on the same day that European and American diplomats announced in Paris that China now supports further international sanctions targeting Iran. In the wake of disappointing reports from both the IAEA and European Union on Iran's nuclear program, China's support for targeted measures focused on Iranian banks, as well as travel restrictions on key individuals, means a third U.N. Security Council resolution is possible before the new year.

Until recently, China maintained it preferred diplomacy over sanctions. But in fact sanctions do not undermine diplomacy, they create leverage for diplomacy. With China now indicating support for multilateral sanctions, there is good reason to hope that smart sanctions may yet create diplomatic leverage.


Others Blogging It:

Dan Drezner
Huffington Post
Macsmind
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