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From the Mouths of Nation-States (Updated)

I'm kind of puzzled by Matthew Yglesias's take on the latest Iran/NIE contribution from Thomas Friedman:

The implicit model of international relations here is pretty odd. Russia's not a seven year-old. China's not a wayward dog. These are countries. Countries that have people who understand the technical meaning of American intelligence assessments and countries that have intelligence assessments of their own. Their Iran policy is going to be guided by their assessments of the objective situation and what it is they want to do about it. Sure, they might come up with an excuse or two to do something, but the availability of excuses isn't the core consideration. By contrast, their assessment of what American policy is all about might effect their decision-making. If we look like a country whose concerns about Iranian nuclear activities are grounded in honest assessments of the facts -- a country governed by rational people in touch with the world around them -- then that makes cooperation more likely. Inevitable? No. But more likely.

Correct, they aren't children, but they are in fact global actors seeking to meet their most essential and basic national needs. China--the more childlike of the two at this point--is not developing policy based off of honesty and integrity. Their policy towards Iran is mostly economic in nature, and threats of terrorism and instability in the Middle East are of less concern to them. They don't have 160,000+ troops stationed in Iraq. They weren't targeted by Al Qaeda in the 1990's, nor were they attacked in 2001.

Assuming that other nations act rationally and reasonably are two different things. The case could be made that Iran is deserved of UN sanctions simply because of their record of terrorism and proxy war in the Middle East. But international institutions--namely the Security Council--are structured so that the "biggest" nations in the world can influence matters of universal significance. The problem with this logic is that nations do act like children, grabbing at what is ultimately in their own interest. Chinese behavior is just the latest rendition of this behavior. Genocide in Sudan and terrorism in Iran are not enough to deter them from satiating their growing energy appetite. A nuclear Iran, on the other hand, just might.

And Yglesias misunderstands the purpose of the NIE in the first place. This analysis is not intended to inform or influence the behavior of other regimes, but rather serve as a tool for American policymakers and officials. It's original intent, as Sherman Kent famously explained in 1964, was to inform the policy decisions of American officials. Inform them, not dictate them. They're called estimates for a specific reason, and to state them as fact would not only assume something we can't know for certain, but it would be somewhat whimsical to rely on them solely as a means for making policy.

It just so happens that this particular estimate disputes what had previously been the "common knowledge." But it was a shift, and our decision to release the report not only puzzled the European community, the French and the Israelis, but it no doubt confused our contacts in China and Russia. Rightfully so, since the West was in the middle of heavily lobbying these two governments for a third round of Iranian sanctions upon the estimate's release.

Call it transparent, democratic and so on, but the greatest praise for this recent NIE has come from Tehran. It makes it harder for the West to sell the two biggest SC obstacles on new sanctions, something a majority of leaders in the Western world viewed as a net positive. Whether or not Tehran appreciates the favor we did for them is probably a moot point. National interest is often childlike, and we shouldn't mistake transparency for respect (certainly not the case in Moscow or Beijing). The two often never twine.


Dennis Ross agrees.

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