Iran’s Nuclear Program: Does New Intelligence Mean A New Policy?

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By Ellen Laipson – The new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran generated gasps of surprise and for some, delight.  US government analysts now judge with high confidence that Iran made a decision to halt a nuclear weapons program in 2003, presumably because of international pressure.  The judgments are less definitive about what motivated the change.  The unclassified NIE judgments also make no linkage to the fact that the US, in 2003, attacked Iraq and toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, and that many Iranians, including government officials, believed a US attack on Iran was possible if not likely.  

Many believe that the NIE will make it virtually impossible for the Bush Administration to keep up the drumbeat of threats of military action against Iran, should Iran continue to defy the international community’s request for cooperation and for inspections of its known nuclear enrichment facilities.  While some fret that this intelligence bombshell will make it hard to achieve consensus on next steps at the United Nations, it should, over time, make diplomacy the only acceptable tool for managing the challenge that Iran poses.  This is a net win for international peace and security.

The NIE and the response to it will not provide much comfort to those who fear Iran’s rise as a regional hegemon, its ties to Shia and even some Sunni radicals in the region, its meddling in Iraq, and its anti-Israel rhetoric.  One can also worry about Iranian leaders pocketing this backhanded seal of approval from US intelligence, as they continue their enrichment activities outside of the requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s Additional Protocol, and offer no sign that they are fully conforming with international standards on peaceful nuclear use.  

In theory, Iran could have benefited from an early acknowledgement that its military program was on hold.  Like the Iraqi regime that refused UNSCOM (UN Special Commission on Iraq) inspectors even when it had no weapons of mass destruction to hide, Iran perhaps feared a new vulnerability if it admitted the truth.  It may have believed that the assumption of a nuclear program provided a kind of deterrence, or its mistrust of the international community and the learned behavior of the revolutionary period prevented Iran from a more transparent policy that, from a US perspective, would have been in Iran’s interest.  

The release of the NIE’s unclassified judgments provides another opportunity to reflect on intelligence reform and on intelligence-policy interactions.  Clearly the methodology that produced these new judgments about Iran’s nuclear weapons activity was subjected to months of scrutiny and debate.  New collection, even if addressed events several years old, was carefully reviewed and assessed, and the intelligence community had the courage and intellectual honesty to compare its new conclusions to past judgments.  In so doing, intelligence leaders ran the risk of new ridicule about intelligence failures, but so far, have discovered that the public and the media are more forgiving.  They seem to appreciate both the new candor and the chance to use the new NIE to push back on the Administration’s often belligerent stance vis-a-vis Iran.  

The NIE, however, still raises concerns about intelligence process and its relevance to hard policy decisions.  Is this newfound candor a sign of over-compensation for the Iraq WMD debacle?  Is the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction now?  If one reads the full text available, there are clearly still serious concerns about enrichment activities and an absence of good intelligence on Iran’s strategic intentions.  The nuclear story is not over, and the policy challenge of convincing Iran to be a responsible player that openly accepts global governance mechanisms remains as acute as ever.  The estimate was cast quite narrowly on technical issues, and did not address all the political dimensions that would have made it even more useful to policymakers.  Independent of whether the community could have produced a more comprehensive estimate, the strategic issues for US policy in managing Iran’s ambitions and its provocative attitudes remain.  

Intelligence has become a public good: the expectation that most if not all NIEs are released to the public is a curious new feature of life in the information age and in the aftermath of several specific intelligence failures.  It serves the public, the media and legislators in their roles as truth-seekers and critics of executive power and its potential abuses.  In this case, the release of the NIE could serve the greater good of making policymakers more accountable for their plans and intentions vis-a-vis Iran, and of reestablishing the independence and integrity of the intelligence process.  The intelligence professionals also need to be able to maintain access to their policy counterparts, and occasionally resist the pressure to go public with their thinking on real national security problems.  

Ellen Laipson is the President and CEO of the Stimson Center and directs the Southwest Asia/Gulf project.  She is the former Vice Chair of the National Intelligence Council.  

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