Washington – Still In Search Of A Coherent Iran Policy

in Program

Ellen Laipson – During his January visit to the Middle East, President Bush tried to put any doubts to rest about a dramatic shift in US policy toward Iran, as a result of the December unclassified version of a National Intelligence Estimate that stated that Iran “halted it nuclear weapons program” in fall 2003.  In Abu Dhabi, the President excoriated Iran for a litany of sins related to terrorism and fomenting instability throughout the region.  Secretary of Defense Gates made a similar tough speech about Iran in December to the International Institute of Strategic Studies’ Manama Dialogue, where he insisted that Iran is a grave threat to regional stability, whether or not it has nuclear weapons.   

It is clear that the Administration has been scrambling to clarify its Iran stance, since much of the world assumes the policy did indeed change, with a vital rationale for military action against Iran’s nuclear program removed or at least weakened by the public revelations by US intelligence.  The Administration has been most concerned with reassuring Europe, the increasingly tough minded partner of the US in seeking more punitive sanctions against Iran for its non-compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Arab Gulf, which fears Iranian hegemonic ambitions and is willing, reluctantly perhaps, to work with the US as a hedge against that strategic threat. 

One should not, however, assume that new intelligence means a new policy.  The US system really is premised on preserving the independence of the intelligence process, and protecting it from political manipulation.  The President reportedly was briefed on the dramatic NIE findings, but understood clearly that he could not stand in the way of the release of the judgments.  He was correct in terms of process, and the decision to go public with the findings was driven more by the uneasy power relationship between intelligence and Congress than machinations inside the White House.  The independence of the judgments has also been construed as a virtual coup by a united intelligence community committed to stopping another war on Bush’s watch.  This also belies the careful protocol within intelligence culture; individual analysts may have strong political preferences, but the analytic process and interagency coordination over NIEs are remarkably apolitical interactions. 

It is useful to look at the NIE in light of intelligence reforms mandated after the intelligence failures of 9-11 and Iraq weapons of mass destruction.  The Intelligence Community leadership believes this new NIE reflects improved internal practices, and represents exemplary tradecraft.  Both the Director of National Intelligence, Adm. Mike McConnell, and the Director of the CIA, General Mike Hayden, have praised the NIE for the process that contributed to it: new humint (human intelligence) collection that provided the story about Iran’s 2003 halt of weapons work, and the analytic methods to corroborate, share and assess the new information.  It is notable that the Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Dr. Tom Fingar, and the National Intelligence Officer responsible for the NIE, Vann Van Diepen, have long experience at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, which has a strong reputation for independent analysis, often questioning the interpretations of the larger, more collection-oriented intelligence agencies.   

After an initial period of glee that the new NIE would force a less bellicose US policy, the current thinking in the scholarly and public policy worlds is more sober about the implications of the new NIE judgments.  The nonproliferation community is worried that the estimate will complicate efforts to toughen sanctions and give the Iranians a reprieve on compliance, possibly of long duration.  Many who have tracked intelligence reform are chagrined at the crafting of the unclassified judgments, and worry that advocates of reform are more focused on internal practices than the quality of the intelligence output.  It is also clear that the NIE was written by proliferation experts, with only passing reference to deep political trends and prospects inside Iran.  A greater integration of knowledge and insight from both proliferation and regional experts would have produced a wiser NIE.

What is really needed is not the endless dissection of intelligence analysis, but a braver policy approach toward Iran.  The Administration has offered many different initiatives that do not fit together into a coherent strategy.  It has opened a political channel in Baghdad, and many hope that continued progress in US-Iran relations over Iraq could lead to a wider dialogue about other issues.  Yet one sees little willingness from the White House to encourage that process as part of a larger effort to rethink Iran policy.  To the contrary, the current Administration really cannot get past its deep antipathy for the Iranian regime, and still holds a core belief that “normal” relations between Tehran and Washington will require regime change in Iran.  Regime change is about to occur in Washington as well, and a less ideological approach to Iran might include a more open discussion about Iranian security requirements, so that the terms of the debate can change.  Iran is not going to make it easy for us, but our goal of regional stability does demand some new approaches to coping with the enduring challenge of Iran, which is, and always has been, more than its nuclear ambitions.

This piece also appeared on and can be seen here

White House photo by Joyce N Boghosian

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.

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices