An obvious question arises in the wake of a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program. The report judges “with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”
If the 2005 NIE assessed “with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons” was so wrong, how can we have much confidence in this most recent assessment?
A little background: A National Intelligence Estimate represents the official consensus view of the government’s 16 intelligence agencies, prepared by the National Intelligence Council under the direction of the Director of National Intelligence. Because of the necessarily incomplete and ambiguous nature of intelligence, especially about a society effectively closed to outsiders, NIEs are couched in terms like “judge,” “assess,” “estimate,” “probably” and “likely,” further modified by terms like “high,” moderate” or “low” levels of confidence.
NIEs are supposed to be objective — free of bias for or against current policy — but different analysts, all of whom have personal preconceptions, often look at the same set of facts and come to different conclusions.
While taking the latest estimate with the requisite dose of salt, however, this new report is welcome on several levels. At a strictly bureaucratic level, it seems to represent a forceful pushback against the small cadre of mostly neoconservative officials, buttressed by think-tankers outside government, that have seemed eager to see some kind of military action — in the best-case scenario a series of bombing raids that forced the Iranian regime to say “uncle” or induced the Iranian people to overthrow it — against Iran before President Bush left office.
This desire was perhaps expressed most eloquently in the June issue of Commentary magazine by long-time editor and neocon “godfather” Norman Podhoretz, who famously “prayed” that President Bush would bomb Iran before he left office. But it is hardly a secret that Vice President Cheney has been sympathetic to this view, as have some in the Pentagon, some scholars at the American
Enterprise Institute and some writers for the Weekly Standard, National Review and others.
The only credible justification for an unprovoked attack on Iran, however, would be solid information that the regime was poised to acquire a nuclear weapon. Thus this new NIE virtually guarantees that such an attack by the U.S. will not happen.
That is welcome news. Even an Iran with a nuclear weapon would not constitute an existential threat to the United States, though some would argue it would do so to Israel.
An attack by the U.S. on Iran would not have guaranteed that it would never acquire one, would have destabilized the Middle East even further, and opened up U.S. troops in Iraq and Americans at home to retaliation and terrorism that would surely have followed any attack that did not destroy the regime utterly.
And as we have discovered in Iraq, even destruction of a ruling tyranny does not mean that peace, contentment and all parties joining hands to work in concert together follows inevitably.
Attacking Iran, in short, would have been one of the stupidest things the United States could have done. That’s probably why Admiral William Fallon, when he assumed control of the Central Command earlier this year, vowed privately that an attack on Iran would not happen on his watch.
The new NIE seems to represent determination by most high military officials, most of the CIA and most of the State Department, to make sure such an attack does not take place.
Given criticism of the inaccurate NIE on Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, it’s likely this estimate was prepared more meticulously than previous reports. Even if it is imperfect, however, it is welcome.