Interesting Times: Pump up Plan B

The only thing we know with "high confidence" is that intelligence assessments change all the time.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
The latest US National Intelligence Estimate claims with "high confidence" that Iran, in 2003, "halted" a nuclear weapons program that the US didn't know existed back in 2005, when another NIE reported with "high confidence" that Iran was bent on building nuclear weapons. Confused? If we have learned anything over these past few years, it is that the only thing we know with "high confidence" is that intelligence assessments change all the time, are often mistaken, and are based on the policy preferences of and political pressures on the intelligence community at least as much as they are on the evidence itself. It is no coincidence, for example, that the first sentence of the unclassified NIE reads thus: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Teheran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Teheran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons." THIS IS strange. Why would the report not lead with this bombshell that the intelligence community just discovered with "high confidence" - meaning that it has solid evidence to back up its judgement - that Iran had a secret nuclear weapons program until fall 2003? Why lead with the "halting" of the program? It is as if a detective hired by a woman to see if her husband was cheating on her were to begin his report: "Your husband stopped cheating on you in 2003," and only later revealed the discovery that he was cheating on her until then. Such a woman might suspect that the detective was trying to influence her toward giving greater weight to the supposed end than to the beginning of the story; to the cessation of cheating rather than to the cheating itself. Similarly, the policy message the intelligence community is promoting could hardly be clearer. The report might as well have begun: "George Bush, take the military option off the table. Iran doesn't have a weapons program to attack. But they had one and could restart it at anytime, so it would be foolhardy to lessen the sanctions pressure that convinced them to drop their program." Indeed, the policy implications of the NIE cannot be overstated, regardless of its veracity. If the military option ever was real in the first place, it is now gone. The debate over a military operation against Iran during the Bush Administration is over: a recalcitrant bureaucracy has launched an effective preemptive strike against the possibility that Bush might launch a preemptive strike. The question now is whether the NIE will lead to reduced or increased pressure to tighten the sanctions on Iran. Teheran, which welcomed the report, probably assumes the former, with good reason. What urgency is there now in the sanctions campaign, given that even the US seems to agree with Russia that Iran is not developing nukes, and "probably" won't be technically capable of doing so until "the 2010-2015 time frame"? Paradoxically, however, the sanctions campaign could gain a new life. Until now, a major brake on sanctions has been the claim that it is just a warm-up act for American or Israeli military action. Now the US military card has been unceremoniously yanked off the table. How can the Democratic presidential field now claim that it must rail against sanctions, since if you give Bush an inch he'll take a mile? Hillary Clinton, who was pilloried within her own party for voting for a toughening of US sanctions against Iran, has now been doubly vindicated, at least with respect to these left-wing critics. First, the NIE clearly claims (however incredibly, since there were no sanctions to speak of at the time) that sanctions were so effective that they persuaded Iran to drop its nuclear weapons development in 2003. Second, sanctions remain critical, since all agree that Iran is still defiantly enriching uranium and the NIE reports "moderate-to-high confidence" that Teheran is "at a minimum keeping open the option" to build a bomb. UNTIL NOW, the rap has been that sanctions don't have time to work. As former defense minister Shaul Mofaz put it last month, "Iran's nuclear program is proceeding like an express train. The diplomatic efforts to thwart Iran are like a slow train. If we cannot derail the Iranian train, we are on the verge of a nuclear era that will totally alter the regional reality." While the body language of the NIE undermines this sense of urgency, none of its substance contradicts Mofaz's assessment. The NIE carefully distinguishes between Iran's supposedly civilian enrichment activities, which continue apace, and its weapons program, which is supposedly still on ice. This is largely a distinction without a difference. As National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley points out: "Iran's civilian uranium enrichment program is continuing. And as you know, once a country masters the technology to enrich uranium for use even in a civilian nuclear power program, it could readily use the same technology to produce weapons-grade uranium. As we have said, weapons-grade uranium is the long pole in the tent for a nuclear weapon." We have no way of really knowing whether Iran has stopped its secret weapons program, or whether the US just can't find it, as the NIE admits was the case with the program it missed until a few months ago. The NIE itself states, with well-earned modesty, that it has only "moderate confidence" that Iran's nuke program remains suspended. This conclusion can just as easily be restated, as Israeli officials have, that there is "moderate confidence" that Iran is pursuing a weapons program that the US has not yet discovered. In the wake of the NIE, the Bush Administration has no choice but to redouble its sanctions campaign. If the US fails to do so, Iran will be emboldened by the reduction in international pressure, and the Arab world will assume that the US has been lulled into complacency and that they must start accommodating the coming Iranian nuclear hegemony. It is for this reason that, if the NIE had been released before Annapolis, it would have been considerably less likely that Arab foreign ministers would have shown up. On Tuesday Bush said, "the NIE doesn't do anything to change my opinion about the danger Iran poses to the world. Quite the contrary. I'm using this NIE as an opportunity to continue to rally our colleagues and allies." The legacy of the Bush presidency hangs on whether this is just rhetorical flourish, or whether he is in fact able to leverage this setback to pump up his "Plan B" and pursue victory more vigorously by other means.
- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11