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No Change

Why the NIE won't actually alter the debate about Iran

A new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report on Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities, released by the U.S. government earlier this week, has stunned the world by announcing “in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program,” and assessing, with moderate confidence, that the program is still on ice. That appears to differ sharply from its judgment just two years ago that Iran was engaged in an active effort to develop nuclear weapons, and strikes a discordant note with the recent push by the Bush administration to not-so-subtly insinuate that Iran was an imminent threat. It was no surprise, then, that pundits quickly concluded that the NIE heralded a major shift in U.S. policy. Wrote Steven Lee Meyers of The New York Times: “Rarely, if ever, has a single intelligence report so completely, so suddenly, and so surprisingly altered a foreign policy debate here.”

Forgive me, then, for pointing out that the debate I hear sounds pretty similar to how it did last week. The intelligence report will do little to change the position and strategy of the United States, nor will it have much of an effect on the approaches taken by Russia, China, and Israel. It will have more of an effect in Europe--notably Britain and France--but not as much of one as many suppose. (Those six countries, along with Iran, are the major players: they include every permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, along with the state most clearly in Tehran’s crosshairs.) There should be no doubt that the administration has a political opportunity to use the new intelligence to justify a long overdue change of course, engaging directly with Tehran while continuing to apply pressure. But there is no indication that the administration will seize that opportunity and change its strategy.

In Washington, the real debate has long been between those who see some value in direct and immediate discussions with Tehran, and those who, like the administration, believe that engagement would be counterproductive, at least it if were pursued while Iran continues to enrich uranium. Military action has never been a significant near-term possibility, despite breathless media reports suggesting the contrary, while intensified sanctions, an administration priority, have long enjoyed bipartisan support.

The NIE presents no new evidence to dramatically tilt this debate. It finds that Iran stopped the unambiguously military elements of its nuclear program (the parts focused on converting nuclear material into a nuclear weapon) in 2003 as a response to pressure from the West. The administration has taken that as evidence that tightening the screws on Tehran even more might get it to give up its remaining nuclear efforts, too. It is those other activities--principally uranium enrichment, which can be used for civilian but also for weapons purposes--that have always been the real source of concern for the administration, as well as for its political foes, because producing nuclear material is by far the biggest hurdle for any state that wants to make a nuclear bomb. The NIE says little that should make anyone worry less on that front, and hence does not remove the imperative for keeping up pressure on Tehran. That’s a perfectly valid reason for the U.S. government to insist on a new round of sanctions on Iran--something that it will undoubtedly do.

Nor have the politics of the issue changed in a way that will have a big effect on U.S. strategy. Before the NIE was released, there was some public support for near-term military action, mostly because of statements from the administration. President Bush’s warning of "World War III" was the most prominent. Vice President Cheney’s claim aboard an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf last May that “with two carrier strike groups in the Gulf, we're sending clear messages to friends and adversaries alike” added fuel to the fire. As I was interviewed on radio programs around the country this week, it became clear to me that many people had been convinced that a military strike was a real near-term possibility. That said, there has always been little policy justification or real possibility of an attack, and--again, drawing from my conversations over the last few days--the NIE has sapped much of whatever enthusiasm existed amongst the public for a military strike. (Most nuclear experts in Washington saw the administration’s threats as primarily aimed at convincing its Security Council partners to step up pressure against Iran, lest the United States take aggressive action.) Since bombing was already unlikely even when it was more politically palatable, the NIE will have little effect on the actual course the administration takes.

On the international scene, most of the status quo is also likely to persist. Russia and China were already averse to substantially stronger sanctions, and there is certainly nothing in the new intelligence that will change their minds. The NIE may provide them with new rhetorical ammunition--if there is no weapons program, they say, there is no need for tougher sanctions--but that will not translate into new leverage for their position unless the Europeans independently and substantially alter their approaches, too.

Here the changes will be greater than elsewhere, but they will be less than most suppose. Europe, led by France and Britain, has long been focused on Iran’s uranium enrichment program. And unlike its new assessment of Iran’s dedicated military efforts, the NIE findings on the enrichment program are largely unchanged from the past. Iran is still expected to have the ability to make nuclear materials for a weapon some time between 2010 and 2015, and, as a result, the basic European assessment of the threat should remain steady. Its accompanying policy stance, as a result, is unlikely to shift substantially, as recent statements about the need for more sanctions indicates. The NIE will almost certainly have a bigger effect on public attitudes in Europe than it will on strategists’ calculations, but with worries about sanctions leading down a slippery slope to war now less salient, public pressure will have at most a marginal effect on Europeans’ basic approach. On top of that, an acrimonious meeting with the Iranian nuclear negotiator late last week so offended European leaders that the net effect of the past week’s events--that meeting and the new intelligence estimate--may be to harden, rather than soften, the attitude of European diplomats and strategists, at least in Britain and France.

And what of Israel? It appears unmoved. While accepting the American judgment that Iran stopped its program in 2003, Israeli officials have been clear that they believe the program has since been restarted. If, at some point, Israel believes that it must eliminate an existential threat, the lack of American appetite for military action may not be able to fundamentally alter its decisions.

To be sure, there have been surprising changes in the administration’s nuclear policies in the past. A sudden shift to intensive and constructive engagement with North Korea by the U.S. appears to be paying dividends--and a similar change cannot be ruled out for Iran. But if the administration does, despite all indications, shift strategies, it will be in spite, not because, of the new intelligence findings. The NIE has something in it for everyone. And the Bush administration has found ample support to stay its course.

MICHAEL LEVI, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of the new book
On Nuclear Terrorism.

By Michael Levi