Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Iranian Nuclear Program

The snippet of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released on December 3 was a blow to those supporting tighter sanctions against Iran. The report, based on data from sixteen American agencies as well as shared information from the larger intelligence community - most significantly from the United Kingdom, but also from France, Italy, and even Israel (see Melman's piece in Ha'aretz) - argued that "in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program." For many of those who opposed stricter measures against Iran (Russia and China) and those luke-warm about more meaningful steps (Germany), the report was welcome ammunition in the international war of words. A number of analysts declared that this American own-goal had wiped the military option off the table.

On the other hand, British intelligence sources disputed the veracity of the report, attributing the conclusions to the U.S. intelligence agents' misinterpretation of Iranian decoy conversations. Meanwhile, Israeli officials, most notably Defense Minister Ehud Barak, have vehemently criticized the American conclusions. Some American as well as Israeli commentators have raised the specter of a U.S. betrayal of its ally.

Of course, any hardline posturing by Barak should be evaluated with an eye to the domestic political front. The Labor Party defense minister in Olmert's government is trying as much as possible to profit from opportunities that the Iranian crisis as well as the ongoing qassam fire from Gaza provide him as he distinguishes his security record from that of Kadima and the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, no one is playing around merely to gain approval ratings. Israel is right to challenge the NIE and the interpretations of it advanced by those who have long been intent on throwing sticks in the spokes of the sanctions-wheel.

Iran did not stop its work out of humanitarian convictions about the evils of nuclear weapons. The regime fears both a preemptive military attack and international isolation. But it also knows the rewards that it would gain from reaching nuclear status. The Iranians, are thus going to do everything possible to continue covert work that would enable them to produce a nuclear weapon within a short period of time, even with a frozen nuclear program. As the NIE acknowledges, Iran is "keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons (NIE, p. 9)."

Unfortunately, the NIE undermines the very mechanisms that led to increased international pressure against the Iranian regime. Without the credible threat of an American military option, the incentives for such states as Russia, China, or even Germany to support tougher sanctions against Iran decline dramatically. Where there were once two sticks - sanctions and a military strike - only one of these remains today. If the world refuses to see a nuclear Iran as a problem, Israel has no choice but to devote all its resources to developing a credible answer to the challenge.

It does not matter whether or not Iran is a "rational" actor. Iran's rise to the nuclear powers' club would be disastrous for American as well as Israeli interests in the region. This is not a moral argument about who deserves to have nuclear weapons but a simple statement of the geopolitics involved. There are some who think that the Middle East will be a better place with the Islamic Republic projecting hard power in the Gulf and in the Levant. Others appear to be longing for a day when the U.S. is no longer able to secure the world's most important oil shipping lanes without the cooperation of other powers. They will regret this when it is too late.

I have to agree with Rosner that this report should never have been published. It may very well have taken the winds out of the diplomatic struggle against Iran's drive for nuclear weapons.