Dickey: At Last, Reason on Iran

It's tough when you've been a president with a faith-based foreign policy and the facts get in the way. That much was clear as President George W. Bush tried this morning to explain a fundamental change in his government's evaluation of Iran's nuclear ambitions. "Without getting into sources and methods," he said with what may have been self-conscious irony, "our intelligence community has made a great discovery." The bottom line: Iran had a covert nuclear weapons program, as administration officials have long suspected, but that same program was stopped in the fall of 2003. While Bush was raising the specter of World War III with Iran a few weeks ago, his spies were checking and rechecking the information they had that made such statements look, well, apocalyptically overblown.

In fact, the intelligence community has acted this time around as it should have done before the invasion of Iraq, making its estimates on the basis of the best information at hand, not the best information the administration wanted to hear. We should thank God and perhaps Robert Gates, the old CIA hand who's now secretary of defense. We should thank all the rational minds in the 16 various agencies whose just-issued National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) reached these conclusions. And we should be glad they've pretty well humiliated the chicken hawks in the Bush administration—those few, that is, who haven't flown the coop or been fired.

Two years ago, when those guys were still in charge, the previous NIE expressed "high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons." How did they know that? Apparently they didn't. But that's what they assumed, and that assumption has been driving a lot of the bellicose talk in Washington ever since.

We should also thank the Nobel Peace Prize–winning International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, who has been vilified by the right wing in Israel and the United States with a rancor that borders on hysteria. This so-called "rogue regulator" and "cat's paw for Iran" has been, in fact, just about the only public voice of reason authoritative enough to resist the agitprop coming out of Tel Aviv, Washington and, more recently, Paris. ElBaradei clearly deserves an apology from the neocons that he has taken to calling, undiplomatically but accurately, the "new crazies."

Note that I do not say Iran deserves an apology.

In fact, the mullahs in Tehran have grown increasingly provocative, dismissing the demands of the United Nations Security Council that they suspend current uranium enrichment activities, which could produce the stuff from which nuclear weapons are made. They have helped create a crisis atmosphere, and that is likely to continue even if the risks of war are diminished. They can be expected to act as if they were innocent all along and have now been exonerated. But that isn't quite the case.

As things stand now, the new NIE says Iran may have the technical ability to produce highly enriched uranium for a bomb by late 2009, "but that is very unlikely." A more plausible timeline would be 2010-2015, according to the estimate, and it's possible that "this capability may not be attained until after 2015"—if, and this is the big if, Iran wants to take that step at all. Tehran says it does not. It says its intentions are entirely peaceful: to make low-enriched nuclear fuel to generate electricity. But as we know, Tehran has lied about its nuclear program in the past. And as the intelligence assessment concludes, Iran now "has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so."

That is why four of the five key questions posed to the intelligence community's analysts for this estimate were not about Iran's abilities but about its government's intentions and the factors that might affect its decision-making. On those matters the authors show considerably less confidence than they do about the question of capabilities, and judging from the declassified summary we have seen so far, this NIE may offer less than the headlines likely to be taken from its pages. A great deal remains unknown.

The report, remember, is a consensus opinion of agencies as varied as the National Clandestine Service (the branch of the Central Intelligence Agency that specializes in human intelligence) and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (which operates America's many eyes in the sky). The Department of Energy and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, as well as the National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency, all have a hand. Getting that many bureaucracies to agree on anything is a minor miracle, getting them to divine the arcane thought processes of Iran's clerical rulers is almost impossible, so it is not surprising that a lot of the language in the report is tentative.

We read, for instance, that "Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005. Our assessment that the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously."

But look at the timing of the Iranian decision to halt the weapons program in 2003 and the kind of international pressure that existed then. It's not likely to be repeated. In the fall of 2003 the IAEA had just exposed much of the secret nuclear activity Tehran had conducted since the 1980s with the help of A. Q. Khan's clandestine network of atomic bomb makers. (The NIE makes clear that it is talking about a separate weapons program that was affected by the IAEA investigation and was stopped in 2003 but was not part of the same secret programs the IAEA uncovered. Diplomatic sources in Vienna, where the IAEA is based, say privately that this is news to them.)

So in 2003 Iran had just been caught in "material breach" of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and might have faced severe sanctions. Washington, meanwhile, had invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which are on Iran's border, and at the time it wasn't clear how painfully incompetent the Bush administration would prove as an occupying power. It's also important that in 2003 the Iranian government was run by the relatively moderate and reasonable President Mohammad Khatami. Since 2005 the man in charge is the semimystical Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose rhetoric has been, to say the least, inflammatory. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei remains a constant. He has the last word now, as he did then—but what is it? We don't really know, and the NIE summary doesn't tell us.

President Bush said again and again this morning, in that broken-record way he has, that Iran is still a danger and that it might be able to use its knowledge to make weapons secretly. One might assume that's the case. But there's no evidence that is what it's doing.

Tehran's strategy as described by the NIE would seem to be pretty much as ElBaradei has described it: like it or not, Iran is going to become a "virtual" nuclear weapons state, with the ability to become an active one if it so chooses. "In our judgment," say the authors of the NIE, "only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons."

To achieve that goal, ElBaradei has suggested that credible international pressure has to be combined with credible international security guarantees to the Iranian regime. The NIE summary doesn't go that far, but it implies much the same thing when it talks about "the linkage many within the [Iranian] leadership probably see between nuclear weapons development and Iran's key national security and foreign policy objectives."

This is all very frustrating, and not only for those, like Vice President Dick Cheney, who fantasize about a world where absolute American power can eliminate every threat. But after the experience in Iraq, I'd rather trust the hedged bets of professional intelligence analysts than the off-base hunches of the ideologues.

For me, the most important line in the report is the one that states in bold-faced lettering, "This NIE does not assume that Iran intends to acquire nuclear weapons." If that's a sign that the Bush administration has moved at last from the assumptions of faith-based warmongering to fact-based policymaking, well, amen to that.