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More on the NIE and Iran

I don't actually disagree with my colleague Daniel Koffler, who was once described to me as "brilliant… a little too brilliant and you'll see what I mean." I think I now do. Dan writes: [W]hile it's fair game to question … Read More

By / December 4, 2007

I don't actually disagree with my colleague Daniel Koffler, who was once described to me as "brilliant… a little too brilliant and you'll see what I mean." I think I now do.

Dan writes:

[W]hile it's fair game to question the accuracy or reliability of an NIE, to credit the oft-recycled, and seemingly universally applicable "dark suspicion" from the hawk camp that the Intelligence Community is deliberately slanting its assessments, one would effectively have to believe that there is a far-flung, yet tightly and masterfully coordinated conspiracy going on right under the president's nose to undermine him. (Indeed, Michael McConnell would have to be in on the act, and that is, to put it mildly, doubtful.)

Which is fine so far as it goes in debunking some of the more hysterical pronouncements from the Iran hawks. Dan is good enough to cite a few of these for us. However, far from casting a "dark suspicion" on either the NIE report or the summary findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency as of last month, I took both analyses at face value in my original post.

As I indicated, but perhaps didn't emphasize enough, today's disclosure represents a "diplomatic defeat" for President Bush. Why? For one thing, he'll have to be more honest about the threat Tehran likely poses to the Middle East and beyond. For another, he apparently knew of the no-nuclear-program data as early as last August and yet waited all this time, until those bureaucracies notoriously hostile to his administration made a media feast out of it, to concede that "World War III" is not quite so imminent as he had previously asserted. That said, there are important lacunae in what Iran has willingly turned over for international review. The IAEA writes that the mullahs have acted in a "reactive" not "proactive" manner in providing the necessary information as to history of their decades-long nuclear program and its current status. Once again – and here I quote the organization overseen by Mohammed ElBaradei – "[S]ince early 2006, the Agency has not received the type of information that Iran had previously been providing, pursuant to the Additional Protocol and as a transparency measure. As a result, the Agency's knowledge about Iran's current nuclear programme is diminishing." What's significant and cautionary about this fact is that, as Dan helpfully admits, the 2005 NIE report on Iran was the photo negative of one released today. That's a difference of two years in which the conventional wisdom of 16 separate U.S. intelligence agencies has been overturned. Leaving aside whether 2008's NIE report will redouble and expand upon the conclusions of this year's or complete contradict them, what might happen internally in Iran between now and 2008 that might force the IAEA to similarly announce that all of its prior assessments are worthless, given that it freely confesses its "knowledge about Iran's current nuclear programme is diminishing" and has been since 2006? Dan continues:

The most salient feature of this NIE, therefore, is neither the factual assessment that Iran has no active nuclear weapons program, nor the (shocking!) finding that Iran might try to develop nuclear weapons at some point in the future, but instead the general moral that the Tehran regime acts rationally to satisfy its preferences. Which means that there are numerous compelling reasons to attempt a diplomatic resolution of our disagreements with Iran, and not one compelling reason not to.

For the most part, I agree, although I would replace "acts rationally" with "acts with an instinct of self-preservation." Recall that Libya disclosed its (wholly unanticipated) nuclear program to the United States in 2003, and did so not as a result of aggressive carrot-and-stick diplomacy (see "wholly unanticipated") but as a result of seeing Saddam Hussein overthrown under the pretext of his illegal possession WMD. I don't mean to sound pedantic – although I'm arguing with a philosopher, so what the hell – but there is a distinction between rationalism and shrewdness.

During the cold war, the American inability to adequately predict or gauge Soviet responses to a weapons buildup was derided as "mirror-imaging." We assumed the Russians would do what we'd do in exactly the same circumstances. But, as George Orwell observed more than half a century ago, at the dawn of the cold war, "Till recently it was thought proper to pretend that human beings are very much alike, but in fact any one able to use his eyes knows that the average of human behavior differs from country to country. Things that could happen in one country could not happen in another." This is elementary knowledge in all but international affairs. It hardly demands unmitigated belligerence or saber-rattling with respect to rogue regimes. But it does mean we ought to be prepared for being duped by a theocratic one founded on a doctrine of apocalyptic messianism and that has never repudiated or climbed-down from that doctrine since its founding. Iran may make calculated short-term decisions to ensure the its continuance as an Islamic Republic. But we would be foolish not be on guard for that its long-term plans, as we would not to ask ourselves the following questions:

1. Why is Iran still acting like it has something to hide?

2. Is a country that previously sought nuclear weapons on the black market, as the IAEA claims Iran did, a country that should be trusted or given the benefit of any doubt?

3. Whose specific findings are more reliable: the international agency in constant contact with the state it monitors, or an aggregation of domestic agencies in the U.S. that have, so far as we can tell, little to no contact with the state they purport to describe? Dan again:

[W]hat we learn with high confidence is that Iran has no active nuclear weapons program, deactivated its nuclear weapons program in response to international pressure, currently lacks the raw fissile material needed to produce nuclear weapons, but has the mechanical capacity and know-how to build nuclear weapons, which it could achieve sometime between 2010 and 2015 if it reactivated its program today, which it will not do.

The logical follow-up to this is to know how the NIE arrived at these conclusions with high confidence. One needn't sneer at the CIA's past incompetence (although one can't sneer at it enough) to wonder what its methodology is like now for garnering sensitive information from refractory closed societies. Those who are only skeptical when it comes to giving George W. Bush his due might express a little more uneasiness over the fact that the intelligence community bearing this bundle of good news is one that his administration overhauled after 9/11.

And one problem Dan should have with assigning Iran a clean bill of health and calling it a day is one he implicitly acknowledges exists when he endorses a "diplomatic resolution of our disagreements with Iran." Judging from that last paragraph of his I quoted, one might think there are no disagreements any longer. So let me close with a question to Dan: What are they, exactly?

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