Tuesday, December 4, 2007
Hold The NIE Euphoria
A lot of the reactions to the NIE are understandably focusing on the discrepancy between the Bush administration's alarmist characterization of the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program and the intelligence community's finding that Iran froze the weapons component in 2003. And to be sure, the NIE is reassuring, especially in that it discredits the claim that any sort of military option, whether unilateral or multi-lateral, is urgently necessary.
It's important not to overlook, though, the fact that Iran's entire nuclear program is the result of a decades-long clandestine procurement effort that was in direct violation of their legal obligations under the NPT, that at no time since the program was revealed has Iran ever been in full compliance with its obligations under the NPT, and that they have repeatedly backtracked on promised concessions both to the IAEA and EU. It's also worth noting that while Iran has recently been more transparent with regards to its declared nuclear activity, the one area where they still have been obstructive is in giving the IAEA more intrusive access to its program sites in order to verify that no un-declared activity is taking place.
On a theoretical level, one may be willing to minimize the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran due to Israel's and America's deterrent power, and willing to accept Iran's regional influence under the protection of a nuclear umbrella. I think there are reasonable arguments in defense of both propositions.
But on a very practical level, there are three reasons why Iran's mastering of the nuclear fuel enrichment cycle while remaining non-compliant with the NPT poses real threats to regional and global stability. To begin with, it further de-legitimzes the NPT at a time when it has already been severely destabilized. (Yes, the US-India deal contributes to this process.) Second, it has already caused a rush on the nuclear bank, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Morocco and Libya already declaring their intentions to go nuclear within the next 15-20 years. (Keep a close watch on Turkey, which for the time being has had trouble finding a seismically safe location for its declared nuclear ambitions.) That process could be reversed with a NPT-based resolution to the Iran standoff. It's unstoppable in the absence of one. Third, it will likely push Israel to shed even more of its posture of nuclear ambiguity than what Ehud Olmert revealed in apparently off the cuff remarks earlier this year, which would only accelerate the aforementioned regional race for nuclear capacities.
In other words, it's a good thing that Cheney and his gang's nonsense have been revealed for the Iraq redux they are. But that doesn't diminish the need to deal very carefully with the very real dangers presented by an Iranian nuclear program outside the auspices of the NPT. One of the strongest arguments often made against the Iraq War, both in the run up and the aftermath, was that it was a needless distraction from North Korea and Iran, two countries whose nuclear ambitions were further advanced and more determined. Nothing about the catastrophic nature of the Iraq War diminishes the argument, as demonstrated by North Korea's newfound nuclear status. The NIE confirms that Iran has proven more cautious than North Korea, but it doesn't say anything about what happens next.
There's no question that the Bush administration's approach to the standoff has been needlessly bellicose, and remarkably uncreative, given the openings for a broader kind of bargain that seemed possible in 2003. As Matthew Yglesias puts it, Sometimes you have to be willing to take yes for an answer. But in the rush to celebrate Cheney's defeat, we shouldn't treat Iran with kid gloves. My thoughts have evolved on this question over time, it's true, primarily due to getting pretty deep into the weeds on the issue. A unilateral strike would be disastrous. But so would a nuclear-armed Iran outside the NPT. Of the two, the second would probably be more manageable, and therefore less undesirable. But it's by no means a benign option.
Again, the key is to keep the pressure on, but to make sure it's multi-lateral pressure. In addition to pressure, some sort of opening has to be offered to Iran, and given that Europe already has pretty strong commercial and diplomatic ties with Iran, that opening can only come from us. But Iran has to be held accountable for its commitments under the NPT. Otherwise they'll have bluffed their way into normalized relations, without ever revealing just what cards they're holding.