Friday, December 7, 2007

The Counterintuitive Implications Of The NIE

This Kaveh Afrasiabi piece, as usual, is a very informative analysis of the impact of the Iran NIE. I take exception with the premise that it demonstrates the "invented" nature of an Iranian threat, for reasons that I detailed here. But it is an alternate take on the idea that the NIE puts the EU three (France, Great Britain and Germany) in the driver's seat:

But, too bad for Europe, the net result of the NIE is that, in effect, it makes Europe redundant in the nuclear diplomacy, by depriving it of the stick of US hard power that has constantly lurked in the background every time European officials met with the Iranians and pressed their (unreasonable) nuclear demands. These were that Iran should forever forego its right to peaceful nuclear technology simply because of unfounded allegations and hyped-up fears.

This is, indeed, the nub of the paradox of the new situation as a result of the NIE: it has raised Iran's expectations for a more proactive European role precisely when Europe is now deprived of the necessary muscle to deal with Iran, hitherto provided by the US's credible threat of military action. With the latter jettisoned from the equation for now, Europe's cards for dealing with Iran have diminished considerably. All the attention has been deflected from Vienna and other European capitals to Washington, which until now has "outsourced" its Iran nuclear diplomacy to Europe.

Again, I reject the premise that a clandestine nuclear program including a (most probably) frozen weapons component is a hyped-up fear, as I do the claim that holding Iran to its obligations under the NPT (to which it is a signatory) is an unreasonable demand. More interesting, though, is Afrasiabi's reading of the state of play on the diplomatic front.

He points out that the threat of military force has not been taken off the table, so much as the nuclear standoff removed from the list of possible pretexts. (That list still includes any number of conceivable incidents in Iraq.) But the larger context of his argument, that the NIE reduces the Iran nuclear program to a non-issue, is an example of how by undermining the gathering diplomatic pressure on Tehran, the NIE might actually serve to lock in a military outcome.

In the absence of a credible EU negotiating position, the logic of a diplomatic resolution to this crisis is based on the Bush administration embracing a grand bargain with Tehran. Two things mitigate against this happening. First, Tehran had already begun to harden its negotiating position with the EU's Javier Solana even before the release of the NIE. Second, the Bush administration has long made it clear that opening the discussions for any grand bargain would depend on regaining the leverage it has lost through the Iraq fiasco.

The combination of the improved security situation in Iraq (even if it is due to Iranian cooperation) and the looming threat of a third round of sanctions seemed to have offered just such leverage. Now, with the EU's negotiating position eviscerated, the prospect of such a grand bargain, even if it follows from the logic of the NIE itself, looks more remote.

As I said, there's a counterintuitive element to this NIE that seems to be getting lost in translation. By reducing the imminent threat level of the Iranian nuclear program, it has removed the justification for a military strike, and rightly so. But it has also very clearly, if unjustifiably, undermined the diplomatic track. And by undermining the diplomatic track, it reduces the likelihood of a negotiated resolution to the crisis, which very much increases the likelihood of a military strike.

It's twisted logic, I know. But don't be surprised to find the military option, with even more catastrophic consequences because even more unilateral, very much back on the table should a third round of sanctions fail.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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