Wednesday, December 12, 2007
NIE: Final Thoughts
A couple news cycles have gone by, and the reaction to the NIE will soon be taking definitive shape in policy-making circles and public opinion. Having read through a wide range of analysis, I'm struck most by how the report's principle impact -- a reduction in the perceived threat level posed by the program -- is the source of both its most positive and negative effects.
The most positive consequence of this changed perception is that it has removed the threat of a unilateral American military strike against Iran, with all its potentially catastrophic consequences and no particular guarantee of success. The most negative consequence of the changed threat perception is that it has potentially undermined political and diplomatic resolve to pressure Iran to comply with its NPT obligations. Significantly, while the sense of urgency now attached to the issue has been dramatically reduced, the actual threats posed by the Iranian nuclear program have not changed. That they were never as dramatic as what the Bush administration was claiming does not mean they were never serious.
This reduced sense of urgency, while perhaps mistaken, does present some opportunities. To begin with, it has opened a window of opportunity for a period of reflection on all sides of the issue (ie. the 3+3: France, England, Germany and the US, Russia, China). For the US, that primarily means deciding how far we're willing to go in normalizing relations with Iran, which in turn means deciding how much we're willing to concede Iran a strategic role in regional affairs.
However desirable a broader diplomatic resolution to the issue as a longterm goal might be, though, any bi-lateral "grand bargain" between the US and Iran would be for the time being premature. For such an agreement to be durable, it needs to be negotiated by governments that enjoy more broadly based support than either the Bush administration (with its divisive character and lame duck status) or the Ahmadinejad administration (with its factional infighting and institutional opaqueness) can now claim.
For the Europeans, the NIE report certainly signals the deathknell of the Bush administration's already diminished relevance. That it came so unexpectedly only magnifies the degree to which it renders the Bush administration an unreliable partner, unable as it is to even guarantee the coherence of its own political line. The irony of course being that, for all the anxiety it was causing in America, the Bush administration's hardline rhetoric masked a significant recalibration of its actual negotiating position, which in combination with the European strategy of engagement was on the verge of isolating Iran from its principle support on the Security Council (Russia and China). The potential for a breakthrough round of sanctions was only increased by Iran's latest negotiating position with the EU's Javier Solana, which was universally considered to be disastrously confrontational.
A third round of sanctions is still possible, but its impact will almost certainly be limited. Which means the clock will continue to run out, and contrary to the impression people have taken from the NIE, there are many ways in which that aggravates the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program.
One thing no one has yet mentioned: The NIE gives an outside threat estimate for a nuclear Iran of 8 years, which is more than enough time to at least identify and introduce a sane domestic energy policy, one that diminishes our dependence on the strategic security of the Persian Gulf in particular and Middle East in general. Take all the unknown variables of the Iran nuclear program, then consider what happens when you multiply them by the three to six countries capable of pursuing similar programs in the next ten to twenty years and you'll get a sense of just how important such a policy really is.