Monday, December 03, 2007

National Intelligence Estimate: Cooling Down Threat of War

It is not surprising to me, because since the Iraqi insurgency began, I've always thought the US was bluffing about attacking Iran, and I've always been sure Iran's leaders have thought the US was bluffing.

The release of this National Intelligence Estimate (pdf here), including the claim that Iran halted its weapons program in 2003 not only reduces the chance that the US will attack, it reduces the credibility of threats from the US that it will do so.

US intelligence agencies undercut the White House yesterday by disclosing for the first time that Iran has not been pursuing a nuclear weapons development programme for the past four years. The secret report, which was declassified yesterday and published, marked a significant shift from previous estimates. "Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons programme suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005," it said.

Here is one conclusion drawn in the press:

If there was ever a possibility that President George W. Bush would drop bombs on Iran, the chances have now shrunk to nearly zero.

In one of the most dramatic National Intelligence Estimates ever, the 16 agencies of the U.S. intelligence community concluded today "with high confidence" that Iran "halted its nuclear weapons" four years ago, in the fall of 2003.

The release of this document in this form reflects a decision, correctly though lately reached, that threats are not productive. They scare everyone else, to make them more anxious for a peaceful resolution even if that means giving ground to Iran, but they do not scare Iran.

It is not the case that the executive branch of the US government was forced by the facts to release this report. It is not the case that the executive branch was forced to make public the conclusions that it drew. This is a decision to give the US room to stand down and to reassure the Europeans and Arabs that they can escape this administration without an attack even if they do not try to buy the Iranians out while still allowing some enrichment.

The conclusion that in 2003 Iran decided to halt its nuclear weapons program because of the US policy of sanctions and pressure is odd. Of course, whatever basis exists for the claim that Iran had a nuclear weapons program until 2003 is classified. Which means it is protected from public scrutiny. But that seems like a nitpick in a report that in other respects is such a reversal of the foundation of US Iran policy.

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