The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which downplayed the immediacy of the Iranian nuclear threat and claimed that Tehran suspended its weapons program in 2003, exploded like a charge of TNT in Washington’s foreign policy establishment this week. On the left, there was a collective “I told you so” as analysts portrayed the report by 16 U.S. intelligence agencies as “proof” that the Iranian threat was little more than a neo-con hallucination. On the right, analysts brushed aside the report’s core conclusions and cherry-picked other elements suggesting the threat is as dire as ever.
The reality of Iran is far more complex than the simplistic head-in-the-sand approach of the left or the apocalyptic rhetoric of the right imply. The report makes it clear Iran is moving forward with a nuclear enrichment program that could ultimately produce fissile material for bombs. At the same time, it argues that Tehran’s leaders have been much more responsive to international pressure than previously believed, and that their ultimate intentions are unclear.
The report validated the approach of Jewish groups that have been outspoken in demanding economic sanctions and tough diplomacy to slow Iran’s nuclear quest. That pressure was a major factor in the Iranian decision to suspend the weapons program, according to the report. It makes sense to keep it up until it is more certain Iran is not deferring its weapons program only until it has produced enough fissile material.
At the same time, the dramatic shift in intelligence means the time may be approaching for using carrots as well as sticks in dealing with Iran. U.S. intelligence officials are no longer describing Iran’s leaders as irrational fanatics bent on regional hegemony through nuclear arms no matter what the cost.
It would be foolish to let down our guard against a country that continues to foment terrorism, build long-range missiles, advance a nuclear program that could ultimately be converted to military purposes — and spew warlike anti-Israel, anti-Western rhetoric. And some top Israeli officials, like Defense Minister Ehud Barak, believe Iran has probably revived its nuclear weapons program since 2003.
But it would also be foolish to ignore a report that describes a far more complex, fluid situation than previously portrayed by the administration. Properly viewed, this week’s report should expand the range of options available to U.S. policymakers as they work to avert the undeniable nightmare of a nuclear Iran.