For anyone who knows the strange relationship between the Great Satan and the Axis of Evil, the most stunning aspect of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concerning Iran’s nuclear program was its notion of anyone in Tehran making rational calculations.
Where once there were “mad mullahs”, all of a sudden there was an Iranian state pursuing national self-interest. The shift was so sharp it provoked speculation the US might be heading towards an understanding with Iran that could help stabilize the wider region.
In Tehran, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad decided the NIE was a vindication, presumably because of the uncertainty it betrayed in US policies.
Oddly, Ahmadinejad was thereby expressing faith in the competence of the CIA and its cohorts, whose record in the region is abysmal. Think of its mismanagement of the Iraq operation based in Kurdistan in 1992.
Think also of the 1984 kidnapping and death in captivity of its Beirut bureau chief, William Buckley, which itself came a year after a truck-bomb destroyed the Beirut embassy, killing 17 Americans including Robert Ames, the CIA’s senior Middle East analyst.
“Why should the agency be successful in trying to penetrate Iran’s nuclear program?” asked Tabnak, a website associated with Mohsen Rezaie, anther astute former commander of the Revolutionary Guards. Tabnak scoffed at the notion the CIA had “effective knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program.”
Although the NIE was a public document, the sources for its conclusion that Iran conducted weapons research until 2003 remain confidential. Leaks — which could be red herrings — have said the information came from defectors, possibly including Ali-Reza Asgari, the former Iranian deputy defense minister who disappeared around the end of 2006.
But as ever, the real issues are political. Enriched uranium is intrinsically of ‘dual use’, and the very notion of a ‘weapons program’ misleading. The same process used to make fuel for a power station can make material for a bomb — which makes the NIE conclusions about weapons problematic.
Ali Larijani, until October, Iran’s top security official as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, argued the NIE revealed a new “phase” in US policy, bringing Washington closer to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which since July has been carrying out an agreed work-plan to clear up past discrepancies.
Significantly, Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign affairs advisor to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also argued the NIE moved the US closer to Mohamed El-Baradei, the IAEA head, in containing both positive and negative points. Velayati’s implication was that like El-Baradei, the US wanted a negotiated settlement.
But who could the US talk to in Tehran? And through which channels? The NIE follows four years in which the West, wittingly or not, has undermined those in Tehran best prepared for dialogue.
In 2003, the year when US intelligence now concludes Iran’s nuclear weapons research ended, Tehran proposed wide-ranging negotiations in a letter to the Americans probably written by Mohammed-Javad Zarif, then the UN ambassador, and Sadegh Kharrazi, then ambassador to Paris.
Iran’s formal talks with the Europeans over the nuclear program were in progress in 2003 as Tehran suspended uranium enrichment — the most sensitive part of the nuclear program — as a gesture of “good will”.
But as Europe talked to Iran — and its foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, has kept the process just about alive even today — Washington carped from the sidelines. Officials like John Bolton have trashed the process.
By the summer of 2005, Ayatollah Khamenei — who has the last word on important matters as supreme leader — lost patience in dealing with Europeans not prepared to reach an agreement without American support.
Iran resumed its nuclear work, even before Ahmadinejad had arrived in the presidential office after his landslide election victory in June; first in August 2005 with the conversion of raw uranium into feeder gases and then in January 2006, by resuming small-scale uranium enrichment. This in turn led to the US and the EU cajoling the IAEA board in February 2006 to refer Iran to the UN security council.
Today, the political momentum in Iran is with the fundamentalists, including a president who has elevated the nuclear program from an affair of state to a national and even international crusade. The letter writers of 2003, Zarif and Kharrazi, have long been displaced by president Ahmadinejad.
And the basis for confrontation remains. Even if China and Russia are more reluctant, after the NIE, to agree to further sanctions, Iran remains defiance to existing UN Security Council resolutions demanding it end uranium enrichment. Washington has given no sign it intends to ease up over this.
But for Iran to suspend enrichment now would be a colossal retreat and the NIE gives Tehran yet another reason to stand firm. Hence the situation is most likely to drift inconclusively in the Bush administration’s final year.