The Iranian Nuclear Program
The NYT reports that declassified excerpts from a National Intelligence Estimate declare "with 'high confidence' that a military-run Iranian program intended to transform that raw material into a nuclear weapon has been shut down since 2003, and also says with high confidence that the halt 'was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure.'" Although the NYT suggestively writes that the new NIE contradicts "judgment two years ago that Tehran was working relentlessly toward building a nuclear bomb" the fact is that the "contradiction" was issued from the same shop. Intelligence agencies regularly revise their assessments with the availability of new information. It's a feature, not a bug.
But what does the core assertion that Iran was once working on a nuclear weapons program but is no longer doing so really mean? A number of questions arise in this regard.
- Why was Iran not provoked into further and more frantic efforts to develop nuclear weapons by the invasion of Iraq?
- Why did Iranian leadership on so many occasions threaten to rain fire and destruction down Israel when they were apparently stopping their nuclear weapons efforts at the same time? Or to put it another way, why threaten to shoot someone while at the same time unloading the gun?
- As this timeline from the BBC shows, no new sanctions were imposed on Iran between 2000 and 2005. In March 2000, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called for a new start in US-Iranian relations and announces lifting of sanctions on Iranian exports ranging from carpets to food products." The UN Security Council voted to impose additional sanctions in 2006, but this was one year after Iran had essentially given up, according to the NIE estimate.
Whether or not the Iranian nuclear program is active today, the items above suggest that diplomacy and sanctions alone don't tell the whole story. The biggest source of pressure on Iran in the period immediately before 2005 was obviously the US operation in Iraq. What effect it had on the Iranian nuclear decision historians will decide. But it is probable that cumulative pressure from a wide variety of sources stopped Iran's program -- if indeed it has stopped. Diplomacy can record its effect on a state's behavior, in the same way a thermometer records the temperature. But just as a thermometer doesn't cause the temperature neither does diplomacy in and of itself create effects.
In the post The Real Surge I argued that the reconstitution of the Iraqi state and it's army would push Iran to the stretching point and perhaps facilitate a relatively peaceful transition in that country in the same way the Soviet empire was collapsed. I wrote:
Even if the US never takes any military action against Iran the creation of a new and modern Iraqi Army, well supplied with artillery and logistics (as appears to be the case) will create a threat in being for the Ayatollahs. From a situation in which the Teheran could contemplate virtually annexing southern Iraq (as would have occurred if the US had admitted defeat in early 2007 and left) the Ayatolahs now face the prospect of having to maintain large permanent standing forces on their border with Iraq. Nor is this all. If most US ground forces are freed up by the Real Surge the Iranians will suddenly face the prospect of dangerous mobile US reserve. All in all it would be a nightmarish burden for Teheran to shoulder.
Does this mean war in the Middle East? Ironically the Real Surge may actually reduce the prospect of war considerably, while at the same time improving the prospects for the peaceful resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem. While it is possible that Iran, watching its window of opportunity closing, may become suddenly reckless and launch an all-out attack to destabilize Iraq, it is probably too late for banzai measures. The odds are that Iran has been strategically beaten, first by the American Surge and worse, by the follow-on Iraqi resurgence.
The intolerable burden of maintaining a war-footing against the new Iraq, guarding against possible American action, Western sanctions and the need to refurbish its collapsing oil industry while maintaining a nuclear program may collapse the theocrats in Teheran in the same way it did the old Soviet Union.
That might be a good thing. For Iran, Iraq, America and the whole world.
Something like this may be happening already. Many pundits will now seize upon the new NIE to argue that the Iranian threat was overblown from the start; that it was never really necessary to do anything to prevent the Ayatollahs from getting a bomb. But that is a perverted argument which reverses the order of things. The reason the Iranian bomb program was prevented or slowed was because it was taken seriously and the necessary counter-pressures were implemented.
Whether or not Iran's nuclear weapons program is stopped is a question that will be re-examined in future NIEs. But if it has stopped the probable reason is that the Aytaollahs looked at what it would cost them and said, "nah". All that the Latin maxim "igitur qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum" really means is that you want to be treated with respect, don't act like a chump.