The latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran was the final factor in a military equation that now appears to guarantee that there will be no war with Iran during the Bush Administration. It meshes with the views of the operational types at the Pentagon, who have steadfastly resisted the march to war led by some Administration hawks. The anti-war group was composed of Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs; and Admiral William Fallon, who oversees the U.S. forces that would have had to wage that war. In recent months, all have pushed back privately and publicly, on the wisdom of going to war with Tehran. Indeed, the Pentagon's intelligence units were instrumental in forming the NIE's conclusions.
The U.S. military contributes nine of the 16 intelligence agencies whose views are cobbled together in NIEs: the Counterintelligence Field Activity, the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency, Army Intelligence, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Security Agency, and the Office of Naval Intelligence. Some critics have suggested that the military simply found a public way to quiet the drumbeat for war coming from Vice President Dick Cheney and his shrinking band of allies in the Administration.
There was no formal response from the Pentagon. It is evident, however, that the U.S. military, already strained by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has no appetite for a third war. That's true even if a series of strikes against nuclear and other targets inside Iran were carried out by the Air Force and Navy, the two services who have sat, somewhat frustrated, on the sidelines as the Army and Marine Corps has done the heavy lifting in the two wars now under way. Some Pentagon officials welcomed the new NIE as evidence that the intelligence community is not tied to ideology, as some critics argued was true during the buildup to the Iraq war in 2003.
Still, Pentagon officials made it clear that this was not a political move by the brass that the military's lack of desire for another conflict and the conclusions of the new NIE are coincidental. They stress that the military focuses on "intentions, not capabilities" when assessing threats, and that the final unclassified portion of the NIE warns that the intelligence community believes "with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so."
Indeed, Secretary Gates, in Afghanistan this week, told reporters that the U.S. intelligence community has "more confidence than ever before" that Iran had a nuclear-weapons development program, one that Iran continues to deny it ever possessed. He urged the international community "to join the United States in bringing pressure to bear on the Iranian government" to keep its nuclear-weapons efforts dead. This, he said, will help "ensure that what apparently was a suspension in 2003 becomes a policy of the Iranian government and that they agree to the requirements of the international community in terms of their enrichment program." Iran, he said, had merely suspended not terminated its nuclear-weapons efforts. Tehran continues to "keep its options open," he pointed out. "As long as they continue with their enrichment activities, then the opportunity to resume that nuclear weapons program is always present."
However, Gates left no doubt where he stands on how to proceed, saying that the revised NIE shows that non-military measures are the best way to curb Iran's nuclear program. "If anything," he said in Kabul, "the new national estimate validates the Administration's strategy of bringing diplomatic and economic pressures to bear on the Iranian government to change its policies."