Spinning the NIE Iran Report

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Farnews / Emami / SIPA

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (C) attends the inauguration of the Arak heavy-water project southwest of Tehran.

The Rashomon-like battle to interpret the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran is well under way. All sides of the Iran nuclear dispute are working hard to make their own reading of the report the accepted one, and to emphasize the findings that best suit their agendas. Those agendas will remain unchanged by the NIE: Israel and Washington hawks want military action against a grave and gathering threat; the Bush Administration is pursuing coercive diplomacy; the Europeans want to avoid war. And it is those agendas that will shape each player's response to the NIE in what promises to be a furious battle over Iran policy in the months to come. A guide to the players and their likely plays:

1. The Bush Administration:

The Spin: The new NIE on Iran changes nothing; it actually vindicates Administration policy on Iran. It affirms that Iran is a threat — since it did maintain a covert nuclear weapons program, after all — and notes that Tehran only restrained itself in response to foreign pressure, most notably after the White House rebuffed its overtures in 2003 to try and normalize relations. Escalating that pressure is the only way to prevent Iran from acquiring technology and know-how that could be diverted into a bomb program; easing the pressure at this moment would be a tragic mistake.

The Game Plan: The Administration's Iran policy is really a compromise between hawks who seek military strikes and regime change, and Washington realists — and European allies — who see the military option as disastrous and believe the ultimate key to resolving the dispute is negotiating a normalization of relations between the U.S. and Iran. President Bush has charted a course between these options by keeping the military option on the table while emphasizing his preference for compelling Iran to back down through coercive sanctions. Bush refuses to talk to Iran before it suspends uranium enrichment. Although the NIE report makes the prospect of military action more remote, the Administration will likely continue to push for harsher sanctions, despite greater skepticism among allies — a task that becomes more difficult once the threat of U.S. military action can't be used to spur the Europeans to back harsher sanctions as a lesser evil. Its key argument will be that even absent an active bomb program, uranium enrichment for civilian energy purposes in Iran represents a threat. Although Iran actually has the right, under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to enrich uranium if it is able to resolve questions over some of its previous activities to the satisfaction the IAEA, Bush warns that it can't be allowed to do so because enrichment would be a key technological component of any covert bomb program, and Iran has proven time and again that it can’t be trusted.

2. The Washington Hawks

The Spin: The NIE findings on Iran's bomb program are questionable, and should be taken with a pinch of salt. How do we know they're right this time, rather than in 2005 when they said the opposite? The CIA and other intelligence agencies are trying to compensate for their gross failure on Iraq’s supposed WMD by downplaying Iran’s capabilities. The report's salient findings are that Iran has had a covert nuclear weapons program, and that it continues, in defiance of international demands, to pursue the enrichment capability that will allow it to build a bomb. The military option can't be taken off the table because sanctions have not, thus far, proved effective in forcing Iran to back down on enrichment.

The Game Plan: Question, and paint as politically motivated, those findings of the NIE that diminish the threat posed by Iran — and in the process undercut any softening of the Bush Administration's stance. Focus on the idea that Iran can't be trusted, has had a covert bomb program, and has malign intent toward the U.S. and Israel. Paint any lessening of a willingness to take military action as dereliction of duty in the face of a grave and gathering threat — cue comparisons to appeasing Nazi Germany in the 1930s — and hold President Bush to his own tough-talking promises in the years following 9/11.

3. Democrats and Republican 'Realists'

The Spin: The NIE vindicates those who have supported sanctions to press Iran to cooperate with the IAEA and U.N. demands, but have also rejected the military option and have pressed for a genuine U.S. attempt to start unconditional talks with Iran. The report suggests that Administration claims of an Iran threat have been unjustifiably inflated, echoing the prewar discussion of Iraq. The report shows that there's no urgent peril emanating from Iran despite President Ahmadinejad’s bluster; that Tehran's real decision-making (in which executive power rests not with Ahmadinejad but with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) is rational rather than ideological; and that a diplomatic solution would have to address Iran's aspirations. This makes a direct, unconditional diplomatic approach to Iran essential, because the current escalation of coercive diplomacy is going nowhere: although Iran stopped its weapon program in 2003 in response to international pressure, it continues to defy the international community despite a sharp escalation of international pressure since then.

The Game Plan: Attack the Bush Administration for hyping the Iran "threat," and press for a new approach to diplomacy with Iran as the momentum for sanctions abroad inevitably slows in the face of the new findings.

4. Israel

The Spin: Israel's security has been at the forefront of the Bush Administration's case against Iran, and the Israeli leadership fears that the NIE report is another sign of weakening U.S. resolve to tackle the threat. The U.S. assessment is flat-out wrong, say Israeli leaders; Iran's covert weapons program is very much alive. Israel cannot afford the luxury of equivocating, given the mortal danger presented by an Iranian bomb. If the U.S. fails to act on the danger (recognized by the NIE) that Iran's activities could still be used to create a bomb, the Jewish State will be forced to act alone.

The Game Plan: Despite the talk of an "Israeli option" for military action, few analysts believe an Israeli attack on Iranian facilities is likely, or even possible. Until now, Israel's strategy has been to press the U.S. to take military action if sanctions fail to budge Iran, and to persuade European and other powers to back tougher sanctions. This will likely remain Israel's focus: It will work to rally support on Capitol Hill and in U.S. public opinion to raise the domestic political cost for American politicians in an election year relaxing a hard line on Iran.

5. Europe, Russia, China and the Arabs

The Spin: As we were saying... The Russians are claiming vindication of their long-standing position that there is no evidence of an Iranian weapons program, China is reverting to its opposition to further sanctions and escalation of confrontation, and the Europeans and Arab regimes are taking comfort from the fact that the military option is effectively squelched by the NIE findings. The Europeans stress the need for the international community to maintain pressure on Iran to comply with U.N. demands, but are not unhappy to see the NIE remove the sense of crisis and the threat of confrontation from the equation — and the same holds true for the Arab regimes threatened by Iran's growing influence, but who fear that a U.S.-Iran confrontation would leave them even worse off.

The Game Plan: It differs for the various players. China and Russia, for example, see their own reluctance to escalate the diplomatic confrontation as vindicated by the NIE, and will likely resist moves to ratchet up U.N. sanctions against Iran. The Europeans will stand with Washington on pursuing further sanctions, but they'll be more vocal in pressing Washington to talk directly to Tehran and to drop the precondition that Iran first end uranium enrichment. And the Arab regimes will continue to press both sides to find a compromise.

6. Iran

The Spin: The NIE report is an admission of defeat by the Bush Administration, and a great victory for Iran, which has always insisted that its purposes are peaceful. This vindicates Iran's defiance of U.N. sanctions and other efforts aimed at curbing its nuclear program.

The Game Plan: Iran has long refused to allow itself to be seen to be bowing to foreign pressure to end uranium enrichment, and that's unlikely to change, particularly now that Tehran will expect the NIE report to weaken support for further sanctions. At the same time, however, the Iranians have indicated interest in various compromise proposals involving their acquiring or producing reactor fuel abroad rather than establishing industrial-scale enrichment facilities. (They do, however, insist on being able to maintain their current research-level enrichment facilities.) It would not be out of character for Tehran to take advantage of what it portrays as a setback to Washington by stepping up efforts to float a compromise proposal more favorable to its terms. Reading Iran's intentions is always difficult, but the handling of the nuclear standoff with the West is the subject of fierce factional struggles inside Tehran's corridors of power, and it's simply too soon to tell.