Rethinking U.S. Foreign Policy on Iran

"Rethinking U.S. Foreign Policy"
Op-Ed, Globe and Mail: December 7, 2007

On Monday, the U.S. intelligence community released a stunning unanimous National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. It concluded with "high confidence that in the fall of 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program." The new estimate turns on its head the intelligence community's 2005 estimate that found the Iranians were "determined to develop nuclear weapons." The new assessment offers George W. Bush's administration an opportunity to repair its broken policy toward Iran.

Clearly, the 16 agencies of the intelligence community did not reach this conclusion lightly. To state such an unambiguous judgment with such powerful policy ramifications, U.S. intelligence must have acquired new, high-quality sources of information. The agencies are not unaware that their new judgment essentially confirms what the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Russian intelligence service have been saying for the past several years. This is great news for anyone who has been worried about Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions. Those fearful that the Bush administration would attack Iran before leaving office are also breathing a sigh of relief.

For the Bush administration itself, however, this intelligence community judgment is an extremely inconvenient truth. It yanks the rug out from under the administration's argument that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons with which his country would threaten the world. Recall that a month ago, Mr. Bush was attempting to rally support for his policy by claiming that Iran had to be stopped now to "avoid World War III."

Until yesterday, the Bush administration's dire predictions and bellicose rhetoric supported its intense focus on persuading other permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, Britain, France and Russia) to tighten sanctions against Iran. A unanimous Security Council resolution requires Iran to halt uranium enrichment before full-scale negotiations can begin. The administration had made it clear that it would not sit down with Iran until it completely shut down the enrichment centrifuges currently spinning in Natanz, 160 kilometres south of Tehran. The ultimate goal of this strategy, of course, was to convince Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program.

So what will the President do now that his intelligence agencies have officially told him that Iran has already met his essential goal? The administration's initial reaction to the assessment resembles a deer in the headlights. Based on his comments to the press yesterday, Mr. Bush does not seem to recognize that the new assessment creates an entirely new context in which the chances of making any additional progress to strengthen sanctions are slim. Make no mistake: The Iranians now have much more leverage in negotiations.

At the next round of discussions, Iran's new hard-line nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, will surely wave the new American intelligence at the five permanent members and reassert that Iran has always been up front with the international community about its nuclear intentions. Before the week is out, other members of the P-5, particularly China and Russia, will likely point out that since Iran has done what the parties originally demanded, sanctions should now be relaxed.

Getting the Iran issue right remains vitally important. Although an Iranian bomb no longer appears imminent, Tehran's decision to forgo weapons is not irreversible. By advancing their knowledge of the enrichment process through the current program, the Iranians could - as the intelligence estimate points out - have sufficient material for a bomb by 2015. At that point, Iran could simply opt to construct a weapon on short order.

Facing this new reality, the Bush administration should jettison its current approach and formulate a new strategy for dealing with Iran.

Despite Mr. Ahmadinejad's occasional ravings, Iran's actions are, as the estimate says, "guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapons irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs." Moreover, the marked reduction in the flow of weapons across the Iranian border into Iraq suggests that the negotiations in Baghdad between Iranians and Americans can bear important fruit.

The time has come for full bilateral negotiations between the United States and Iran. The talks should be unconditional: Mr. Bush simply must drop the demand for Iran to halt enrichment before talks begin. Both sides should use the momentum generated by negotiations in Baghdad to broaden the dialogue and address diverse security concerns.

Negotiations are never certain to yield results. Nonetheless, launch of a focused diplomatic surge offers the best prospects of ensuring that the Iranians do not reverse their reported 2003 decision to forgo a nuclear bomb.

Graham Allison, who served as assistant secretary of defence for policy and plans during the first Clinton administration, is author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.

Eric Rosenbach recently served as a professional staff member on the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

Also See:
The view from Iran By Kaveh L. Afrasiabi and Kayhan Barzegar: Boston Globe, December 5, 2007

Excerpt: With the United States and Iran poised for a fourth round of dialogue on Iraq's security, and the latest IAEA report confirming Iran's steady cooperation and increasing nuclear transparency, the stage is now set for a thaw in the hitherto hostile US-Iran relations... Both sides should heed the call by the head of IAEA, Mohammad ElBaradei, to use the intelligence report as the basis for a comprehensive dialogue geared toward normalization.


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