U.S intelligence agencies have concluded in a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in fall 2003 and that Tehran is now "less determined to develop nuclear weapons." The new findings will make it more difficult for the Bush administration to gain domestic and international support for the use of military force against Iran. The findings also will complicate efforts to arrange a third round of U.N. sanctions against Iran and could open the door to a policy of diplomatic engagement.
The new estimate comes at an important juncture in the bureaucratic battle between the White House and the Pentagon over the possible use of force against Tehran. President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have been making the case for military power, with the president warning in October that a nuclear-armed Iran could lead to World War III and the vice president promising "serious consequences" if Tehran did not abandon its nuclear program. Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney were aware of the new findings before they used their provocative language.
At the same time, senior military leaders have been arguing in public against the need for force against Iran, which they didn't do prior to the Iraq war. The new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, and the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Adm. William J. Fallon, have sought to play down speculation about striking Iran's nuclear facilities. General officers in Iraq have noted that Iran has cooperated in stopping the flow of roadside bombs to Iraq and that Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has support from Iran, has begun to rein in his militia. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, though silent during these exchanges, must have lent tacit support.
The latest intelligence estimate indicates the intelligence community has learned some lessons from the Iraq debacle in 2002 and 2003, when it politicized the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in order to support the administration's campaign for military action. Before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the CIA prepared a specious NIE on Iraqi WMD - a skewed, unclassified "white paper" that was circulated on Capitol Hill prior to the vote to authorize force against Iraq, and a flawed speech for then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that was given at the United Nations a month before the war.
The CIA also permitted President Bush to make false allegations about Iraq's nuclear program in his State of the Union address in January 2003.
The current estimate should enable congressional leaders to be more courageous in defeating any measure that argues the case for military action against Iran based on a nuclear weapons program that was stopped four years ago. The estimate puts the U.S. intelligence community in line with the official views of European and Russian leaders, as well as with international arms inspectors. As a result, it will enable the leaders of key European countries, as well as China and Russia, to be more adamant in resisting the coercive tactics, including sanctions, that the Bush administration has adopted.
In view of the use of diplomacy to stop North Korea's nuclear weapons program, the new findings create an opportunity to argue for a genuine effort to pursue a diplomatic solution to the differences between the United States and Iran.
The new estimate also supports those critics of the Bush administration who believe that deterrence can work with Iran, concluding that Iran's nuclear weapons program was "halted primarily in response to international pressure." This view reverses a key finding from two years ago, when the intelligence community argued with "high confidence" that Iran was determined "to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure."
Nevertheless, it is disconcerting that it took the $50 billion intelligence community four years to determine the program had ended, as well as two years to report the new findings to the White House and key decision-makers. The congressional intelligence committees must investigate the reasons for these significant delays.
Overall, the new estimate suggests that the intelligence community is trying to regain the credibility that it lost when it politicized intelligence findings to support the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq. The willingness to confront Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney with intelligence that does not support their policy prescriptions for Iran suggests that the community's new leadership is willing to tell truth to power.
Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, was a senior intelligence analyst at the CIA from 1966 to 1990. His e-mail is email@example.com.