Iran War a non-starter?
Frrom The statesman
The rhetoric of war against Iran has become muted. The hawks are in disarray. US Vice-President Mr Dick Cheney has been boxed and shoved into a corner for now.
Democrat and Republican presidential candidates are scrambling to come up with new policy postures toward Iran, whom they continue to regard as an unfriendly country, albeit not an evil one, that could provoke World War III, as President George W Bush warned in October.Europeans who have been reluctantly cooperating with the USA are baffled by the revelations. Russia and China are hastening to go back to their cozy commercial relations with Iran. India says its stand that the Iran nuclear issue should be handled by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and not by the UN Security Council has been vindicated.
This is a rare example of how information put together as a well-constructed report free from political bias can change overnight the mindset of almost an entire nation. What happened to the Intelligence community’s earlier conclusions that Iran was in the advanced stages of highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons? Perhaps, Intelligence became smarter and developed new insights.
The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a report based on the findings of the 16 agencies of the US Intelligence community, has concluded “with a high level of confidence” in its report released last week that Iran is not engaged in the development of nuclear weapons today. Teheran halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003, though it continues pursuing nuclear energy development for civilian energy purposes. What a relief! But what happened? Several factors such as the US invasion of Iraq and the subsequent chaos and destruction of the country, Libya’s giving up of its nuclear weapons development programme under US and UK pressures, the dismantling of Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear bazaar operated by AQ Khan from which Iran had benefited, and the rising drumbeat of the Axis of Evil might have persuaded Iran to reconsider its options and so it decided to freeze its programme.
There is no doubt that Iran has the necessary scientific, technological and industrial base and knowledge to make nuclear bombs. Suspending the programme does not mean, however, that Iran has altogether given up its intention to build a nuclear arsenal in the pursuit of its strategic interests in the region. At least for the time being, it is not doing it.
The report says, “Our assessment that Iran halted the programme in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Teheran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach, rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.” Of course, the national interest calculus includes both short and long term cost-benefit analyses. And Iran taking into account the ruthless determination of the Bush administration that it displayed in the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq might have thought it to be unwise to continue with its nuclear weapons programme.
But the US Intelligence community did not know about Iran’s suspension of its nuclear programme; nor was it convinced about the regime’s protestations that it is pursuing nuclear development only for civilian uses.
That explains perhaps why the 2005 Intelligence estimate said: “Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure.” The 2005 report gave the Bush administration the rationale for persuading its European allies as well as Russia and China to impose effective sanctions on Iran. The latest Intelligence report, which was commissioned by the Democrat-controlled Congress, is said to have used more rigorous methods of Intelligence gathering and analysis so that the previous Intelligence fiasco regarding Iraq’s development of weapons of mass destruction should not be repeated. Faulty Intelligence in the hands of a frightened nation, as the USA had become after 9/11, can have terrible global consequences.
In 2002, accurate and reliable Intelligence about Iraq might have persuaded the USA to adopt some other method of dealing with Saddam Hussein. The new Intelligence report, which contradicts the previous alarming findings about Iran’s intentions, buttresses the arguments of non-hawkish Americans, Republicans and Democrats, who believe that concerted international diplomacy would work.The report recommends that “some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressure, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might ~ if perceived by Iran’s leaders as credible ~ prompt Teheran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons programme”.
According to the IAEA, Iran continues to operate 3,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium for civilian nuclear energy purposes, which could give it enough fissile material to produce nuclear weapons in less than a decade if its intentions change and it can get away with international scrutiny and pressure. With the long-range Ashoura and Shahab series, Iran has a well developed ballistic missile development programme.With its immense oil and natural gas resources and nuclear capabilities, Iran is a significant power in the region. But no single power should be allowed to dominate the Gulf region through which millions of barrels of oil flow every day.
Now that war is off the table, dealing with Iran’s geopolitical ambitions becomes a great diplomatic challenge not only for the next US administration but also for the international community. As French President Mr Nicolas Sarkozy said after the NIE report was released, “The threat exists”.
Engaging Iran at multiple levels will open up this ancient civilisation. The next US President should take the first step in this direction.
(ND Batra teaches communications and diplomacy at Norwich University, USA)