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December 04, 2007

A Little NIE Perspective
Posted by Michael Cohen

It really is amazing to think about the sheer momentousness of yesterday's NIE on Iran. It pretty much stops the call for war with Iran dead in its tracks. I'm having a hard time thinking of any similar recent event (not obviously including war or terrorist attack) that so completely changed the trajectory of American foreign policy. Heady times, indeed.

Many on the left are rightly crowing over the NIE, few more unabashedly then Glenn Greenwald who has used its release as yet another opportunity to indiscriminately bash the so-called Very Serious Foreign Policy Community. In Glenn's traditionally restrained, even-handed and non-accusatory manner, he declares:

Over the past year, the rhetoric from our Serious Foreign Policy establishment regarding the supposed threat posed by Iran's active pursuit of nuclear weapons has severely escalated both in terms of shrillness and threats. Opposition to this building hysteria has been led by Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who -- exactly as he did prior to the invasion of Iraq -- has been relentlessly warning that there is no real evidence to support these war-fueling allegations. Because of that, he has been relentlessly attacked and smeared by our Serious Foreign Policy elite -- yet again. And yet again, ElBaradei has been completely vindicated, and our Serious Foreign Policy Experts exposed as serial fabricators, fear-mongerers and hysterics.

Hmm. Whoever does he highlight in this machine-gun attack; Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post editorial page, who last time I checked is no friend of the left, my good friend the ever-wacky Charles Krauthammer, UN-lover John Bolton, Darth Vader . .  er, Dick Cheney, the perpetually wrong Bill Kristol, the batshit crazy Norman Podhoretz, Bush sycophant Fred Barnes, and the former Democrat, Joe Lieberman.

Most of these folks seem to have one thing in common - a neo-conservative sympathy. (In fairness, Greenwald also attacks favorite whipping boy Ken Pollack for stating that the circumstantial evidence of an Iranian nuke program was "quite strong.") One would be hard pressed to claim that these folks represent the mainstream of foreign policy thinking and yet Greenwald unabashedly declares:

Our political establishment is led by reckless war-lovers who will say anything, no matter how little basis there is, in order to beat their chests and threaten and start more wars (all the while accusing their latest desired bombing targets of being "rogue nations" and "threats to peace").

Really? Who are the Democratic members of the Very Serious Foreign Policy Community beating their chest for war in Iran? Granted some like Obama and Hillary Clinton have refused to take the force option off the table, but each has expressed a strong and undeniable preference for sanctions and diplomacy (a view shared by the members of the UN Security Council, and I'll get to that in a moment). While I'm sure Mr. Greenwald would like to include me in this list because I once stated that one could make a "argument" for the use of force against Iran (one of course that I completely reject) the fact is, the drumbeats of war have come almost universally from the right, and yet Greenwald has no qualms with tarring the entire Foreign Policy Community with the same shoot first, ask question's later brush.

But there is a larger point here that Greenwald is missing: there was until yesterday a strong basis for believing that Iran had something to hide about its nuclear program. Forget the 2005 NIE, which had a much more alarmist view of Iran's nuclear program; look at yesterday's news story from the Financial Times on Iran - only hours before the NIE was released.

"Beijing backs fresh sanctions against Iran." And why was China willing to go along with the other members of the Security Council in backing a sanctions regime against Iran:

At a meeting on Saturday of political directors of the P5 and Germany, China indicated that Iran's recent unwillingness to co-operate with the UN over its nuclear programme means it is now prepared to back a fresh range of sanctions.

Indeed, this about face is even more surprising when one considers:

Diplomats say China's opposition to a sanctions package has, if anything, been even more resolute than Russia, because of fears in Beijing that such moves would undermine its trading relationship with Tehran.

You don't want to believe the Bush Administration . . . I'm right there with you. But concern about Iran's nuclear program was not exclusively American; it was shared by every member of the Security Council and Germany.

Greenwald and many others are correct in stating that the IAEA and Mohammed El Baradei have been saying for years that there was no evidence Iran was developing a nuclear program . . . but that doesn't mean the IAEA was letting Iran off the hook.  Check out what El Baradei had to say in a fascinating FT interview from October:

From a proliferation perspective, what I see today is that Iran continues to build enrichment capacity, while we are not yet in a position to do robust verification because we are not able to implement the Additional Protocol. And that, to me, is the most serious concern I have because Iran could suspend its enrichment, but if I´m not having a robust verification, there is no guarantee for me that there is no undeclared activity somewhere. [Italics added]

In fact, throughout the interview, El Baradei expresses his concern over the lack of forthrightness and transparency from Iran about their nuclear program at the same time that he unequivocally rejects the case for war (even calling out John Bolton personally). 

There is a reason why two sanctions regimes were imposed on Iran and another was being supported by members of the Security Council - Iran was not being up front about its nuclear program and was not abiding by Security Council resolutions. If Iran had actually ended its nuke program in 2003 why didn't it reveal that fact to the IAEA . . . and short circuit the debate about sanctions and war? Maybe the higher oil prices caused by the nuclear uncertainty played into their economic favor. Let's not kid ourselves that the Iranians have clean hands here.

Indeed, here's what El Baredei had to say today about the NIE today:

IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei . . . notes that the Estimate tallies with the Agency´s consistent statements over the last few years that, although Iran still needs to clarify some important aspects of its past and present nuclear activities, the Agency has no concrete evidence of an ongoing nuclear weapons program or undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran.

At the same time, it should prompt Iran to work actively with the IAEA to clarify specific aspects of its past and present nuclear program . . . This would allow the Agency to provide the required assurances regarding the nature of the program.While calling on Iran to accelerate its cooperation with the Agency, in view of the new U.S. Estimate, the Director General urges all parties concerned to enter without delay into negotiations. Such negotiations are needed to build confidence about the future direction of Iran´s nuclear program - concern about which has been repeatedly expressed by the Security Council. They are also needed to bring about a comprehensive and durable solution that would normalise the relationship between Iran and the international community.

(Notice by the way, that El Baradei doesn't say that Iran has no nuclear program . . . he says there is "no concrete evidence" of an ongoing program.) The point here is that level-headed individuals, even members of the Very Serious Foreign Policy Community could have genuine concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions . . . without sounding the drumbeats of war. In fact, that view defines almost the entire foreign policy community. The ones angling for war were the minority.

Some will argue that even considering the use of force against Iran makes one a bloodthirsty member of the foreign policy elite. Yet, the same NIE, which claims Iran has ended its nuclear program also seems to suggest, obliquely, that the threat of force may be partly responsible for Iran's abandonment of its nuclear program:

Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs. This, in turn, suggests that some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, 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 Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.

We don't know the exact reason why Iran pulled the plug on its nuclear program (there likely isn't one single reason), but the threat of force certainly could have been a factor. Finally, let's not also ignore the fact that Iran remains a destabilizing force in the region. They are one of, if not, the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world; I'm thinking most specifically of their support for Hezbollah. And there does seem to be some fairly strong evidence that Iran is responsible for the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.  Again, I don't believe this means we should attack Tehran, but acting like Iran is not a threat to regional security seems akin to burying ones head in the sand.

I am more than sympathetic to Glenn Greenwald and his anger toward those neo-conservatives (including our President and Vice President) who so openly called for war with Iran. They should be attacked vociferously as once again they have been proven wrong. And we can all take solace in the fact that the dogs of war have, for now, likely been called off. But painting with such a broad brush about the entire Foreign Policy Community might be fun . . . it's just not correct.

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias has posted a March 2007 DLC dispatch hyping the Iranian nuclear threat:

But let's not get carried away. Iran still poses a major threat to global stability, regional peace, and U.S. interests. Tehran's serial defiance of U.N. mandates to stop developing nuclear weapons capabilities is a major challenge to the world's nonproliferation system. And its strong financial and material support for Hezbollah and Hamas makes it the number one state sponsor of Middle East terrorism.

While I think is downright silly to argue that Iran is a "major threat to global stability" the rest of the statement seems more than defensible. The Syrians, Egyptians and Saudis were quite concerned about the Iranian program and Iran's threat to Israel certainly affects US interests. Let us remember that UN sanctions were imposed on Iraq because of their refusal to end uranium enrichment so certainly the major Security Council powers shared this view that Iran represented a "challenge to the world's non-proliferation system." As for being a state sponsor of terror - that seems pretty straightforward. In fact, if you read the rest of the document, one is hard pressed to deduce a Podhoretzian-sheen to the DLC's approach for Iran. Indeed, it is defined more by diplomacy and dialogue then military conflict.


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"They should be attacked vociferously as once again they have been proven wrong."

If that's true, why are you going after Greenwald? These guys hyped a war when they knew that they had info that the very basis of that threat (a supposed nuclear weapons program) was false; and now Bush claims that he didn't hear about this info until a week ago. Or Podhoretz claims that this NIE is a fabrication of the intelligence community in order to discredit Bush. There are reports that Cheney knew the contents of this report six months ago, and as such he fought to prevent its declassification. The leaders of this administration, who already lied their way into one war, were caught lying again, fortunately before they could start a second, and you want to take this moment to bash Greenwald for painting with too broad a brush?

Do you at least understand why people like him and Atrios think you just don't get it?

It's disingenuous for you to say that the VSP's haven't called for war. It's clear now that the VSP's in both parties have hyped the threat, and by doing this they knowingly made a war more likely.

Hillary stated just a couple months ago -- without proof -- that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon. The Kyl-Lieberman amendment -- which you called "tame" and which she signed -- asserted without proof that Iran is arming and killing American soldiers. These are fighting words, and in the current context could easily lead to war, and yet she didn't hesitate to make these charges.

Finally, let's not also ignore the fact that Iran remains a destabilizing force in the region.

Iran hasn't invaded anyone for centuries. We just invaded a country without provocation, which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. It was only a few years ago that Rice was bragging about our efforts to destabilize the region by saying that the status quo was unacceptable. We have no right to lecture anybody about destabilizing the Middle East.

DLC: And its strong financial and material support for Hezbollah and Hamas makes it [Iran] the number one state sponsor of Middle East terrorism.

Read: number one sponsor of resistance to unlawful Israeli expansion in Palestine and aggression in Lebanon. Both Hamas and Hezbollah enjoy widespread support from the people they represent, who have suffered from brutal and unlawful Israeli onslaughts. Are all those Palestinians and Lebanese who support Hamas and Hezbollah "sponsors of terrorism"? That's not "more than defensible", it's downright silly.

If I didnt support the Iraq war can I lecture Iran about destabilizing the Middle East? The fact that the US has destabilized the region doesn't necessarily mean that Iran by supporting Hamas and Hezbollah is doing the same thing. Whether we can lecture them or not doesn't really matter; facts are facts.

As for no proof that Iran was seeking a nuke, I wonder if you read my post. There was plenty of evidence that Iran was not being forthright about its nuclear program - a view shared by all the memebers of the security council and the IAEA. Moreover, there was a 2005 NIE indicating that Iran had a nuclear program.

Finally, let's not also ignore the fact that Iran remains a destabilizing force in the region. They are one of, if not, the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world; I'm thinking most specifically of their support for Hezbollah. And there does seem to be some fairly strong evidence that Iran is responsible for the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Again, I don't believe this means we should attack Tehran, but acting like Iran is not a threat to regional security seems akin to burying ones head in the sand.

I thought much of what you had written up to this point was defensible, Michael. Greenwald did go a bit over the top. But this recent hype about Iran as a "destabilizing force" in the region is really becoming absurd. It’s a propaganda initiative born of run-of-the-mill state rivalries, and is just not born out by the evidence.

The Iran issue is simply about traditional power politics, not any Iranian threat to stability. The US has some old allies in the region who are worried about their power, as states tend to be. These allies would like Iran to have less power so the former can have more of it. They would also like to prevent Iran from acquiring more power, so the allies don't lose any. Big deal. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. But there really is no evidence that Iranian power in the region is having a destabilizing effect.

In fact, Iran has been working to stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq. The Iranians have been strongly supporting Iraq's elected government diplomatically and economically. Some US politicians, generals and regional allies, however, in their zeal to ward off Iranian influence in Iraq, seemingly at all costs, have been pursuing dangerously divisive and destabilizing policies in Iraq.

Iraq is a predominantly Shia country. That it might enjoy strong, friendly and mutually beneficial relations with its gigantic Shia neighbor is a good thing. That there is no repeat of the Iran-Iraq War is a good thing. This relationship promotes stability. So why is the US empowering the Sunni sheikhs and clans who were at the core of the previous Iraqi regime, the same militaristic regime that helped perpetuate a festering and destabilizing rivalry with Iran while suppressing Iraq's majority Shia religious community?

The politics of US noise concerning Iran is mainly about preserving Saudi control of the region’s oil trade, and thus maintaining US access to Middle East oil on the most favorable terms. The Saudis and the US are terrified by the possibility that all of Iraq’s oil and Iran’s oil might be pooled together in the near future in one allied OPEC market-setting bloc. The Persophobic noise is also about maximizing Israeli power in its own relatively small neighborhood along the Mediterranean. The very strong US commitment to advancing these interests means the US is willing to advance them even in ways that destabilize the region. It means the US is even willing to help promote a new Sunni-Shia cold war in the region, with the Israelis aligning themselves with the Sunnis.

Personally, Shia vs. Sunni control of Middle East oil means little to me. I have no special favoritism for either of the main branches of Islam. But I am somewhat more impressed by the modest but real democratic institutions of Iran's constitutional republic, and the relative cultural modernism and high level of education among both Iranian men and women, then I am by the socially backward and reactionary philanthropic monarchies and dictatorships, backed up by fundamentalist religious communities, of much of the Sunni world.

Turning from oil to Israel, Israel has long term strategic interests in isolating the Palestinians, controlling Lebanon and weakening Syria. Hizbollah is an extremely important political party in Lebanon which operates a potent armed militia, and is thus part of that equation, and that's why Israel and the US care about Hizbollah. I don't think "terrorism" as such plays much of a role here; nor is "destabilization" the issue. I would say there is even some evidence that the presence of Hizbollah in Lebanon is helping to preserve the balance of power and regional stability. Effective Hizbollah resistance to the Israeli incursion in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war probably prevented that war from becoming a much longer, much bloodier and much more destabilizing war. Without a capable Hizbollah in the way, we might have another Israeli occupation of Lebanon, and an Israeli-Syrian war underway.

Other politically backward and repressive Sunni states in the region have an interest in lining up behind this Israeli-Saudi cause, because that’s how the Middle East has always played cold war politics. If Egypt can earn points by helping the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia fight their new cold war, then there will be little US pressure on Egypt to reform. Egypt’s regime is looking for a way of buying another 20 years.

Let’s look at destabilization from a different angle. Alan Krueger's new book gives some statistics on foreign fighters captured in Iraq. Here are the totals: Egypt (78), Syria (66), Sudan (41), Saudi Arabia (32), Jordan (17), Iran (13), Palestine (12), and Tunisia (10).

Now compare the population sizes of some of these countries. Iran has 70 million people; Saudi Arabia 25 million; Jordan 6 million; Sudan 40 million; Tunisia 9 million. Now you tell me. Whose citizens are doing most of the destabilizing here? Isn’t it obvious that the biggest destabilizing force in the region is the militant wing of the jihadist movement which is a phenomenon of the Salafist tendency of Sunni Islam? These militants get a variety of levels of support from highly-placed officials and private citizens in Sunni states. We’re fighting a whole damn war on terror against these people! Al Qaeda, the Taliban, remember them? The Iranians are also struggling against these people. And yet Iran is the big terror bogey in the world? This is asinine. We’re in Michael Ledeen territory here, with his fevered James Bond-worthy hallucinations about the Iranian “terror masters” running global terror out of their lair in Tehran.

The NIE challenge to the White House nuke story is just part of effort against the unrelenting bullshit barrage that has been coming out of this White House and its media collaborators for a few years now. If it's not the nukes, it's the IEDs. If its not the IEDs it’s the Quds Force. If it’s not the Quds force, it something else. The stories of rampant Iranian mischief in Iraq are just as much tall stories as the tale of their nuclear program.

Give me the evidence about Iran’s supposed targeting of US soldiers in Iraq. And I don’t mean some stories about a few Iranian weapons or soldiers of fortune. Iraq is swimming in weapons – from Iran, Russia, the US and many other countries. And the place must be crawling with gun runners from all over. If I had to bet, I would wager that far more US soldiers have been killed by US weapons than Iranian weapons, given that much of the US weaponry sent to Iraq quickly finds its way into the black market. But no one is saying the US is targeting its own soldiers. Show me what Iran is doing in Iraq. Lay it out for me.

You say, “It really is amazing to think about the sheer momentousness of yesterday's NIE on Iran. It pretty much stops the call for war with Iran dead in its tracks.” It does indeed help quite a bit. But actually, the US government began to downplay the nuclear angle months ago as it was becoming clear they couldn’t make it stick. I think an equally important development on Iran was the release of Iranian prisoners, and the announcement that Iran had “ceased” much of its alleged nasty activity in Iraq. This tells me that parts of the US government have succeeded in doing an end run around Cheney, Petraeus and company.

There is a regional power struggle in the Middle East. If you ask me, we’re on the wrong side of that struggle. Or better, what we should be doing is damping down the struggle and promoting a balance of power rather than an aggressive new anti-Iran bloc. But what do I know?

VSPs don't have to be bipartisan. It's partly about who gets access to the media and who doesn't. Most of your regular posters have already built up a better foreign policy record than Charles Krauthammer, but who does the media give the louder voice to? If there was only weak Democratic support for a war on Iran, then let me just say "bully for us." That's great.

But look at this... we lefties just can't get a fair shake, even from people within our own party. Those of us who've been loudly calling for congress, the American public, anyone, to keep the US out of a war with Iran have just had our opinions ratified by the intelligence community. But instead of write "Good job, lefties" you tell us to chill out and stop picking on Ken Pollack? I mean, come on... at least high five us for a minute.

Because I'll tell you this, those of us who believe that a third war for America would be a disaster are thankful that most Democrats in the VSP were not rattling sabers. But here you are, immediately arguing that Iran hawks had reason for suspicion and that the lefties just had our heads buried in the sand -- even when we're right, we get no credit.

And to loop back to my point about VSPs and media access -- why was this report such a shock, really? Maybe it's because the media didn't at all go out of its way to bring us the points of view of people who thought that Iran was not a threat all along.

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