is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies
There's lots to wonder about in the Key Judgments of the latest National Intelligence Estimate, which informs us with "high confidence" that Iran halted its nuclear bomb program four years ago. This contradicts its 2005 warning that Iran was "determined to develop nuclear weapons." That followed the 2003-2004 zig-zag from our intelligence community on Iraq and Saddam Hussein's interest in weapons of mass destruction; which followed the intelligence failure to zero in on the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers before they slammed airplanes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania.
Would you buy a used car from our spooks?
But let us assume that their new report is correct - at least until its consensus, distilled from the bureaucracies of 16 U.S. agencies, might be contradicted by the next intelligence reversal (or perhaps an Iranian nuclear test). Let us assume, as our spies now estimate, that Iran's government had a nuclear weapons program running for years, but in late 2003, "primarily in response to international pressure," brought it to a halt.
That brings us to what I would call the crucial, missing paragraph in this report. If international pressure achieved such sterling results in Iran four years ago, then surely we deserve to know what, exactly, impressed Iran's rulers so thoroughly that they might have slammed on the brakes. This the National Intelligence Estimate does not explain.
Was it diplomacy? In 2003, the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency was still pondering and dithering over Iran's nuclear program, unwilling until 2005 even to refer the matter for action to the Security Council - where no action was taken until the watered-down sanctions imposed in 2006. Also in 2003, the European Union began a series of talks with Iran so limp that they dragged on for years with no verifiable results beyond nose-thumbing from Tehran. I'd suggest, with high confidence, that crediting the EU or the U.N. with having corralled Iran four years ago would be ridiculous.
But something else, far more dramatic, also happened in 2003. The bombshell event of that year, right next door to Iran, was the U.S.-led overthrow in April 2003 of Iraq's Baathist regime. That was the year in which Saddam Hussein became Exhibit A of the post-Sept.-11 era for what could happen to terror-linked tyrants who ignored America's demands that they abjure weapons of mass murder.
Shortly after Hussein's fall, a number of good things happened. In the totalitarian and authoritarian states of the Islamic world, democratic dissidents dared to speak up in extraordinary numbers. In Lebanon, there was a growing push to end more than two decades of occupation by Syria's Baathist police state. Most relevant, in Libya, in late 2003, Moammar Gadhafi decided to let American experts come inspect, pack up and ship out his entire nuclear bomb program (which was reported at the time to have been more advanced than the International Atomic Energy Agency had informed us).
And, if we are to believe this new National Intelligence Estimate, it was right around that same time, in late 2003, shortly after witnessing the overthrow of Hussein, and with an enormous U.S.-led military force assembled in the region, that Iran's rulers decided to halt at least the most highly detectable aspects of their nuclear arms projects.
But in the unclassified summary just released by the National Intelligence Council, and hailed by Iran as a victory for its nuclear program, there is no mention of the effects on Iran of a credible U.S. military threat. There is not a single mention of Iraq, or Hussein's overthrow. We are told only that "international pressure" guided Tehran to a "cost-benefit" decision four years ago to halt its bomb program, or perhaps part of its bomb program. (This report assigns only "moderate confidence" to the idea that Tehran ever halted its entire nuclear weapons program, or that it has not already resumed that pursuit.)
Iran's regime has a long record of deceit, terror and murder. In choosing the tools to stop Tehran from taking these tactics nuclear, Americans need honest assessments of what works - and what doesn't. If our intelligence experts are now writing our military overthrow of Hussein out of their history books as irrelevant to whatever calculations they now suggest took place in Iran that same year, it's time for less official consensus, and a lot more common sense.
This intelligence report cheats Americans. It omits the achievements of our countrymen who have fought and died in Iraq to protect us, and undermines whatever lingering security the fall of Hussein might have brought us.