An Iran bombshell for Bush

The White House knew months ago about Iran's stalled nuclear program. But Bush and Cheney have kept up the war rhetoric.

Published December 5, 2007 8:15PM (EST)

It was the brightest burst of news from the Middle East in a long time: Iran, it turned out, was nowhere near getting the bomb. But for the White House it was a political bombshell, tossed directly into the Bush-Cheney bunker.

The revelation this week of the latest National Intelligence Estimate, concluding that Iran halted its covert nuclear weapons program in 2003, upended a long-running rhetorical campaign by the president and vice president. Just six weeks prior, in a signature tag-team offensive in late October, Bush had worried out loud about a nuclear-armed Iran setting off "World War III," while Cheney warned in a speech that America "cannot stand by as a terror-supporting state fulfills its grandest ambitions" to acquire nuclear weapons and lord over the Middle East.

But the president knew the thrust of the NIE's conclusions about a nuke-less Iran at least as early as last August, according to Flynt Leverett, a top Middle East expert and former senior director on Bush's National Security Council. In an interview Tuesday, Leverett said that the bellicose rhetoric in October was accompanied by a telling shift of the goal posts. It was déjà vu all over again. Bush no longer spoke of Iran's imminent weapons of mass destruction, he spoke of its imminent plans to gain the capability for making weapons of mass destruction.

Bush knew the NIE report was going public, of course, and he has tried to spin its findings as a measure of successful policy. But the White House failed to anticipate the impact of the report, says Leverett, now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. "Obviously," he says, "this NIE does damage to the credibility of their representations on Iran."

The declassified conclusions of the report read almost like a preemptive strike for political engagement with the Iranians -- anathema to Bush hard-liners. "We judge with high confidence," wrote U.S. intelligence leaders, that Iran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons program four years ago "was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran's previously undeclared nuclear work." That directly contradicted NIE findings from 2005, which had Iran in aggressive pursuit of a bomb. The latest report also concluded: "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."

Questions are again stirring about U.S. intelligence capabilities -- first there was Saddam's phantom arsenal of WMD, and now the about-face on Iran -- and Leverett expects hard-liners to use that in the weeks ahead to knock down the NIE's less-than-hawkish findings. (The political right has already begun to do so.) Bush himself emphasized Tuesday that Iran remains dangerous. The report's fallout may also transform the Iran issue for the 2008 presidential race, Leverett says, particularly for the Democrats. He spoke by phone from Washington.

What does the NIE report reveal about U.S. strategy on Iran?

I think it shows that the Bush administration is not at all on the right course with Iran policy, contrary to what [National Security Advisor] Stephen Hadley and the president himself have said this week. They've said it's international pressure and scrutiny that got Iran to suspend the military parts of its nuclear program, and that, as the NIE says, it's going to be a combination of pressure and incentives that will ultimately produce a solution -- and that they've been going that route and it's the right policy.

I think that's fundamentally misleading -- in fact, this administration has never offered to negotiate with Iran on any basis that might actually be attractive to the Iranians. Hadley [and others] were spinning the report -- obviously this NIE does damage to the credibility of their representations on Iran, regarding both the nature of the threat and how good their policy is. Now they're trying to limit the damage.

Here's what they are leaving out of the discussion: What the Iranians want ultimately is a strategic deal with the U.S. that would address their fundamental security and legitimacy as a republic, their role in the region. The NIE concludes that if Iran could actually achieve that sense of security and a regional role without building a nuclear weapon, they'd be open to a deal. But you have to put something on the table in front of them that's really going to address those things. Not only has the administration never put an offer like that on the table, they've explicitly refused to do so.

Take the incentives package put together [back in 2005] by the Europeans: The section dealing with regional security had all kinds of explicit and implicit guarantees for the Islamic Republic of Iran, as part of an overall settlement talking about Iran's role in a regional security framework. The Bush administration would not sign on to that package last year until literally all of that language was taken out. They've never been serious about negotiations.

Why do you think the NIE report was made public now?

Because the intelligence leadership made a judgment that basically for their own protection they needed to make it public. The letter put out by the deputy director of national intelligence with the report said that because the 2005 NIE had been cited on the record by so many people as a benchmark for U.S. understanding of Iran's progress with its nuclear program, intelligence community leaders wanted to make sure there was a very clear presentation of current views. I suspect they were the ones who really insisted on this. They were deciding to do it for their own sake and credibility.

Are we talking on the level of Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell?

We must be. I don't know that for a fact, but I think we must be. National Intelligence Estimates take a long, long time to put out, and this one took longer than it was originally projected to take, by a considerable margin. I think part of that was that it was difficult to reach a consensus. I think part of it was a certain amount of political pressure to come to a certain conclusion--

You mean political pressure to make the case for going after Iran?

Yeah, exactly. And in 2005, the intelligence community succumbed to that pressure -- hook, line and sinker. This time, you had some different people in charge of the process, and some of the pressures from 2005 -- you had Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon then -- were no longer there, although I think there was still some pressure applied. And after a certain point, they did have this new information turn up, that the Iranian military had suspended parts of its program in 2003.

They apparently briefed this to the president in August. And between August and now, they've essentially been going over it and figuring out how to take account of it in the NIE. It doesn't surprise me that it took them from August till now to go through that -- it's a glacially slow process.

But the president has suggested this week that he only learned of the NIE's conclusions very recently. If in August they had the essential conclusion and were briefing the White House, what does that say about some of the rhetoric we heard after that, in the fall?

Oh, I think the president knew this was coming, and I think he was deliberately shifting his rhetoric on the issue to redefine the problem. Up until the fall, Bush's rhetoric literally for years had been that it's unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon. All of a sudden, that shifts to it being unacceptable for Iran to have the knowledge of how to build a nuclear weapon.

I think they were trying to redefine the problem with the idea that they could kind of blunt the impact of the NIE by doing this. I think they miscalculated. The NIE has had an enormous impact on the public debate -- particularly the decision to release the multipage document publicly, as opposed to just leaking [some details of] it. The White House miscalculated its ability to manage this. It has definitely made it more difficult for hard-liners like Cheney to make the case now for going down the military road.

Right, a number of people have said that this takes the military option off the table. Do you think that's the case?

I'm not so sure it takes the military option off the table. What were going to see over the next weeks if not months is a kind of battle of intelligence estimates. The hard-liners in the administration are going to keep leaking all kinds of things that were "wrong" with this NIE -- why the source wasn't good, why the intelligence wasn't good, why there is still a serious threat.

The Israelis have already come out publicly, at the level of the defense minister, Ehud Barak, and said they flat-out disagree with the estimate. I think you're going to have Israel, and friends of Israel here, including the Cheney camp inside the administration, pushing to discredit the NIE in various ways.

In other words, we'll see a battle going on over who really gets to define the intelligence assessment on which the president will make his decisions. Is it going to be the U.S. intelligence community? Or will it be some other set of actors who define it?

Iran has been notoriously opaque to U.S. intelligence over the years, and I think these developments raise some familiar questions. How good is our intel on Iran? And aren't we dealing with another pretty powerful contradiction here in terms of the latest assessment?

The contradiction is very powerful! You know, I have to say that I continue to believe that attacking Iran would be a disaster for the U.S. position in the region, and so far as this NIE makes it harder to justify doing so, I think that's a good thing. But the fact of the matter is that over the last two years, the U.S. intelligence community has been all over the map on this issue. And they've been colossally wrong on WMD issues in the past. So why should we put a high degree of confidence in any judgment they come to? Who knows if this reporting is really any good?

Not only will the hawkish elements use that to try to discredit it and knock it down, they'll also say that even if the estimate is right, it doesn't matter. They'll say -- as Patrick Clawson already has written for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy [where Cheney gave his speech in October] -- this estimate doesn't change by one day our understanding of when Iran will actually get a nuclear weapon. The argument will be, "Even if everything in that estimate is correct, Iran is still a big problem."

What impact will all this have on the politics of the 2008 presidential race?

On the Republican side, I don't see it having that much of an impact. The Republicans have all staked out pretty extreme positions on Iran and I don't really see them backpedaling. But on the Democratic side it potentially gets very interesting. Barack Obama could really make an argument that Hillary Clinton's vote for the resolution naming the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization was basically a vote for Bush's policy -- and was based on an assessment that we now know was wrong about the nature of the threat. And just like it was wrong for her to vote for the Iraq resolution and that showed bad judgment on her part, this showed the same kind of bad judgment -- and gee, wouldn't you like to have a president who got these things right the first time around? Obama is going to have to make the case for what this demonstrates about her, and I don't know if in the end he really has the guts to do that, but this could potentially affect the race.

What about national security more broadly in the campaign? It certainly seemed Iran was going to be a key issue going into next year.

Yeah, and I definitely think that for someone like Rudy Giuliani, if he were to become the nominee for his party he would want to make this a campaign about national security and about who's going to be more effective dealing with Iran. Depending on how the debate plays out during the next few months over what's really going on with Iran, he may still be able to do that. But it could also become harder for him to run that kind of campaign.

Could the NIE findings cause a significant change in the Bush administration's approach to Iran?

I don't think so -- they're saying Iran is still a danger and they're going to stick to that. They're not going to say, "Oh, well we better get serious about diplomacy now."

But at least in terms of what the world now knows, doesn't this create more of an imperative for diplomatic engagement?

The issue in the end is: If the United States wanted to get serious about diplomacy and put a real offer on the table for Iran with security guarantees and all those things, the Europeans would be right there with us, and China and Russia would be right there with us. The problem standing in the way at this point is U.S. policy. This estimate is not going to change that.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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2008 Elections Cia Dick Cheney George W. Bush Iran Iraq Middle East Nuclear Weapons