A “Bombshell” on Iran

It has taken me about 36 hours to digest the implications of the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran (.pdf), but I have finally come to some preliminary conclusions. The NIE is, in the words of Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, a “bombshell,” that was “as close to a U-turn as one sees in the intelligence world.”

How to explain this U-turn? Beyond the increased focus on collection from both human sources and intercepted communications, a focus that produced a windfall of new information that, according to a senior official, “unlocked stuff we had, which we didn’t understand fully before,” Ignatius offers some additional insights:

The most important finding of the NIE isn’t the details about the scope of nuclear research; there remains some disagreement about that. Rather, it’s the insight into the greatest mystery of all about the Islamic republic, which is the degree of rationality and predictability of its decisions.

For the past several years, U.S. intelligence analysts have doubted hawkish U.S. and Israeli rhetoric that Iran is dominated by “mad mullahs” – clerics whose fanatical religious views might lead to irrational decisions. In the new NIE, the analysts forcefully posit an alternative view of an Iran that is rational, susceptible to diplomatic pressure and, in that sense, can be “deterred.”

“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,” states the NIE. Asked if this meant the Iranian regime would be “deterrable” if it did obtain a weapon, a senior official responded, “That is the implication.” He added: “Diplomacy works. That’s the message.”

Who knew? (Hint: Ted Galen Carpenter and Justin Logan, among others.)

Bravo to the intelligence community. Analysts have been singled out (I think unfairly) for criticism on Iraq, but they are to be commended this time around. Some of the credit goes to Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and his chief deputies who, according to the lead story in today’s Washington Post, “compelled analysts working on major estimates to challenge existing assumptions when new information does not fit.”

As Ignatius notes, such advice is consistent with that of Sherman Kent, the godfather of U.S. intelligence analysis, who warned “When the evidence seems to force a single and immediate conclusion, then that is the time to worry about one’s bigotry, and to do a little conscientious introspection.”

I am reminded of a comment by John Maynard Keynes, one that has been quoted so often that it has become clichéd: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

Were that question to be posed to George Bush, that most incurious of modern presidents, it appears we already know the answer, at least based on the President’s public remarks. As the Post reported, “Bush defended his approach [toward Iran] during a televised session in the White House briefing room, saying ‘our policy remains the same’ regardless of the new intelligence.” This would seem to confirm that the President does not employ intelligence to inform policy.

But former CIA officer Robert Baer offers a different, and more hopeful, take: while the President will continue to talk tough, Baer says, military action is off the table. Baer suggests that the President himself pushed the NIE to the surface as cover for a 180-degree turn in U.S. policy, and to face down the hawks who are calling for war.

Let’s hope Baer is right.