A Smart Side to US Intelligence

Monday, December 10, 2007

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi 

The European Union needs a wake-up call and, unfortunately, none seems to be forthcoming, despite the earth-shattering new US intelligence report on Iran which warrants a wholesale change in the West's confrontational approach to that country. Instead, Europe continues to carry on with business as usual and, sadly, is even less predisposed to do otherwise due to various implications of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE).

Thus, the leaders of the European troika of Germany, France and Britain, who have been at the forefront of nuclear diplomacy with

Iran since 2003, have remained completely oblivious to the profound policy implications of the new NIE indicating that Iran has no nuclear weapons program today, contrary to what has been vociferously alleged by the US and Europe until now.

On the contrary, instead of factoring in the sea-change caused by this report, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have joined hands in a desperate show of unity, calling for staying the course and initiating new sanctions if Tehran continues to defy "the will of the international community". The will to fabricate goes far indeed, no matter how thin its legitimacy now in the European consciousness and public sphere. It emerges that a non-existent threat, causing an unnecessary crisis to endanger world peace, has been the focal point of European diplomacy, combining carrots and sticks, to force Iranian non-proliferation. [1]

But, too bad for Europe, the net result of the NIE is that, in effect, it makes Europe redundant in the nuclear diplomacy, by depriving it of the stick of US hard power that has constantly lurked in the background every time European officials met with the Iranians and pressed their (unreasonable) nuclear demands. These were that Iran should forever forego its right to peaceful nuclear technology simply because of unfounded allegations and hyped-up fears.

This is, indeed, the nub of the paradox of the new situation as a result of the NIE: it has raised Iran's expectations for a more proactive European role precisely when Europe is now deprived of the necessary muscle to deal with Iran, hitherto provided by the US's credible threat of military action. With the latter jettisoned from the equation for now, Europe's cards for dealing with Iran have diminished considerably. All the attention has been deflected from Vienna and other European capitals to Washington, which until now has "outsourced" its Iran nuclear diplomacy to Europe.

The word outsource, though, is a bit of misnomer since (a) the US has always been indirectly involved in the minutest details of European negotiations with Iran, and (b) Europe's foreign policy head, Javier Solana, continues to claim that in September the US granted him permission to negotiate with Iran on its behalf.

But, with the Solana option pretty much drying up after the most recent failed meeting between him and Iran's negotiator, Saeed Jalili, Europe now faces the conundrum of how to continue with its active diplomacy toward Iran when the foundational premise of that (coercive) diplomacy has been thrown in the whirlwind of serious doubts and question marks.

Another pertinent question deals with the US's own intentions behind the NIE, which apparently has been in the making more than a year. Is side-stepping Europe and the "embracing the dragon" approach one of the hidden intentions of this report? This would nail the US's hegemonic, leadership role, feebly questioned even by the pro-American Sarkozy, who wants to have his cake and eat it by putting Paris ahead of London as the US's most reliable European ally while, at the same time, charting an independent French Middle East policy.

Now, with the effective Americanization of Iran's nuclear dossier due to the inescapable implications of the NIE report, the US must decide how to shuffle the nuclear negotiation deck so that new trans-Atlantic fissures are not introduced that may threaten the well-spring of the Sarkozy- and Merkel-led pro-American drift of European politics.

Most likely, what will transpire is a European atrophy in which the formal EU role in the Iranian nuclear standoff increasingly becomes a shell of its past, with the US in total command, dictating even the mini-steps. Can it be avoided? Can Iran do anything to avoid it? A provisional answer, based on the trajectory of the present overall circumstances, is no.

This is because Iran, seizing on the NIE report as a victory, has simultaneously denied the NIE's allegations of a pre-2003 weapons program and, by all indications, will continue its present path of building its nuclear fuel cycle. The awkward conundrum for Europe above-mentioned, on the other hand, will likely preclude serious policy modifications, as a result of which we will likely witness the absence of any fundamental changes in the posture of the various parties, with the sole exception of the US, which has its own "mixed motives" with regard to Iran. That is, it relies on Iran's good will to succeed in Iraq and, at the same time, cannot possibly reach a satisfactory victory in Iraq as long as Iran's meddlesome power challenges it.

What is more, the White House, already piling up sufficient justification as well as congressional authorization for an attack on Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, labeled as terrorists, does not really need the nuclear threat as part of its military contemplations against Iran. Any strike on Iran's Guards can easily escalate and extend to the nuclear facilities. All the more reason then to reject media speculation that the US military threat against Iran has altogether disappeared for the remaining year or so of the George W Bush presidency.

All that has happened is a shift of the rationale, despite Bush's perfunctory statement at his latest press conference that refused to remove the military option "from the table". Put simply, that option has now been wholly relocated on another plate, dealing with Iran's conventional military threat spilling into Iraq, which will come up at a potential fourth round of US-Iran dialogue in the near future.

Still, in light of the serious spins to the NIE by various US politicians and media experts for the need to set US-Iran relations on a more constructive path, Europe's auxiliary role may be none other than concentrating on complimenting the catalytic efforts to bring about a comprehensive US-Iran dialogue covering the myriad outstanding issues between the two countries.

However, with Europe incapable of dishing out anything tangible in the realm of security, and the US and Iranian militaries eyeball-to-eyeball in the Persian Gulf region, the US and Iran are perhaps better off dispensing with Europe altogether. They could then focus on how to reach a means of cooperation in a region considered vital for the national security of both nations, seeing how the US's energy dependency on Middle East imports has been on the rise with no sign of any improvement.

This brings one to a consideration of other, intended or unintended, side-effects of the NIE, including the following: the report, released at a time when Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was in Qatar to participate at the summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has the side effect of undermining Iran's regional policy by depicting Iran as a paper tiger that shelved the nuclear program due to cost-benefit analysis. This lessens the fear of the GCC states of Iran and their related proclivity to bandwagon with Iran on regional security and other issues. The "torpedo effect" of the NIE in grounding, if not sinking, the ship of Iran-GCC cooperation, deemed undesirable from the prism of the US's interventionist policies and priorities, is unmistakable.

In conclusion, the NIE may have been the brainchild of bureaucratic infighting aimed at fettering the neo-conservatives pinning their hopes on a US attack on Iran by the lame-duck president. But equally important is the other side effect of this report in dampening oil prices at a critical time when the US, and perhaps the global economy, is headed toward recession, according to many economists. And also when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries cartel is contemplating shifting its currency exchange away from the US dollar.

A pre-emptive strike against that move was needed by the US and, it turns out, the NIE has precisely such a policy effect, on a broad range of issues. Who knows, in retrospect, the NIE, reflecting one of the most flagrant cases of US intelligence reversals in history, may be remembered as also a unique example of American smart power.


1. For more on this see Afrasiabi and Mojtahedzadeh, Crisis of choice, not necessity International Herald Tribune, August 12, 2005.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.


طراحی و توسعه آگاه‌سیستم