Belated Iran NIE Commentary

An anonymous FoKerr sent this to me a little while back. S/he is, I hope, forgiving.

A handful of reactions.

The overall conclusions are plausible in light of the public record of events.

Unfortunately, the conclusions are confusingly stated at some points, and seem bound to mislead the casual reader. It is not as apparent as it ought to be that the major elements of Iran’s clandestine military nuclear program are identical to those of its overt civilian nuclear program. Nor were they willingly surfaced; they were “taken public” as a way of sustaining them only after others had made them public.

Skeptics can be forgiven for observing that the IC has just moved from one “high confidence” conclusion to another “high confidence”
conclusion opposed to the first, without explaining clearly what went amiss the first time, or why we readers should now have high
confidence ourselves. Despite some clear efforts at change in recent years, the IC appears (to this outsider, at least) to face cultural and methodological problems in the handling of confidence and uncertainty that threaten both the clarity and credibility of
important products. But, with the caveats given above, that does not necessarily make the broad conclusions of the document wrong.

The conclusions of the NIE have been embraced by many whom you’d think wouldn’t be so eager to credit the administration with a success (albeit one recognized only belatedly), let alone with having read Iranian intentions correctly at the time of the “Axis of Evil” speech. This reaction appears motivated by excessive fears of imminent armed conflict, influenced by an Iraq analogy. In practice, the main lines of U.S. policy on Iran actually have been to pursue a combination of broadly multilateral, unilateral, and “coalition” sanctions, while making an occasional show of force to reassure skittish allies.

It is very difficult for the IC to reverse itself on such sensitive
issues, so respect is due to those who did so regardless.

Nevertheless, by virtue of its subject matter, the NIE is a policy
statement as much as anything else. Its conclusions were such that it would have leaked had it not first been released. And its release has thrown a spanner into the works of the diplomatic process. By intention or by accident, the IC has asserted itself as an autonomous actor in the U.S. policy community, akin to the Federal Reserve Bank.

This NIE was ordered up by Congress in the last defense budget bill. The 2005 version — apparently a “memo to holders” (i.e., a partial update, not a full-blown NIE) — appears to have been initiated by the IC leadership itself. The administration seems never to have regarded the IC as a useful tool, and has effectively conceded its management to others. That may explain, in part, how we have come to the present circumstances.

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