Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Tehran: All-Clear Signal, or Not?

The US intelligence community in an astonishing report reversed its previous findings and now believes that Iran halted its nuclear weapon program in fall 2003. President Ahmadinejad immediately declared a victory for Iran. Although the real effects of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) are beginning to be felt, it is apparent that a mere three-page judgment statement on Iran’s nuclear capabilities has changed all political calculations about Iran and inside Iran.

The big question is whether the report is an all-clear signal for Tehran. The NIE does not give us any facts, only judgments. It tells us the 2005 report by the same agencies on the same subject contained wrong judgments.

We can not say which version is more accurate without knowing the facts. We only hope that the facts behind the new set of judgments were not limited to what is the talk on the street that the information on halting the work on the bomb was provided by IRGC Brig. Gen. Ali Reza Asgari who defected to the West earlier this year and is now considered to be a CIA asset.

We also hope that the facts were not solely based on some published reports about an intercepted phone conversation between an IRGC general and the political leadership in Tehran on the necessity to resume the atomic work. Both sets of information could be as wrong as those that the 2005 judgments were based on.

What we can say with certainty is that the report has changed all political calculations. No matter how credible are the new judgments, in practical term the US leverage on Iran’s nuclear program all but disappeared on Monday. No more WWIII either. But the report does not get Iran off the hook entirely.

The NIE states that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program few months after Saddam was overthrown in Baghdad. Tehran must not be quite as immune to foreign pressure as it likes to portray itself! If the decision to halt the work on the bomb was based on a cold calculation on the part of the ayatollahs to keep away US troops from entering Iran during those victorious early days of Iraq war, a different set of calculations also based on cold realities on the ground can reverse their decision: US has its hands full in Iraq, as said many times by Ahmadinejad, so let’s make the bomb. Political decisions can by definition get reversed.

Tehran’s halt of atomic work after Saddam’s overthrow also shows that with the right amount of pressure, the international community can change Iran’s behavior; much less costly way of doing things than a WWIII.

This brings us to the timing of the report. The White House did not need to authorize the publication of the NIE. Could it be that those within the administration that always preferred the lets-change-Tehran’s-behavior solution now had the upper hand and by releasing the report checkmated the proponents of the military action against Iran? Whether or not they had anything to do with the decision to publish the NIE, they now have the upper hand. No military action can be conceivable after the report.

In Tehran, the NIE brought an unexpected victory for Ahmadinejad who was resisting pressures from the moderates and the reformists to revise the country’s nuclear policy. Only three months before the all-important parliamentary elections in Iran, Ahmadinejad gets a shot in the arm which may prove decisive in who would control the Majlis. Ahmadinejad must wonder how ironic can it get to receive such valuable help from the US intelligence community.

The Iranian opposition also is once again learning a time-honored fact: in the struggle against the government do not rely on foreign policy. A report published on the other side of the world can change all calculations. Stick with the basics. Democracy, human rights and the establishment of a progressive Iran.