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The NIE, Iran, presidential politics and the Jews

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

December 13, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Anti-aircraft guns guard the Natanz nuclear facility in Iran. Photo by Hamed Sabe

Anti-aircraft guns guard the Natanz nuclear facility in Iran. Photo by Hamed Sabe

The release last week of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear ambitions stunned the nation's capital. After being buried for a year, the NIE has deflated the Bush administration's case on Iran by stating that Iran halted its program to develop a nuclear weapon in 2003.

The president is on the defensive trying to make a believable argument that he had only learned of the NIE last week. Democrats are jubilant that they can now safely attack the president's Iran policy, which is in tatters.

For supporters of Israel, this is both an encouraging and a troubling development. On Iran, Jews have been caught between a Bush administration they don't trust, which at least wants to confront Iran, and a Democratic opposition that was divided over how to deal with Iran. The NIE casts this problem in bold relief.

The Iraq War hangs over the Iran debate. It is clouding the collective minds of Americans about Iran on both sides of the political divide. Our inability to think clearly about Iran is of special concern to supporters of Israel.

Historians will have many years to dissect the foreign policy of the Bush-Cheney administration. American leaders who wanted to challenge Iran ended up spending more than a trillion taxpayer dollars and thousands of American lives to remove the principal regional adversary of Iran -- Saddam Hussein -- and then to install and protect a Shiite regime in Baghdad that is sympathetic to Iran.

Along the way, the administration sacrificed U.S. credibility by hyping threats and politicizing the gathering of sensitive intelligence. Despite the failure of the Iraq War, some in the administration could not wait to move on to Iran and with their usual flair for fakery, exaggerating the immediacy of the Iranian threat. To protect their political flank, they blew the cover of Valerie Plame, one of our leading covert operatives on Iranian weapons development. Presumably, Plame was expendable, since they intended to manipulate the intelligence anyway.

For Democrats, the Iraq War has become the symbol of everything they loathe about the Bush administration. The Bush administration made the Iraq War an extension of domestic politics. It became a Republican war. When President Bush then turned the same partisan tools onto confronting Iran, Democrats were divided between those who saw Iran as a profound threat and those who saw confronting Iran as simply round two of the Iraq War.

The most effective resistance to pre-emptive war with Iran has come from within the government, from the diplomatic, military and intelligence leadership. The checks and balances are now all internal and hidden from public view.

Having been crushed by the administration when they raised objections regarding Iraq, and on the previous NIE on Iran, as well, these insiders vowed not to let it happen again. As the famous Downing Street memos from Great Britain made clear, the Bush people "fixed the intelligence around the policy" on Iraq.

This time around, the intelligence bureaucracy fought hard to overcome Vice President Dick Cheney's attempt to rewrite the NIE or, failing that, to keep it secret. Finally, Michael McConnell, the new director of intelligence, released portions of the report's findings. For the intelligence community to stand up to an administration that fires and slanders dissenters took rare courage.

Yet Iran is one of those cases in which the Democratic loyalties of most Jewish voters may end up warring with concern for Israel. The Iraq War was a less dramatic case. Even though Israel backed the American invasion, Iraq had much less salience than Iran. (Some Israeli officials have lately taken to saying that they warned Bush not to invade Iraq.)

In a nutshell, Iran is not Iraq.

Republican presidential candidates will have no problem attacking the NIE. Hostility to the NIE will play well on the campaign trail, and global belligerence is an easy sell to that party's voters. Expect the leading Republican candidates to knock this one out of the park. Republicans on Capitol Hill have already called for a bipartisan commission to critique the NIE.

Partisan attacks on the NIE, backed by right-wing supporters of Israel, are fairly easy to ignore. Conservatives have spent decades challenging intelligence assessments that do not support their policy goals. Israel's objections may be more telling, especially with Democrats.

The NIE does not suggest that Iran is not a long-term threat. Many Israelis believe Iran is a mortal threat to the Jewish state, although there is fierce internal disagreement about whether an attack on Iran's facilities is timely or wise.

Israel's leadership, across party lines, has already signaled its unhappiness with the NIE. Israel now feels isolated because of the discrediting by American government officials of the American administration. International sanctions against Iran may be politically harder to implement.

Israeli leaders are taking rapid steps to challenge the NIE. The Israel Defense Forces presented its own intelligence data on Sunday to Adm. Michael Mullen, in a rare visit to Israel by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Bush has scheduled his first presidential visit to Israel for January.

No one except the Iranian leadership knows the full truth about Iran's nuclear weapons program or its future plans. Even the consensus of 16 American intelligence agencies cannot guarantee that the United States knows for sure. Israel does not know for certain.

An intelligence estimate is, at the end of the day, only an estimate. Nothing has changed in Iran this week; only our perception of what is happening there has, as well as the options politically available to Bush.

The Bush administration is in the unaccustomed position of pointing out nuances in an intelligence report. Their previous stance has been to tell us to ignore any nuanced intelligence that argues against the policy they want to implement, going so far as to delete dissenting views from reports given to Congress. Yet, these nuances are important.

That Iran once had a nuclear weapons program and then abandoned it in 2003 is important information. If grumblings from within Iran about stopping the nuclear program are pieces of the estimate, they might also be deception. Iran might still obtain a nuclear weapon from outside sources, or its nuclear program may be very well hidden, as Israel is contending.

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