In all the reams of articles and columns in the western media analysing the background and implications of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report published on December 5 that fatally damaged the anti-Iranian war lobby in Washington, one thing that few dared acknowledge was that it is a massive victory for the Islamic Republic of Iran. And yet that is undoubtedly the case, and the celebrating throngs in the streets of Iranian cities, which have lived for years under the threat of imminent US attack, were quite right to celebrate it as such.
Ever since the US raised the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme in 2003, allegedly on the basis of information provided by pro-Western Iranian opposition groups, Iran has stuck firmly to a carefully balanced response, the tone of which has been set by its leadership, particularly the Rahbar, Ayatullah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. On the one hand it steadfastly maintained its right to a peaceful nuclear programme under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, and denied any plans to weaponise its nuclear capacity, and on the other it has cooperated with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, while refusing to make any concessions in response to belligerent American demands and threats. Throughout, the Rahbar has reminded Iranians that making concessions to the US would only result in further demands, as US’s real interest was not in the nuclear issue itself, but in forcing Iran to compromise its hard-won independence by bowing to Western demands. And throughout, Iran’s leaders have insisted that the US would not dare to carry out its threats; and they have now been proven correct.
Looking back, a crucial turning point in the episode may have been in February 2006, when Iran reactivated uranium enrichment centrifuges at its Nantaz nuclear facility, which it had earlier sealed as a goodwill gesture pending an agreement with the European Union (EU). When the EU failed to meet its promises, instead making further demands, Iran naturally ended its conditional suspension of nuclear research, despite howls of protest from the international community that this was a deliberate escalation of Iran’s nuclear programme and a breach of its promises. At this time, demands were made that Iran “be reasonable”, but it stuck to its rights, demonstrating without doubt that it would neither be manipulated into concessions, nor intimidated by foreign threats. It was also at this time that Western states first offered Iran nuclear cooperation if it agreed to base its peaceful nuclear activities on uranium enriched abroad. This Iran firmly refused, knowing that it could not afford to give foreign countries such a whiphand over its future energy supplies and policy.
The subsequent two years have seen the issue develop into a familiar pattern, with the neo-con war lobby in Washington ratcheting up its propaganda, rhetoric and threats, the European states playing nice and reasonable, and trying to persuade Iran to make concessions, and the IAEA trying to remind everyone that it had found no evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme while avoiding the wrath of the US. In the background were always two unspoken realities: first, the spectre of Iraq, and the awareness of close parallels between the US campaign against Iran and its build-up to the invasion of Iraq on the grounds of Saddam Hussain’s non-existent “weapons of mass destruction” and of its manipulation and exploitation of the UN weapons inspectors for its own political purposes; and second, the awareness that the US presidential elections due at the end of this year, when George W. Bush will have to step down, and the Republicans may well lose power, provided a timeframe within which the war lobby would seek to act.
How, in this framework, are we to understand the NIE report that has fatally undermined the neo-con war lobby? This is a question that has been much debated. Perhaps the best way of putting it would be to say that the Iranians were the only people not intimidated by what Bush might do. Certainly the IAEA has been increasingly vocal in its reminders that there was no cause for military action against Iran, and the US’s European allies were similarly concerned about US intentions. It appears that the US intelligence community, which had seen its findings grossly misrepresented and abused by the politicians in the run-up to the Iraq war, and then been blamed for misleading the country, decided not to let it happen again.
Much has been made in the press of the fact that Bush continued to intensify his threats against Iran in the months before the NIE published its report, particularly in his exceptionally belligerent threats on October 17, despite having been informed of the NIE conclusions in August. The most likely explanation of the timing of the NIE’s publication of the report at the beginning of December is that it gave the administration three months to act on its information, and then decided to go public when it became clear that Bush and the war lobby were prepared to lie and take the US into yet another unwinnable war in pursuit of their hegemonic agenda. Bush and his cabal may not have had the sense to accept reality, faced with Iran’s determination not to back down, but fortunately the intelligence professionals behind them did.
Lest we become complacent, however, we must be clear about one thing. It is inconceivable that the intelligence community suddenly realised in August that the understanding they had had of Iran’s nuclear programme for the previous four years had been wrong all along. For the NIE to make such a clear and conclusive report in August -- endorsed by all sixteen of the US’s intelligence agencies, despite the fact that they are headed by political appointees of the administration -- the intelligence community must have been aware all along, or at least for a considerable period of time, that this was the direction in which the genuine evidence pointed.
Why, then, was there apparently no sign of this until the August report? There are two likely answers to this question. First, that the intelligence agencies were complicit in the Bush administration’s deception all along, and were perfectly happy for the American public and the international community to be lied to, until it became clear that Iran was not going to back down and the Bush administration was prepared to turn its threats into war; at which point they got cold feet. And second, that the various intelligence agencies had been in fact telling the administration the truth about Iran’s nuclear programme all along, probably with increasing urgency, but were ignored in favour of the war lobby’s public agenda, until the NIE decided to make the message unambiguous and un-ignorable in a single comprehensive report.
One thing we should be clear about, however: the US’s strategy of forcing Iran to accept its regional over lordship by threatening war on the grounds of its nuclear programme may have failed; but its ambition to subvert the Islamic State, the only serious challenge to its hegemony over the Middle East, one way or another, remains in place, and is shared by all political groups in Washington, not just the neo-cons. If the threat of a major military attack has been averted, Iran must still be aware of the US finding other ways of attacking it. The deadline of November’s presidential polls remains in place. The Bush administration will want to be seen to be acting against Iran in one way or another before then; if anything, this has become even more imperative because of its humiliation by the NIE.
And Iran is not the only likely target. Looking for softer ones, Syria is likely to move back into the US’s sights. It has long been regarded by neo-cons as “low-hanging fruit” that the US can easily pick off if and when it chooses, most likely when it decides that it needs an easier target than the Islamic movements that are its real enemies. Interestingly, Bush made a point of attacking Basharal-Assad in the context of the Annapolis talks about Palestine, perhaps for this reason.
The NIE’s report may mark a significant victory for Islamic Iran, and a serious blow to the neo-conservative war lobby in Washington, but no-one should have any illusions about the threat that the US still poses to Iran in particular, and to others in the region who challenge its interests. The last year of the Bush administration is still likely to be violent, and Muslims can expect to be the US’s the main or only targets and victims.