Move over Al Gore and Jimmy Carter — President Bush may be heading to Stockholm next year to collect a peace prize of his own. According to the latest National Intelligence Estimate, during the Bush administration, Iran halted its long-standing quest for nuclear weapons.
The media, of course, has portrayed the release of the intelligence report on Iran’s nuclear program as a major blow to President Bush. The front page of the Washington Post declared that the report “not only undercut the administration’s alarming rhetoric over Iran’s nuclear ambitions but could also throttle Bush’s effort to ratchet up international sanctions and take off the table the possibility of preemptive military action before the end of his presidency.”
If the NIE is accurate in its assessment that Iran halted development of nuclear weapons in 2003, it no doubt contradicts the portrait of Iran as a completely irrational actor recklessly pursuing nuclear weapons, regardless of consequences. It also puts Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visions of a world without America and his declaration about “wiping Israel off the map” in a different context, since he became president in 2005 — or two years after Iran halted its nuclear weapons program, according to the NIE.
But looked at another way, couldn’t the report be seen as a vindication of President Bush?
Bush’s critics have often responded to news accounts that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons by arguing that it was yet another major failure of Bush’s foreign policy. Some cited Iran as an example of Bush’s inability to gain international support for his policies because his cowboy diplomacy had weakened America’s standing in the world, while others argued that Iran’s desire for nuclear weapons grew stronger because it felt threatened after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, especially given that Bush labeled the regime a member of the “axis of evil.”
However, the NIE undermines this point of view. It concludes that Iran exerted “considerable effort from at least the late 1980s to 2003 to develop such [nuclear] weapons,” but that “in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program…” Put into context, this means that Iran was indeed pursuing nuclear weapons for roughly 15 years, during at least three presidencies, but froze its efforts just months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime. If this account is accurate it means, at minimum, that the Iraq War did not expedite Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. Taken further, it bolsters the argument that the Bush administration’s policy of preemptive war did act as a deterrent to Iran (just as it did to Libya), by sending the signal that any state sponsor of terrorism that developed nuclear weapons would suffer the same fate as Saddam’s Iraq.
To those unwilling to draw such a conclusion, the NIE report still utterly demolishes the argument that Bush administration saber-rattling toward Iran and unwillingness to engage in direct talks has short-circuited any diplomatic progress. “We judge with high confidence that the halt, and Tehran’s announcement of its decision to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program and sign an Additional Protocol to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement, was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work,” the NIE reads. So clearly, to whatever extent America’s standing in the world eroded as a result of the Iraq War, to whatever degree there was tough talk coming from Washington, it did not hinder the ability of the international community to effectively pressure Iran into suspending its nuclear weapons efforts.
To be sure, there are reasons to be skeptical of the NIE findings, because they contradict earlier reports so dramatically. Whereas the current report asserts with “high confidence” that Iran halted its development of nuclear weapons in 2003 under international pressure, the 2005 report concluded with “high confidence” that “Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure…”
But critics of President Bush cannot simultaneously believe that the current NIE is accurate while continuing to assert that Bush’s policies toward Iran have been disastrous. Anybody who takes the report at face value would have to conclude, conversely, that the administration’s nonproliferation efforts have been a smashing success.
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