Friday, March 21, 2008

Unintended Cosequence of the NIE report

The NIE and Iranian Internal Politics

Since its release in December 2007, the National intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the Iranian nuclear program has become the subject of political debate and fierce discussions. Much has been told about its negative impacts on US and international unity to pressure the Iranian regime.

Missing from the debate is NIE's influence on the power structure in Iran and the outcome of a fundamental transformation which started a few years ago when Ahmadinejad took the reign of command in 2005.

Many observers in Iran believe that the formulation and the timing of the Estimate were intentionally designed to achieve concrete political goals mainly related to US internal politics. The consequences of the estimate, however, extend far beyond US politics and directly affect the situation in Iran. The estimate has strengthened the ultra-radicals in Tehran, and the NIE authors bear the twin grave responsibilities of endangering US national security in addition to prolonging the suffering of the Iranian people.

Strangely, the NIE's misconceptions about the Iranian power structure and its radicalization recapitulated in the impact of the "Task Force" report by the Council on Foreign Relations, released in July 2004. This report was the work of the Iran expert elite in Washington.

At that time, reformers in Iran had been ousted from the Parliament and there was a shift in Iranian power structure toward a more radical faction. While a simple review of the Iranian press could easily guide the observer to understand such a fundamental change, the CFR task force discovered that:

"Iran is experiencing a gradual process of internal change that will slowly but surely produce a government more responsive toward its citizens' wishes and more responsible in its approach to the international community." (page13)

Such judgment emanated from their discovery that ".... the pragmatists appear to be ascendant in Tehran." (page19)

"Recent shifts in Iran's domestic political fortunes may facilitate enhanced flexibility and coherence in its foreign policy... The pragmatists who appear to be ascendant in Tehran have described dialogue with the United States as a course that is "neither wine, nor prayer"-in other words, neither prohibited nor obligatory."

Flowing from such judgments were the loosening of US and international pressure on Iran, the strengthening of Iran's position in the region which in turn helped the eviction of Mohammad Khatami and the unification of power under one single faction.

Four years later, the NIE was released at a moment where the dominant faction was faced with a drastic economic crisis and challenged by international pressures. Civil society was reorganizing, and a degree of unity was forged demanding the halt of the Iranian enrichment program. A Nobel Peace Laureate was among hundreds of independent activists who braved the imposed censorship on the nuclear issue and challenged the Supreme Leader's foreign policy.

The NIE's release and the consequent weakening of international pressure on the regime were used as a victory by Ahmadinejad faction, and in turn consolidated his position. This new development helped the regime to silence the critics and eliminate the quasi-totality of rival candidates from the parliamentary election.

While the actual situation in Iran and the monopolization of power by the radical faction is mainly a reflection of internal crisis and the regime's difficulty in curbing popular unrest, the impact of international opinion should not be underestimated.

Two good example of Iranian regime's vulnerability could be seen in 1996 and 2002, when external pressure was able to restrain the Iranian regime. In 1996, Europe confronted Iran over its terrorist activities following court hearings on the Mykonos affaire, and the US threatened Iran after its terrorist proxies attacked the Khobar Tower complex in Saudi Arabia. The combined international pressure accentuated the popular unrest and the regime was forced to bring in more conciliatory president Mohammad Khatami.

Then, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack and the discovery of Iran's nuclear program, the Clerical rulers were faced with a unified pressure from the US and Europe. This pressure led to its cooperation on Afghanistan and Iraq. It also appears to have halted some parts of the enrichment program in 2003.

There are many in the US who hope for a more moderate Iranian president in 2009. For them, such an outcome would help the US lower the cost of resolving its confrontation with Iran. No doubt, the consequences of the NIE report have included the successful strengthening of radical elements within the Iranian regime, along with enhancing the possibility of a dreadful and unwanted war between the two countries.

Hassan Daioleslam is an independent Iran Analyst and writer. He is well published in Farsi and English and has appeared as an expert guest in the Voice of America-TV as well as other Persian media.

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