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NIE Report May Block Military Force Against Iran

President Bush discusses the National Intelligence Estimate report on Iran at a White House news conference.
Mandel Ngan
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AFP/Getty
President Bush discusses the National Intelligence Estimate report on Iran at a White House news conference.
President Bush, at Eppley Airfeild in Omaha, Neb., with former Agricultural Secretary Mike Johanns Wednesday, said that except for China, U.S. allies see Iran's nuclear program as "a problem" and demanded that Tehran "come clean" on past atomic activities.
Jim Watson / AFP/Getty
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AFP/Getty
President Bush, at Eppley Airfeild in Omaha, Neb., with former Agricultural Secretary Mike Johanns Wednesday, said that except for China, U.S. allies see Iran's nuclear program as "a problem" and demanded that Tehran "come clean" on past atomic activities.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at a rally in Iran on Tuesday. He said the NIE report was a victory for his country's nuclear program.
/ AFP/Getty
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AFP/Getty
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at a rally in Iran on Tuesday. He said the NIE report was a victory for his country's nuclear program.

The emergence of the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran is presenting a major challenge to the policies of the Bush administration.

The report's primary conclusion — that Iran halted a secret nuclear weapons program four years ago — appears to raise barriers to the use of military force against Iran and raise questions about whether economic sanctions are even justified.

President Bush said he is sticking with his approach of sanctions and international pressure.

At Tuesday's news conference at the White House, the president emphasized that the National Intelligence Estimate said Iran had a covert nuclear weapons program in the past.

"Iran was dangerous; Iran is dangerous; and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon," he said.

President Defends Iran Policy

As justification for continuing his Iran policy, the president cited the NIE's judgment that Iran chose to shut down its covert nuclear program in 2003 because of international pressure. The president said he wants that pressure to continue.

But in 2003, there were no economic sanctions against Iran. The U.S. refused to engage with Iran and dismissed the European decision to negotiate as fruitless.

In fact, the only pressure the U.S. had brought against Iran was its invasion of Iraq, said Farideh Farhi, an expert on Iran at the University of Hawaii.

"If we take the NIE seriously — take 2003 as the period that caused the change — then it was the fear of military action that actually promoted or caused Iran to do something about its nuclear program."

It was two years later that the Bush administration decided to back the European negotiations and only a year ago that the U.N. Security Council passed the first of two mild sanctions resolutions against Iran.

Recently, the administration has been talking about even tougher sanctions, all the while suggesting the possibility of military attack.

But the first casualty of the NIE's conclusions appears to be the military option. Many experts think it is impossible now. Bruce Riedel, who spent 30 years in the CIA, is among them. Riedel is a scholar with the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

"There is no possible way that the United States could now use unilateral military force in the wake of this estimate. I don't think the political calculus in this country or that of our allies abroad would tolerate it," he said.

China May Rethink Sanctions

Paul Pillar, a Georgetown University professor and former senior intelligence officer, said the NIE will also undermine the administration's effort to impose more sanctions on Iran.

"Quite clearly it has made it much harder, number one, for the administration to line up the Russians and the Chinese and others for additional multilateral sanctions against Iran. And, number two, that option we kept hearing about being on the table — military action — would appear to be off the table for the time being."

These policy options may not be the only casualties of the NIE. Iran has argued for a year that the U.N. Security Council sanctions against it are unjustified and illegal. The NIE is likely to give the Iranian argument greater credibility, Riedel said.

"Countries like Russia and China are going to point to the judgment in this estimate and say, '"Look, the Americans don't believe they have an active nuclear weapons program. Why do we need to sanction Iran?'"

On Tuesday at the U.N., Chinese Ambassador Wang Guangya hinted that Beijing may already be rethinking its support for sanctions.

"This is an important report, and certainly I think we will study the content and also think about the implications for the council action here," he said. "We all start from the presumption that now things have changed."

Any effort to lift sanctions against Iran could be blocked by the United States, which holds a veto in the Security Council.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.

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