What 'International Pressure'?: The Fantasy World of the Iran NIE

Matthias Küntzel, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2007, Briefing

The latest American intelligence estimate on Iran has provoked an emotional response in Europe reminiscent of the euphoria inspired by Chamberlain's words on Sept. 30, 1938, as he appeared before the throng in front of 10 Downing Street and announced that he had achieved "peace in our time." Even if many commentators warn not to reduce the pressure on Tehran, the dominant sentiment is a feeling of relief: a sentiment to which the German weekly Die Zeit, for example, gave expression with the headline "Phew! There'll Be No World War Then!" The focus of the coverage in the media is not on the bitter realization that until 2003 the Iranian military apparatus was explicitly pursuing the development of an atomic weapon, but rather on the "good news" in the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE): namely that this military program "was halted primarily in response to international pressure," which is supposed to prove that "Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously." If Iran gave in to international pressure in 2003, the implicit reasoning of the report runs, then it will certainly do so as well in the future. Thus, summarizing the implications of the NIE report, the author of the article in Die Zeit can conclude that "the Iranian regime does not so much conduct its foreign policy according to ideological criteria, but rather according to a lucid cost-benefit analysis."

In such reflections, wishful-thinking has anesthetized rational thought. The last five years of Iranian diplomacy have demonstrated beyond doubt that the Mullah dictatorship does not work like other states. Tehran has ignored both the "carrots" of economic incentives and the "sticks" of international isolation and has pursued a weapons-related nuclear program at all cost. The intelligence report does not even tangentially touch upon this experience. Instead, it tries to hide the rubble of the failed diplomatic initiatives behind a pleasing new image of Iran: Tehran, the report affirms, "is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005." The intelligence agencies adduce only a single proof of this supposed new attitude: in fall 2003, Tehran is alleged to have halted its nuclear weapons program "in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure." But precisely this assertion -- the core finding of the report, from which all its other conclusions follow -- is obviously unfounded.

'International Pressure'

At the time, some six months after the start of the Iraq War, the discord between American and European Iran policy had reached a high point. The United States was not prepared to concede a nuclear program to a regime like that of Iran, since such a program would inevitably be used for military purposes. Working through the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. hoped to be able to bring the illegally developed Iranian nuclear program to a stop.

France and Germany, on the other hand, were attempting to show that a patient dialogue on matters of nonproliferation could achieve better results than the strategy of disarmament by force pursued by the Americans in Iraq. In August 2003, against the massive opposition of the United States, they offered Iran conditional recognition of its nuclear program.

The European approach won out. In fall 2003, the "EU-3" -- Germany, France and Great Britain -- acknowledged Iran's "right to use atomic energy peacefully and in conformity with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty," as a German government press release from Oct. 22, 2003, puts it. In return, the Iranian regime agreed to make two pseudo-concessions: It signed a new oversight treaty with the IAEA -- without, however, ever ratifying it -- and it voluntarily suspended uranium enrichment for a few weeks. The agreement "demonstrates the success of a strategy of cooperation," then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder enthused. And for Germany, it was a success, as German exports to Iran increased by 20 percent in 2003 and another 33 percent in 2004. After 18 years of incessant violations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, this deal was surely the best thing that could have happened for Tehran.

It is not impossible that Tehran in fact suspended its work on nuclear warheads at the time. But it was under no pressure to do so: The "international pressure" of which the NIE speaks did not exist. In any case, the core of its nuclear weapons program -- uranium enrichment and plutonium production -- remained intact. The surrender of American diplomacy to the European strategy permitted the regime now openly to pursue its hitherto secret program for the production of enriched uranium and plutonium under the comforting mantle of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In the intervening years as well, there has never been any serious "international pressure" applied to the Iranian regime. Thus, between 2003 and 2005 the EU succeeded in preventing the Iranian nuclear question from being referred to the U.N. Security Council. During all this time, work on Iran's nuclear program continued at an accelerated pace. Germany's then-Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer found the most fitting expression to describe the parallel activism of Iran and the Europeans. A Sept. 7, 2004, report in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung notes: "Fischer said that in the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program, the Europeans had always let it be known that the Iranians should regard Europe as a 'protective shield' as far as their strategic interests are concerned." A "protective shield": The principal aim of German policy consisted not in stopping Iran from enriching uranium, but rather in stopping the United States from stopping Iran.

At the same time, Germany and other European states increased their export guarantees for enterprises doing business with Iran. The 2004 annual report on Germany's program of so-called Hermes export credits [Hermes-Bürgschaften] waxes positively rapturous on the subject of German-Iranian trade: "The export guarantees provided by the federal government played a major role in German exports to Iran. The volume of coverage in relation to Iranian orders increased by nearly three and a half times to around €2.3 billion. Thus the federal government guaranteed 65 percent of all German exports to the country. Iran enjoyed the second-highest level of coverage for 2004, only slightly behind China." In addition, on June 23, 2005 -- only days after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iranian President -- a German-Iranian Investment Agreement came into force. The "Red-Green" government of Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer signed the agreement in August 2002, in order "to deepen the economic cooperation between the two states for their mutual benefit" (German Bundestag, Drucksache 15/1055).

Next Page: European resistance to a unified sanctions regime . . .

Sanctions resolutions were passed by the U.N. Security Council in December 2006 and March 2007. But whereas the resolutions showed Iran to be politically isolated, they did not damage the Iranian economy. Only the unilateral measures undertaken by the United States in fact had an effect on business interests: Thus in 2006 a considerable number of banks and firms withdrew from doing business in Iran, since they would otherwise be faced with negative consequences on the American market. As other companies were leaving Iran, however, the Austrian energy concern OMV was moving into Iran -- and in a big way. On April 21, 2007, the 30 percent state-owned Austrian enterprise signed a letter of intent for the largest natural gas deal that a European company has ever concluded with Iran. Subsequent efforts by newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy to establish a unified European sanctions regime were foiled by the determined resistance of Germany, Austria, Italy, and Spain. (See the WPR report here and my earlier article "Berlin and Vienna Stand Against the West.") As recently as Nov. 20, the German Ambassador to Tehran, Herbert Honsowitz, declared to the Iranian media that Germany was doing everything to maintain or even strengthen bilateral economic ties with Iran. In a report published by Iran's Press TV, Honsowitz is quoting as saying that the bulk of Germany's $4 billion worth of exports to Iran are now reaching the country via Dubai.

After the NIE

In light of the foregoing, it is positively surreal that now even the American President attributes the supposed halting of the Iranian nuclear weapons program to "diplomatic pressure" and adopts the rosy evaluation of the NIE. "The NIE talks about how a carrot-and-stick approach can work," he noted in his Dec. 4 news conference. "The strategy we have used in the past is effective," he added. Perhaps such remarks are meant to encourage the international community to impose additional sanctions. But acting as if everything is going well, when the facts prove the opposite, hardly serves the cause.

America's National Intelligence Council has not provided the public an objective evaluation of reality, but rather a fantasy. Why? My thesis is that the authors of the report have put forth a radical reevaluation of the Iranian threat in order to disguise what in fact amounts to a fundamental reorientation in America's Iran policy. This policy reorientation is revealed by a footnote in the report, which reads: "By 'nuclear weapons program'. . . we do not mean Iran's declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment."

Whereas up to now Washington has wanted to use tough sanctions in order to prevent Iran from enriching uranium on an industrial scale, the authors of the NIE seem prepared to accept Iranian uranium enrichment so long as it is declared to be for "civil" purposes. Whereas the aim was hitherto to impede the building of potential bomb factories -- and thereby nullify Iran's nuclear option -- it seems that the NIE authors are only concerned about preventing the "restarting of the weapons program" by way of IAEA monitoring and external pressure.

In 2003, the United States rallied to the European Iran policy and accepted the existence of an Iranian nuclear program, so long as it was not weapons-related. In 2007, the NIE authors indirectly suggest accepting even a weapons-related program: "Iran's declared civil work related to uranium enrichment." This means that Iran will be denied a "weapons program" and the direct possession of the bomb -- but not the procurement of the technologies required for the production of the bomb. It is to be noted that in acquiring the latter, Iran will already have advanced far along the path to realizing one of its principal foreign policy aims: According to a recent public opinion poll, if Iran obtains the technical prerequisites for building a nuclear weapon, 27 percent of Israeli Jews will leave Israel.

Ahmadinejad can be well pleased. Iran expert Ray Takeyh's October 2003 assessment of the Iran policy of the EU-3 is more relevant today than ever:

. . . the deal [between the EU-3 and Iran] ensures that Iran will be the next member of the nuclear club. . . . Only by dismantling all Iran's nuclear plants can the United States be sure that Iran will not develop a nuclear weapons capability under the auspices of a civilian research program. . . . The Bush administration would be wise to chart an imaginative new course. Relying on the defective IAEA and the European Union will not stem the tide of proliferation in Iran.

No one needs intelligence agency reports in order to be able to recognize the political and military aims of Iran. Seldom has a country declared its aggressive intentions so clamorously to the entire world. In the next weeks and months, we will find out if the Bush administration and the American public will reject this "dangerous, misguided and counterproductive" report, as Alan Dershowitz has described it, or if America's government is indeed "in the grip of shadowy powers using 'intelligence' as a tool of control," as Bret Stephens has written in the Wall Street Journal.

In 1938, Chamberlain gave the Czech "Sudetenland" to the Nazis in the hope that this would placate them. As the then-President of Czechoslovakia Edvard Benes wrote in his memoirs of the Sudetenland crisis, "among persons without moral strength," Chamberlain's act of appeasement "provoked a feeling of relief." Today, will one give Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "civil uranium enrichment" in the hope that this will placate him?

Matthias Küntzel is a Hamburg-based political scientist. His book "Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11" was recently awarded the Grand Prize of the London Book Festival. The above article was translated from German by John Rosenthal.

See too the related post on the German Foreign Minister's reactions to the NIE "Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Risk Assessment."