To some political observers there is something vaguely disappointing about witnessing events shaped by reason. Reasonable behavior is somewhat predictable and lacks the zest and drama of the unexpected.
In as much as news-watching is driven by the stimulating effect of the shock of the new, there is then a tendency for one revelation to trigger a desire that this be followed by a cascade of revelations. In the current context, this is provoking a notion that now, anything could happen.
In a game of whack-a-mole, as soon as the National Intelligence Estimate had knocked down the notion of the “mad mullahs”, the image of “mad dog” Israel popped up.
For the past several years, U.S. intelligence analysts have doubted hawkish U.S. and Israeli rhetoric that Iran is dominated by “mad mullahs” — clerics whose fanatical religious views might lead to irrational decisions. In the new NIE, the analysts forcefully posit an alternative view of an Iran that is rational, susceptible to diplomatic pressure and, in that sense, can be “deterred.”
“Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs,” states the NIE. Asked if this meant the Iranian regime would be “deterrable” if it did obtain a weapon, a senior official responded, “That is the implication.” He added: “Diplomacy works. That’s the message.”
But not so fast, says Seymour Hersh — “there’s always Israel… Israel can always decide to take military action.” And on CNN last night, Hersh continued. “I’m told that Olmert had a private discussion with Bush about it during Annapolis — before Annapolis. Bush briefed him about it.” This contradicts National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley’s claim that Bush was not briefed on the NIE until Wednesday — the day after the Annapolis Conference. Indeed, there is further evidence that the Israelis were informed well before the conference.
In today’s Haaretz, Amos Harel writes:
Israel has known about the report for more than a month. The first information on it was passed on to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and to Shaul Mofaz, who is the minister responsible for the strategic dialog with the Americans. The issue was also discussed at the Annapolis summit by Barak and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and it seems also between Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
What surprised Israel is the sharp turn from the previous line presented by the DNI [Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell], and the fact the report was made public. Based on his short comments yesterday, it seems Barak, like Olmert, is trying to avoid open disagreement with the U.S. government.
But the issue of the NIE is expected to create tension on two levels. It will cloud the tight cooperation between the two countries intelligence agencies, since now it will no longer look as if it is only a disagreement over timing, but a fundamental disagreement over Iran’s intentions. It will also cause a feeling of distress on the Israeli side, as now it will seem that the U.S. is abandoning Israel to fight alone.
But is there really much likelihood that Israel would take on the fight alone?
Some would argue that Israel’s September 6 strike on Syria was intended as a warning shot — a signal to Tehran that “mad dog” Israel can, if it chooses, just as easily strike Iranian targets. At the time, it was certainly easy to accept such an interpretation. Now, things look different.
It seems more reasonable — in accordance with the principle of Ockham’s razor (cleaving to the simplest explanation) — to believe that bombs dropped on Syria were intended to send a message to Syria, not Iran. The message? Just because of last summer’s mess in Lebanon, don’t get the idea that you’d stand a chance in a military confrontation with Israel. We can hit you whenever we want, wherever we want. Now we’ve made that clear, we’re ready to talk.
When it comes to Iran, the political challenge now is for those who until very recently were hysterically presenting Iran as the greatest threat to the world, to make an about face without losing face and say that Iran can now effectively be engaged.
Those still feeling the sting of the NIE’s claims will predictably revive Rumsfeld’s line of reasoning that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But this always was, and remains, a faultless yet deceptive line of reasoning since the absence of evidence is not evidence of concealment. Just as there are still those who believe that Saddam Hussein’s WMD were never found because they were so well hidden, the same line is being used again: “The Israelis interpret the evidence to mean the Iranians have almost certainly continued to conduct their military nuclear program in secret.”
That’s all well and good, but while the masters-of-secrecy argument might have some limited value in sustaining the image of Iran’s government as a nefarious and deceptive entity, at the same time, it’s hard to plausibly argue in favor of missile strikes on targets so well hidden that their locations are unknown.
The neocons know the game is up and some of them are being surprisingly quick to concede the fact. Norman Podhoretz sees the intelligence community engaged in a scheme to “head off the possibility that the President may order air strikes on the Iranian nuclear installations.” But even if the father of neoconservatism doesn’t like what he sees, he concedes that the plot has worked.
Robert Kagan, perhaps the most nimble-minded among the neocons, says, “With its policy tools broken, the Bush administration can sit around isolated for the next year. Or it can seize the initiative, and do the next administration a favor, by opening direct talks with Tehran.” Part of Kagan’s motive for advocating talks now is that this “would give the United States a better chance to frame the discussion, at home and abroad.” Which is to say, a better chance for Kagan and his friends to frame the issues.
Be that as it may, the opportunity that has now opened up needs to be grasped. The question is, who is going to quickest off the mark in becoming the strongest advocate of a bold and strategic policy shift? Those who have nothing to advocate will do no more than sustain the culture of political reactivity in which nothing really gets said and nothing much gets done.
So far there are no signs that inside Bush’s brain there are any new neuronal pathways being tickled by an action potential. It’s time for Iran to “come clean” he says — and Ahmadinejad could say just the same. If the absence of cunning is a precondition for U.S.-Iranian talks, they’re not going to happen.
But Bush’s isn’t the only voice that needs to be heard right now. There are a bunch of folks waltzing around America at the moment claiming they want to lead the nation. OK. Now’s the time to show your mettle. And just in case anyone needs reminding: whether or not Iran has an active program for developing nuclear weapons, it does remain the strategically most important country in the Middle East.
The release of the NIE may have the effect of making presidential candidates think that Iran can quietly be dropped from the political agenda. This would be a mistake. The opportunity here is not limited to finding a new way to approach Iran; with some courage and imagination the conversation could actually start to shift away from its myopic focus on national security threats and towards a new focus on engagement. Instead of talking about how America must lead the world, save the world or protect itself from the world, it’s time to start talking about working together and raising America’s awareness of a convergence of national and global interests.