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The Bush administration's Iran dilemma

ALEX WONG/Getty Images News

The commentariat has, understandably, gone apoplectic about yesterday's news that Iran stopped its nuclear-weapons program in 2003. And several Democratic candidates, hoping to score points against frontrunner Hillary Clinton, are having a field day:

Barack Obama: "[T]he new National Intelligence Estimate makes a compelling case for less saber-rattling and more direct diplomacy."

John Edwards: "The new NIE finds that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that Iran can be dissuaded from pursuing a nuclear weapon through diplomacy."

The problem is, the NIE doesn't actually go that far. It strongly suggests that the threat of sanctions and military action is actually helpful, but makes no promises about what can be achieved through diplomacy:

Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates 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. This, in turn, suggests that some combination of threats of intensified international security and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways might—if perceived by Iran's leaders as credible—prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.

The NIE's conclusion here is remarkably similar to National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley's statement, dismissed everywhere as pure spin:

The estimate offers grounds for hope that the problem can be solved diplomatically - without the use of force - as the Administration has been trying to do. And it suggests that the President has the right strategy: intensified international pressure along with a willingness to negotiate a solution that serves Iranian interests while ensuring that the world will never have to face a nuclear armed Iran. The bottom line is this: for that strategy to succeed, the international community has to turn up the pressure on Iran - with diplomatic isolation, United Nations sanctions, and with other financial pressure - and Iran has to decide it wants to negotiate a solution.

Matt Yglesias cries foul and says that the Bush administration has been hyping the threat, and that's certainly true. And it may well be that Vice President Dick Cheney discounts the intelligence community's assessment. But there may also be a defensible reason for the hysteria. If we take Hadley's statement at face value, the past year of bluster coming from the administration makes sense. The fundamental problem is that the Europeans, the Chinese, and especially the Russians are skittish about enacting U.N. sanctions. But the sanctions seem to be working! Yet to get others on board, the United States has had to sound the alarm about the program and threaten that if sanctions fail, it will turn to its Air Force for solutions. In order to be effective, this threat has to be credible: The Iranians have to believe it, and the other members of the Security Council have to believe it. In other words, the Bush administration has to convince the world that the alternative to sanctions is war, rather than a nuclear Iran that might be unpalatable but is ultimately a manageable problem.

Of course, what the administration hasn't done is offer Iran a credible package of inducements that includes security guarantees, economic incentives, and so forth. In the words of the NIE, "opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways." Hadley's mention of a "willingness to negotiate a solution that serves Iranian interests" hints that such a package might be in the offing. The trouble is, Iran's negotiators are much more irascible now than they were in 2003, so the price will be far higher than it was back then—assuming a deal is still even possible.

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