Justin Vaïsse has a very thorough and interesting analysis of the recent US National Intelligence Estimate concerning the Iranian nuclear program on Rue89. His piece is presented as a series of 7 short questions about the NIE, together with lengthy answers. Following this lead, I present several more questions raised but not answered by Justin's analysis:
1. What does the release of the NIE tell us about the internal workings of the Bush administration?
It is really quite an extraordinary thing for an intelligence estimate to transform so suddenly and completely the tenor of debate on a major issue of US foreign policy. Nevertheless, as Justin lucidly explains, considerable ambiguity remains about Iranian practices and motives, ambiguity deliberately soft-pedaled by an intelligence estimate that seems to have been designed precisely to take the war option off the table. Yet as Justin remarks in his answer to his own question 3, ambiguity has its uses in this kind of situation. So one has to ask why the intelligence community would take such consequential action on its own. Justin mentions the need to redorer le blason of the intelligence community after the Iraq fiasco, as well as a history of veering from pessimism to optimism in its assessments. But one has to ask whether unstated judgments might also be involved. High intelligence officials privy to internal debates are in a position to know when their own doubts and caveats are being ignored by policymakers. Was it alarm that an administration noted for its rashness was about to sin again? Note, too, that the CIA revealed its destruction of interrogation videotapes shortly after the release of the NIE, in effect (if not in intention) availing itself of the positive reaction to its reversal on Iran to soften the anticipated negative reaction to its destruction of self-incriminating evidence.
2. Why did the US intelligence community apparently reveal sources and methods in the latest NIE?
On the day after the release of the NIE, The New York Times published a front page article detailing some of the reasoning on which the stark change of view since the 2005 NIE was based. The article included a discussion of specific sources and methods, including interception of internal Iranian military communications, information that could only have come from US intelligence officials. Yet when questioned about such matters, intelligence officials usually give a ritual answer: "We never discuss sources and methods." Why, in this case (as in Colin Powell's presentation to the UN), were specific sources and methods apparently revealed? Was this done to bolster the credibility of the NIE? Was it disinformation intended to throw Iranian counter-intelligence off the track or to conceal other sources, including a reported defector who fled to Turkey? Or was it to answer critics who have contended that US intelligence has failed to develop necessary capabilities? This follow-up release was at least as extraordinary as the release of the NIE itself.
3. How does Sarkozy interpret the NIE?
In an earlier post I raised the question of Sarkozy's reaction to the release of the NIE. Did Bush tell him it was in the works when they met in August? If not, did he feel misled by Bush? What effect has the release had on his thinking about Iran? In an interview published yesterday in Le Nouvel Obs, Sarkozy made an interesting statement: "I was never for war. The problem for us is not so much the risk that the Americans might undertake a military intervention but rather that the Israelis will consider their security truly threatened." Does he believe that the Israelis have the military capacity to strike Iran on their own? How is France characterizing the NIE in its discussions with European partners about what to do next? Sarkozy's statement here, like his previous statements, can be read as a declaration that both an Iranian bomb and a bombing of Iran, whether by Israel or the US, would be catastrophic for Europe. If so, how does he intend to maintain European pressure on Iran in the face of the NIE, which complicates the effort for the reasons Justin sets forth?
For a few game-theoretic twists on the scenario, see here.