The Magazine

What Happened in 2003?

In thinking about Iran, don't forget Iraq.

Dec 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 14 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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What highly significant word is nowhere to be found in the declassified summary of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear intentions and capabilities? Iraq.

When did Iran (apparently) stop its nuclear weapons program--as distinct from its "civil" program of uranium enrichment, which of course is proceeding apace? In the fall of 2003. The NIE "assess[es] with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons."

Why did Iran stop its nuclear weapons program? According to the NIE, "the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure." But, as Claudia Rosett pointed out in a trenchant analysis in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "If international pressure achieved such sterling results in Iran four years ago, then surely we deserve to know what, exactly, impressed Iran's rulers so thoroughly that they might have slammed on the brakes."

What did that pressure consist of? In the fall of 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency had not yet referred the civil Iranian nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council. That happened in 2006, and the Security Council finally agreed on (weak) sanctions later that year. In the fall of 2003, the European Union had barely swung into action with its negotiations--which have gone nowhere in four years. The quasi-urgency displayed by both the IAEA and the EU in late 2003 was a result of fear that unless they got engaged, the United States might act unilaterally and militarily. Why such fear?

Much as the U.S. intelligence community, the IAEA, and the EU might prefer to forget it, we did overthrow Saddam Hussein in April 2003. As Rosett puts it, that "was the year in which Saddam Hussein became Exhibit A of the post-Sept.-11 era for what could happen to terror-linked tyrants who ignored America's demands that they abjure weapons of mass murder."

Did anyone notice? Muammar Qaddafi did. Libya, in late 2003, gave up its nuclear weapons program (which was, incidentally, more advanced than the IAEA believed) and invited U.S. experts in to dismantle it.

Perhaps Iran's mullahs also noticed. Perhaps they noticed, too, a large U.S.-led military force just across their border. More determined and stronger than Qaddafi, the mullahs did not dismantle their program. But they may have halted their nuclear weapon work, and their covert uranium-conversion and uranium-enrichment work. (Though the NIE acknowledges that "because of intelligence gaps," parts of the U.S. government "assess with only moderate confidence that the halt to those activities represents a halt to Iran's entire nuclear weapons program.") Still, Iran quite openly forged ahead with its easier-to-defend-publicly "civil" uranium enrichment program. And rather than dismantling or scrapping the "weapons" part of the program, Iran merely "halted" it. It may well be that Iran paused its work in that area simply to wait for the "civil" enrichment program to catch up, not slowing its overall push for nuclear weapons at all. We don't know.

What we do know, as the NIE acknowledges, is that "some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny 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." Given "Iran's considerable effort from at least the late 1980s to 2003 to develop such weapons," the NIE concludes, reasonably if tautologically, that "only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons--and such a decision is inherently reversible."

Of course, all such political decisions are "inherently reversible." This coda is meant to induce fatalism about Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons. But if one chooses not to be fatalistic, and to think about what might induce an Iranian "political decision" to abandon its nuclear program, part of the answer, surely, is a more robust effort to pressure the Iranian regime. Another part is the credible use of force--as in 2003.

The final part is victory in Iraq. President Bush's successful shift in strategy in Iraq a year ago, as part of his commitment to finishing that job, remains his greatest contribution to peace in the Middle East. The complete and unequivocal defeat of al Qaeda and of Iranian-backed proxies in Iraq is the best way to show Iran that the United States is a serious power to be reckoned with in the region. Resisting the temptation to throw away success in Iraq by drawing down too fast or too deep is the greatest service this president can render his successor. Only if Bush wins in Iraq will the next president have a reasonable chance to defeat the threat of a nuclear-weapons-seeking Islamic Republic of Iran.

--William Kristol