Twenty-first century going-to-war requires that the proper procedures be observed, even if the United States Congress has become shy about declaring war as required by the constitution. There was never any doubt that George W. Bush and his neocon team would go to war with Iraq, but they first obtained what they believed to be adequate justification from the United Nations and a green light in the form of a congressional resolution before they actually initiated conflict. Currently, there is no piece of paper relating to a possible new war that is more important than the impending National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran, which has been a work in progress for more than a year and a half. The last NIE on Iran, released in late 2007, was controversial in that it concluded that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and had not resumed it. The document was immediately attacked by neoconservatives and the media, who responded that the Iranians might have a secret program and were intending to revive their efforts. Israel and its supporters have since been insisting that there is, in fact, a hidden program and have been constantly sending out alarms suggesting that a nuclear weapon is only six months or a year away. They keep revising forward the date whenever six months or a year passes without a weapon actually making an appearance.
The new Iran NIE has been delayed a number of times because of conflicting demands from the CIA analysts involved and from the White House. The analysts, badly burned by the heavily politicized 2002 NIE on Iraq, which led to a war, and also nervous about the barrage of criticism of the 2007 NIE on Iran, want the estimate to be completely credible and very tightly analyzed and reviewed. The Obama Administration wants, instead, a document that will give it whatever option it seeks to pursue vis-à-vis the Mullahs. That in-house conflict has led to a very delicate balancing act as the report has been crafted, particularly as the analysts have been unable to develop any hard information suggesting that Iran does have a nuclear weapons program.
I have been advised that the new Iran NIE, which is still being negotiated, will likely reflect a compromise giving everyone what they want. The report will say that there is no solid information indicating that Iran has revived its pursuit of nuclear weapons, but the fact that Tehran has taken steps to hide aspects of its United Nations inspected nuclear energy program suggests that there is indeed an intention to move towards development of a weapon. The estimate will suggest that development of a weapon might already be in progress, though it will not state that in any definitive way. The report will conclude that until Iran permits complete transparency and total access to its nuclear program, while at the same time surrendering its own capability to enrich uranium, the assumption will have to be that there is indeed a secret effort underway to develop what is referred to as "breakthrough capability" related to a possible weapon. Breakthrough capability means that all the pieces will be in place making it possible to construct a weapon in short order.
There will be additional caveats and weasel-worded language in the report, plus some dissents, that will make the conclusion a soft one, but its conclusions will be leaning towards the side of "It’s better to be safe than sorry." The CIA analysts will be able to claim that they indicated that there is no hard evidence for a weapons program and that even the conclusions are based on soft analysis while the White House will be able to keep "all options on the table" and will not be boxed in. The Obama Administration does not want to go to war, but if a conflict does somehow develop it does want to be able to cite the NIE as partial justification.
It does not take a great deal of insight into the dynamics of the relationship between Tehran and Washington to see that the NIE is a political statement more than it is any serious analysis. It is a document produced by a government agency in support of a government policy that in turn is designed to allow that selfsame government to pursue any number of options. It will be a very "what if?" document which possibly is demanding that Iran prove to a skeptical Washington and Tel Aviv what very well might be a negative, i.e. that it has no weapons program. Or, as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it in a discussion of possible Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, "The absence of evidence is no evidence of absence" and, in another speech, "…there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know." If it turns out that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program and Washington goes to war anyway, it will have to be chalked up to one of the unknowns that we did not know.
All of the above would be something out of a Shakespearean play in which two people exchange their identities or have their girlfriends get somehow mixed up, resulting in comedic exchanges and a great deal of confusion, but for the fact that war is such a serious business. Nearly six thousand Americans and hundreds of thousands of foreigners have died as a result of the two wars fought in which the "absence of evidence" was deliberately engineered into allegations unsupported by any facts that resulted in Washington initiating wars of choice. It will not be any different in the case of Iran.
So why do an NIE at all? The new report will likely be politics as usual cloaked in the illusion of objectivity and process. It might be far preferable if Washington would deal honestly with the American people and the rest of the world for a change. How about a White House-issued statement calling itself an NIE that says something like this: "Even though we have no hard evidence that Iran has a nuclear arms program we have decided that since Tehran has not been completely forthcoming on some aspects of its nuclear energy program it might be intending to develop a weapon. The White House is under constant pressure from Israel and its supporters in congress and the media to do something about the threat from Iran, so we have asked the CIA to prepare a document that will enable us to bomb Iran if we decide it is politically expedient to do so. Or alternatively not to bomb Iran if we decide not to do so because, in our judgment, the voters cannot stomach another war. The decision on what to do about Iran will be based on what happens in midterm elections next month and on a White House assessment of what has to be done to insure the re-election of President Obama. That might require a new war or maybe not, but rest assured that it will have nothing to do with the genuine threat that Iran might actually pose and nothing to do with any balance of power in the world or vital American national interests. It will all come down to appeasing the Israel Lobby and managing the election cycle. Thank you."