From Gideon Rachman of the FT:
[…] Fortuitously, I spent the weekend at a conference on security in the Gulf, organised by the International Institute of Security Studies. Soldiers, diplomats, spooks and academics had flown into Bahrain from all over the world.
But the wisdom of the security crowd failed to come up with a single convincing explanation for recent events. Several theories were doing the rounds. Among the Americans and Europeans, the most popular explanation was that the US intelligence people were trying to do two things. First, to prove their independence; second, to stop a drive to war with Iran. A rival theory was that the spies had been naïve. They had failed to realise how their work would be spun by the media. [Whoever came up with that one is a moron. –ed]
Neither of these ideas seemed popular among the Arab delegates. They find it difficult to believe that President George W. Bush could be deliberately undermined by part of his own government. [Silly Arabs. –ed] They have a strong preference for conspiracy theories over cock-ups.
So their preferred explanation is that the US is intentionally being nice to Iran – perhaps as a reward for improved Iranian behaviour in Iraq. Alternatively, the Americans may already be talking to the Iranians and this is the first outward manifestation of their rapprochement.
Being of a western cast of mind, I incline to a mixture of theories one and two. This looks like a declaration of independence by America’s intelligence services, whose full ramifications for US policy may not have been completely understood.
So where does that leave us? Unless Iran does something really stupid, Mr Bush will not be able to bomb. Much tougher sanctions are also out. So that leaves talking.
But there are two obvious snags. First, America’s intelligence re-assessment will probably be a boon to hardliners in Tehran. President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad will be able to say that Iran has stood firm and faced down the world. In such a climate, why should the Iranians make concessions?
Second, there may be no “grand bargain” to be had. Most of the evidence suggests that the determination to get a nuclear bomb is a national project in Iran – uniting different political factions. The Iranians are not necessarily in a hurry. They might be deterred for a while. But the nuclear programme has become a symbol of national machismo – and is also widely regarded as a strategic necessity, given that Iran is surrounded by hostile powers.
Iran also has ambitions in the region. It is the biggest country in the Gulf area – or, as the Iranians insist on calling it, the Persian Gulf area – and it wants its “natural role” to be recognised. If Iran is to be the regional hegemon, then the US military presence must be greatly diminished. The US army is in Iraq, the navy is in Bahrain, the air force is in Qatar. There are US bases in Saudi Arabia. There is no way that the Americans are going to cede the dominant security role in the Gulf – a region that sits on top of 60 per cent of the world’s known oil reserves and 40 per cent of its natural gas.
That is the basic reason why a grand bargain will be so hard to achieve. The US and the Iranians are strategic rivals in the Gulf region. They are not going to become friends. The best that can be hoped for is an uneasy modus vivendi.
As for the Iranian nuclear programme: the message that the American public risks being left with is that it would be impossible to live with an Iranian bomb – but fortunately Iran is no longer pursuing nuclear weapons. The reality is the complete opposite. Iran probably will get nuclear weapons. And the west will probably have to learn to live with it.
Will Israel learn to live with it? That’s the question that matters.
The total, ongoing confusion over the NIE reinforces my conviction that this was not party of any “master plan,” as per the Stratfor interpretation. It also buttresses the interpretation that the NIE took the Bush Administration by surprise, and that they caved to political considerations over “politicizing intelligence” to let it slip through.
Of course, the headlines the following day would have simply said, “BUSH, CRAZED BY NEOCON BLOODLUST, REJECTS IRAN INTEL ASSESSMENT,” but the fact that Bush himself tacitly signed off on a patently politicized document has already inflicted more damage upon his credibility than any “politicized-intelligence”-derived collapse of his approval ratings could have. Karl Rove’s shortsighted, 24-hour news-cycle mentality has clearly outlasted Rove’s stay in the White House.
I believe both the Arab and American/European theories are correct, but an anti-Bush intelligence faction went way ahead of where US-Iran negotiations stood, in such a way as to completely sabotage the likelihood of a war with Iran and wreck Bush’s credibility–even though that probability of war was the only deterrent against Iran going for broke to drive the hardest possible bargain for Iraq, via ordering its Iraqi proxies to ratchet up the level of violence against American forces.
Anyway, John Bolton strongly vindicated the Eric Cartman estimate of the national intelligence estimate yesterday when he called it a “quasi-putsch” by the intelligence services.