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Obama Must Act on New Iran Intelligence

In 2007, a growing international consensus on the need to stop Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons was hamstringed by a puzzling U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that claimed Tehran had abandoned its ambitions. Though the NIE was disputed by Israel as well as by other sources, this report became the bulwark of foreign policy realists determined to downplay or ignore the danger from Iran. But as Haaretz reports, a new NIE issued in the past month indicates not only is Iran working on such a program but they have made alarming progress on military applications of nuclear power.

The report, which was made known to the paper by both Western diplomats and Israeli officials, reportedly shows U.S. intelligence now concurs with their counterparts in the Jewish state that the Iranian peril is far greater than the Americans were previously willing to admit. This finding makes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s public questions about the West’s willingness to wait for sanctions and diplomacy to work  justified. More to the point, it calls into question the Obama administration’s strategy of kicking the can down the road this year until after the elections.

Back in 2007, American intelligence was still shell-shocked from its pre-Iraq War failures. If it had been too eager in 2003 to believe the evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, in 2007 it went in the other direction and adopted a see no evil stance that denied what everyone else in the world knew in order to avoid being blamed for a new conflict. But the new NIE ought to change the conversation about Iran not only in diplomatic circles but also on the campaign trail.

This is important because just this past Friday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said American intelligence was “confident that we would be able to detect a break-out move by Iran towards the acquisition of a nuclear weapon” even while the Israelis were expressing concern the allies might not know and act in time. The point is, it is not enough to merely admit that Iran is working on military applications of nuclear power, if the West isn’t prepared to stop the threat before the ayatollahs can order the construction of a bomb. The Israelis believe Iran must be prevented from getting to that point, while the Obama administration thinks it can rely on a last-minute effort to hold off the peril.

It is that complacent attitude emanating from the White House that has encouraged the Iranians to believe they can outwait President Obama. The failure of the P5+1 negotiations have exposed the foolishness of the administration’s reliance on a diplomatic process that only serves to buy Tehran more time to work on a bomb. Similarly, the president’s claim that the sanctions he belatedly and only under great pressure adopted on Iran will convince the ayatollahs to give in is undermined by the waivers granted to the restrictions that have enabled the Iranian economy to keep functioning.

The new NIE finding makes it imperative that Washington start acting as if it is not merely trying to run out the clock on the issue until the president is re-elected. It should also make it clear that the discussion about Israel acting on its own is not “warmongering” on the part of Netanyahu but his recognition that an existential threat to his nation’s existence cannot be ignored. If President Obama is going to continue acting as if all he need do about Iran is to talk about it, the new NIE makes it clear he must be held accountable for this failure.