Last night, President Obama along with Prime Minister Gordon Brown and President Nikolas Sarkozy announced that the IAEA had been presented with detailed evidence about the existence of a previously undisclosed Iranian nuclear enrichment facility. While there's always good reason to be skeptical about such intelligence claims, in this case it is significant that the Iranians hastened to pre-emptively declare to the IAEA that a "new pilot fuel-enrichment plant is under construction." The U.S. has, from what I can tell, been aware of this site for quite some time, and it has not yet gone operational. So this is not a story of the sudden discovery of an urgent new threat requiring whatever red-blooded solution the hawks will be peddling today. The interesting question is why Obama chose to go public with this information now, and how it fits into the administration's diplomatic strategy.
According to the New York Times, the administration went public because the Iranians had discovered that Western intelligence had "breached the secrecy surrounding the project." Perhaps. But it seems rather more likely that the administration chose to go public as part of a calculated effort to ratchet up the credibility of the threat of tough sanctions ahead of the October 1 meeting between Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva. The public disclosure puts Iran on the back foot ahead of those talks, and appears to have encouraged Russia to more seriously consider supporting such sanctions (that, plus the missile defense decision probably). This has to change Iranian calculations -- indeed, the perception that the sanctions are now more likely is precisely what may lead the Iranians to make more concessions to avoid them.
It also demonstrates to the Iranians the quality of Western intelligence and the difficulty of deception and denial -- especially in the atmosphere of (quite warranted) mistrust of their intentions. That may reduce their reasons to oppose the intrusive inspections and monitoring regime which Gary Sick argues is the most likely reasonable negotiated outcome. Such an outcome would be far more in the interests of the U.S., Iran, and Iran's neighbors than any plausible outcome of a military strike, and has to be the target of the engagement process.
So despite what I expect to see swarming the media in the next few days -- wanna bet that John Bolton or John Bolton-equivalent oped is already in production over at the
Washington Times Washington Post (sorry, it's hard to tell the difference on foreign policy issues sometimes) -- I actually think that this public revelation makes war less rather than more likely. The timing of the announcement, immediately following the consultations
at the UN and the G-20 and just before the Geneva meetings, makes it
seem extremely likely that the Obama administration has been waiting for just the right moment to play this card. Now they have. It strengthens the P5+1 bargaining position ahead of October 1, changes
Iranian calculations, and lays the foundations for a more serious kind
of engagement. So now let's see how it changes the game.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.