When a new National Intelligence Estimate reverses key judgments of previous assessments, there is a natural temptation to begin overhauling U.S. policy. Perhaps our Iran policy should be adjusted in light of last week's new NIE. But before concluding wholesale changes are in order, we should evaluate what has changed and what remains the same.
First, as the NIE acknowledged, the nature of the regime has not changed. Most key Iranian leaders continue to believe nuclear weapons advance their foreign policy priorities. Those priorities — including the annihilation of Israel, the destabilization of Iraq, and the pressure on Sunni Arab neighbors — remain antithetical to our interests in a peaceful, stable, and democratizing Middle East region. Second, the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran remain severe. Tehran's anti-Israel rhetoric raises the possibility that it would consider using nuclear weapons if it has them. Even if Iran can be deterred from using nuclear weapons, its mere possession of them would complicate our ability to deter conventional forms of aggression, such as the closure of the straits of Hormuz or the bullying of neighboring countries across the Gulf. In addition, a nuclear-armed Iran would immediately become the world's biggest proliferation concern and likely would spark a nuclear arms race with its Arab rivals.
Third, a new NIE, limited in scope, cannot change broad U.S. goals for Iran. We seek a free and open Iran that does not sponsor terrorism or threaten its neighbors. Tehran continues to match its repression of the Iranian people with its harassment of other countries in the region, primarily through the deployment of its Revolutionary Guard forces and use of terrorist proxies like Hezbollah. The Middle East will not be stable until Iran changes its behavior, something it is unlikely to do after developing or acquiring a nuclear weapon.
In the final analysis, Iranian leaders believe they will benefit from possessing nuclear weapons, an eventuality that poses great danger to the region and the world and runs counter to U.S. policy goals. Whether or not some parts of the Iranian nuclear weapons effort have been suspended — and the NIE purposely did not consider the civilian nuclear program at the heart of so much controversy over the last few years — keeping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons should remain a top priority.
We have pressured Iran, with varying degrees of success, through a handful of tactics, including Tehran's financial and diplomatic isolation and threats to use force. We must continue this effort. The peace-loving world must continue this effort. We have spent comparatively little time and energy empowering the Iranian people to change the nature of the regime from within. If the NIE accurately portrays a suspension of part of Iran's nuclear program, we should use the extra time to empower the Iranian people toward democracy.
America can help the Iranian people in a couple of ways. First, we need to make money available for those dissidents who seek our help. The regime's loud protests against U.S. pro-democracy assistance only demonstrates the fear Tehran harbors toward its own people. Second, we need to appoint a special envoy at the State Department to work with Iranian pro-democracy advocates and coordinate policies across the U.S. government that will support the reform efforts of freedom-minded Iranians.
The NIE did nothing to change the assessment that we must avoid a nuclear-armed Iran. The NIE did, however, identify Iran's key leaders as the most important factor in whether and when Iran completes its quest for nuclear weapons. Empowering the Iranian people to change the behavior of their leaders is consistent with the NIE, supports U.S. policy goals, and averts the dire consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran. The debate over Iran policy will continue, but empowering the Iranian people is a step we need to take now more than ever.
Mr. Brownback is a senator of Kansas.