The release of a new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that says Iran quit work on its nuclear weapons program four years ago marks a momentous shift in the dynamics of the Middle East, as well as in the relationships among the United States, Iran and Iraq. This timeline shows how events have played out in recent years.
On Dec. 3, the United States released a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that says Iran halted work on its nuclear weapons program in 2003. This is an extremely significant development. At first glance, it might appear that this report — a compilation of information from all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies — is an attempt by the intelligence community to undermine the Bush administration's dealings with and position on Iran. Its contents negate the rationale for any future U.S. military action against the country, and directly contradict many of the past assertions of the U.S. leadership, which has repeatedly said that Iran is a dangerous nation bent on building up its nuclear arsenal. In reality, this document marks a momentous shift in the dynamics of the Middle East, as well as in the relationships among the United States, Iran and Iraq. As STRATFOR has said many times, Iran's nuclear program primarily represents a bargaining chip to be used as leverage in Tehran's talks with the United States in order to gain it concessions in Iraq. The NIE indicates that Washington and Tehran have made significant progress in this back-channel back-and-forth, and that the positive signs coming out of Iraq lately have culminated in some sort of agreement. The battle over Iran's nuclear plans and the future of Iraq has not been an easy one. STRATFOR has carefully monitored its development, and we have explained the intrinsic link between Tehran's nuclear program and the U.S.-Iranian negotiations. Following is STRATFOR's account of the events that have shaped this process since the lead-up in 2002 to the Iraq war:
October 2002: As U.S. military intervention in Iraq seems increasingly inevitable, Iranian-U.S. back-channel meetings accelerate while Iran looks to extract political concessions from the United States over Iraq in return for its cooperation. With the aid of Ahmed Chalabi, Iran coaxes the United States into Iraq with intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
January 2003: A top Iranian official says his country supports U.S. efforts to disarm Iraq. The announcement signals that Iran has implicitly approved a U.S. war, despite its concerns of U.S. military action spilling across its border. STRATFOR believes such support will open the door to U.S.-Iranian cooperation.
March 2003: The United States invades Iraq, and swiftly topples the Iraqi regime. In return for cracking down on al Qaeda fugitives in Iran and guaranteeing Shiite cooperation during the invasion, Iran is expecting Washington to allow Baghdad to fall in Tehran's hands.
April 2003: Iran, fearing that the United States will renege on its end of the deal, sparks a major Shiite uprising to remind Washington of its ability to send Iraq up in flames. U.S.-Iranian relations are on the decline.
May 2003: With some nudging from the Russians, Iran feels out the United States for a deal, with strong indications that Tehran has agreed to hand over al Qaeda suspects to the United States or a third country. Iran follows up with a letter to the U.S. government calling for a comprehensive deal over Iraq in which it would cooperate on its nuclear program. Still confident in its ability to handle the insurgency and unwilling to be held hostage to Iran's geopolitical ambitions, the United States rebuffs the offer and concludes that the Iranians and Iraqi Shia are undependable allies, and that a deal with Iran is no longer necessary to bring order to Iraq.
June 2003: Angered by the U.S. double-cross, Iran creates a crisis with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over its nuclear program and wavers back and forth in its nuclear negotiations with the Europeans.
July 2003: Still evaluating its next steps, the United States reconsiders the need to negotiate with Iran, and calls in the services of former Secretary of State James Baker in Iraq.
October 2003:Progress is again seen on the U.S-Iranian negotiating front as Iran opens the doors to the IAEA and British, French and German foreign ministers for talks on nuclear facility inspections. Arab governments, concerned about a possible U.S.-Iranian alliance in Iraq, look to establish a common policy to curb both Washington and Tehran.
Fall 2003: Iran halts its nuclear weapons program, according to the NIE released Dec. 3, 2007.
January 2004: In the wake of a massive December earthquake that destroyed the Iranian city of Bam, the United States offers to send a humanitarian delegation to Tehran led by Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C. Iran rejects the offer, saying the timing is not right. Tehran also says Washington must respect Iran before contacts between the countries can take place.
February 2004: After months of issuing paradoxical statements on its nuclear program, Iran emerges out of February parliamentary elections with a conservative-controlled parliament. With the ability to look beyond the domestic front, the Iranian government once again signals it is ready to do business with the United States.
May 2004: Iran demonstrates its cooperation by getting involved in negotiations between Washington and Shiite rebel leader Muqtada al-Sadr.
June 2004: The United States looks favorably upon Saudi Arabia's increased involvement in the Iraq war, much to Iran's chagrin. The Iranians seek added leverage in the negotiations and engage in several tit-for-tat diplomatic spats, including the seizure of three British patrol boats along the Iraq-Iran border. The ensuing months follow the same theme of increased tensions between Washington and Tehran.
February-March 2005: After a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq is established, the Iranian nuclear issue flares up again as Iran works to keep the United States out of its nuclear talks with France, Germany and the United Kingdom in order to maintain its leverage. U.S. war rhetoric against Iran picks up steam in the coming month, prompting Iran to come clean on its nuclear program.
June-August 2005: Mysterious explosions occur in Tehran and the Arab-majority town of Ahwaz, sparking Iranian suspicions that Western intelligence agencies are riling up an anti-regime movement. Iranian presidential elections yield a surprise result, in which Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani admits defeat and dark-horse candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rises to power.
September 2005: By now it is clear that Ahmadinejad's election was part of Iran's nuclear bargaining strategy to project a carefully honed image of irrationality to convince the Americans of the utility of dealing with Iran. Ahmadinejad's fiery anti-Israeli rhetoric leads to division within the ruling ranks in Tehran over how to deal with the United States. The United States also returns the Iranian snub over the Bam earthquake aid offer by rejecting an Iranian offer of 20 million barrels of oil in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The offer was made on the condition that Washington lift trade sanctions against Iran.
December 2005-January 2006: The United States attempts to re-create Iran's worst nightmare by throwing its support behind Iraq's Sunnis. Sources in Lebanon reveal major preparations by Hezbollah for a military conflict, suggesting Iran could soon play its Hezbollah card in the negotiations.
March 2006: Just as things could not look any darker for the United States and Iran, the Iranian government offers to take bilateral back-channel negotiations over Iraq into the public sphere, and the United States accepts. Iran is not ready to sacrifice its nuclear leverage just yet, and reiterates that these talks will address Iraq only.
May 2006: Ahmadinejad makes another offer for talks with the United States by sending a peculiar letter to U.S. President George W. Bush proposing fresh ways to mend relations. At the same time, Iran continues its rhetorical blitzkrieg about its nuclear program.
June 2006: Iraq's Sunni camp makes an apparent down payment on a political settlement when al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is killed in a U.S. airstrike. The ball is now in Iran's court to get the Shia to reciprocate. Iraq has reached a break point.
July 2006: Realizing it could push for a better deal with Washington, Iran decides to pull out all stops and flip the negotiating table over by reactivating Hezbollah in Lebanon and drawing Israel into a costly war. Iran sends a clear message that it has assets throughout the region to help it achieve its demands in Iraq.
October-November 2006: The perception is that the Bush administration is weak and disintegrating. With an aim to shape the November U.S. congressional elections to force a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Iran activates its proxies to ensure November is the deadliest month to date for U.S. casualties since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
December 2006: The Iraq Study Group releases its report calling for a U.S. dialogue with Iran. Iran still assumes it has cornered the United States into implementing a withdrawal plan, leaving Tehran to pick up the pieces in Iraq.
January 2007: Bush throws off Iranian expectations with his announcement of a new strategy to surge troops into Iraq. The United States couples this strategy with an offer to the Iranians to talk. The Iranians return to the drawing board.
February 2007: The U.S.-Iranian covert intelligence war heats up, as both sides engage in saber-rattling to shore up their negotiating positions. Once again Iran makes a power play in the waters when it seizes a group of British marines and sailors in the Persian Gulf.
March 2007: Realizing their busted flushes in Iraq, U.S. and Iranian officials meet in Baghdad to discuss Iraq.
May 2007: Iran and the United States engage in publicly announced bilateral talks over Iraq in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. At the summit, Iran presents a groundbreaking proposal to stabilize Iraq. Iran is careful to keep the nuclear issue out of the negotiations. There are doubts, however, as to whether the regional players can deliver on their end of the deal.
June 2007: The United States considers meeting Iran's demand to unlink the nuclear and Iraq issues in order to move the negotiations forward.
August 2007: U.S. and Iranian diplomats meet in Baghdad to hammer out a security agreement on Iraq. Later in the month, the latest NIE makes it apparent that the U.S. surge strategy is not yet yielding sufficient results and that the strategy must begin to shift. Iran gets excited at the thought of a pending U.S. withdrawal, claiming it will fill the vacuum in Iraq. Bush, however, follows up with another surprise, saying the United States will maintain its surge strategy.
October 2007: Iran gets some added leverage when it looks to Russia for a sponsor in its negotiations with the United States over Iraq. For its own interests, Russia acts as Iran's backup and makes more promises to deliver nuclear fuel to Iran's Bushehr facility. An intra-Iranian debate over next steps in Iraq erupts with the resignation of Iranian national security chief Ali Larijani.
November 2007: With violence dropping in Iraq, the United States feels it is in a strong enough position to move forward in negotiations with Iran. Iran says it will participate in a fourth round of talks on Iraq with the United States. Iran makes a major conciliatory move on the nuclear front when it hands over a set of blueprints to the IAEA that details how to shape weapons-grade uranium into a form usable in a nuclear warhead. Though no date has been set, it looks as though the atmosphere is being set for a serious round of negotiations between the United States and Iran.
December 2007: In a massive reversal of U.S. policymaking, the U.S. intelligence community releases an NIE report that claims Iran had stopped work on a nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003, though its intentions still remain unclear. With the rationale for U.S. military aggression against Iran gone, negotiations between Washington and Tehran are more serious than ever.