US Spies Concoct a Potent Iran Brew

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi 

Two years after the last National Intelligence Estimate (NIE)on Iran that claimed "with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure", the 2007 NIE by the US's 16 spy agencies claims otherwise. That is, that Iran "halted" its secret weapons program in the autumn of 2003.

Crediting this to pressure by the international community, the new report is clearly geared to sustain the crumbling United Nations coalition on Iran.

As expected, Washington, which released the report with much fan-fare, has been quick to frame it with the appropriate nuance, by letting National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley do the talking, "It confirms that we were right to be worried about Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons," Hadley said. "It tells us that we have made progress in trying to ensure that this does not happen. But the intelligence also tells us that the risk of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon remains a very serious problem."

In other words, let's not have a let-up with the sanctions that the new report proves are effectively working.
The new NIE reports with "high confidence" that the military-run program was shut in 2003, and it concludes with "moderate confidence" that the program had not restarted as of mid-2007.

The timing of the report's release is curious, coinciding both with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's crucial meeting with the heads of states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, where Ahmadinejad has made substantial progress in confidence-building by advancing the idea of security and economic cooperation in the region, and with critical discussions with the so-called "Five plus One" countries regarding the next United Nations steps against Iran. The Five plus One includes the five permanent members of the UN security Council - United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China - plus Germany.

Irrespective of Hadley's comments, the new NIE actually undermines much of the rationale behind the US-led push for a third round of US sanctions on Iran, by flatly contradicting what until now has been held as an article of faith by US politicians and much of the media. That is, the notion that Iran has been pursuing an open weapons program via its uranium-enrichment and reprocessing activities.

Casting heavy doubt on that flawed theory or "truth paradigm" [1], the new NIE simultaneously recycles the previous reports's air of certainty and lack of minutest doubt and presents its new findings, which are in stark contrast, if not flagrant contradiction, to the previous report's. Such intelligence flip-flops on Iran simply reduce the credibility of any information on that country from Washington and raise international doubts about its real intentions.

Thus, given the credibility gaps in US information on Iran, the real question is whether or not the new report actually helps or harms the US's bid to escalate sanctions on Iran? This is an important question since reports indicate strong reservations on the part of China and Russia to go along with further sanctions imposed either unilaterally or multilaterally.

To open a caveat, former US national security advisor, Zbingnew Brzezinski, has written an article in the US media claiming that China, depicted as a "geopolitically status-quo power", is inclined to come on board more sanctions and even the "revisionist" Russians can be persuaded with the right "patient diplomacy".

Brzezinski does not mention the China-Russia alliance within the anti-North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which has accorded Iran observer status, conveniently relying on a caricature of China's evolving global power projections and intentions.

Cultivating partners against Iran by benign analyses or dubious intelligence reports will not cut it and the US is today in dire need of a serious rethinking of its long-term policies and intentions in the Middle East, nowadays featuring a "rising Iran".

In the absence of such a rethinking, the unrealistic expectation of "zero centrifuges" will persist. Instead, the US could contemplate the utility of an alternative, coercion-free Iran diplomacy centered on shared and parallel interests with the US, that is, both nations' vested interest in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries' oil flowing from the Persian Gulf to the international market, as well as on an internationally monitored Iranian nuclear program. In other words, it is time for "realism, not idealism" in the US's policy regarding Iran's nuclear program. [2]

To open another caveat, this author's past exposure to Iran's nuclear decision-makers, particularly in 2004 and 2005, leaves no doubt the new US report's claim that Iran "halted" certain nuclear activities due to external pressure should be taken with a grain of salt. This is in view of the fact that all exhaustive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)inspections have produced no such conclusions and, on the contrary, have actually reinforced the Iranian claim that Iran has never diverted to military development.

The various programs that Iran halted in 2004-2005, as a result of intense negotiations with the European troika of Germany, France and Britain, were "voluntary, non-legally binding" confidence-building measures, and not any illicit, military activities, such as those alluded to in the US's new intelligence report. If the latter were true, then the world community needs to know what specific activities were involved and why the US has until now failed to share them, for example, with the IAEA. After all, IAEA chief Mohamad ElBaradei has been quite forthcoming in his latest press interviews regarding the lack of any knowledge of Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

What is troubling about the new NIE is that top US intelligence officials have been going on record, for instance in their congressional testimony, promising no repetition of past errors put on full display with respect to Iraq, no "cherry picking" intelligence on Iran, and even threatening to resign if selective intelligence were to be misused for military adventures against Iran.

With the US intelligence community on the defensive since the post-Iraq-invasion revelations still plaguing the George W Bush administration, the latter may have managed a mini-coup with the intelligence community by procuring a new report that confirms an Iranian nuclear weapons program, albeit one that it claims has been "halted".

If complemented by a follow-up report that Iran is now poised to change course and resurrect its halted activities, then theoretically speaking, that gives ample justification for Washington's planned "pre-emptive strikes" on Iran, not to mention added sanctions. Yet, even short of such a follow-up, the present state of mind on Iran fueled by the new intelligence report is sufficiently paranoid to warrant tough new actions against Tehran.

But, does this new report really represent an improvement in the US's intelligence on Iran? Or is it the same attitude that continuously falls shy of acknowledging Iran's legitimate nuclear rights, and needs for peaceful purposes, and the viability of existing mechanisms, for verification, by the IAEA, not to mention the proposed additional "objective guarantees" that Iran has put on the table?

This aside, the US has for now taken a qualitative step away from the military option by releasing this new report that states unequivocally an Iranian freeze on its proliferation impulse, while simultaneously giving that military option a new lease of life by the related allegation of past proliferation activities.

On the whole however, this puts the US behavior with regard to Iran in a thick cloud of uncertainty, let alone credibility gap, with the pendulum capable of swinging in wildly different directions almost at will. The bottom line, thanks to its vast cadre of intelligence "alchemists" is that the US and its even more gullible politicians, has now pre-positioned itself for yet another disastrous gambit in the volatile Middle East.

The temporary freeze on the military option by the new intelligence report has nested within it its exact opposite, and may be calculated as part and parcel of a roundabout way of dealing with Iran's "nuclear menace". This is, indeed, a menacing development.


1. Debunking the Iran nuclear mythmakers Asia Times Online, January 25, 2007 and Iran, nuclear challenges The Iranian Journal Of International Affaris, Spring, 2007.
2. Realism, not idealism, Harvard International Review, May 2007.


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