The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The spies who loved NIE

This is just plain bizarre. Where has this report been for the last two years?

WASHINGTON, Dec. 3 — Rarely, if ever, has a single intelligence report so completely, so suddenly, and so surprisingly altered a foreign policy debate here.
An administration that had cited Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons as the rationale for an aggressive foreign policy — as an attempt to head off World War III, as President Bush himself put it only weeks ago — now has in its hands a classified document that undercuts much of the foundation for that approach.
The impact of the National Intelligence Estimate’s conclusion — that Iran had halted a military program in 2003, though it continues to enrich uranium, ostensibly for peaceful uses — will be felt in endless ways at home and abroad.
It will certainly weaken international support for tougher sanctions against Iran, as a senior administration official grudgingly acknowledged. And it will raise questions, again, about the integrity of America’s beleaguered intelligence agencies, including whether what are now acknowledged to have been overstatements about Iran’s intentions in a 2005 assessment reflected poor tradecraft or political pressure.

[From An Assessment Jars a Foreign Policy Debate About Iran - New York Times]

Scott Horton has links to a summary of the full report, which essentially says:

• We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons. We judge with high confidence that the halt, and Tehran’s announcement of its decision to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program and sign an Additional Protocol to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement, was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.

• We continue to assess with low confidence that Iran probably has imported at least some weapons-usable fissile material, but still judge with moderate-to-high confidence it has not obtained enough for a nuclear weapon. We cannot rule out that Iran has acquired from abroad—or will acquire in the future—a nuclear weapon or enough fissile material for a weapon. Barring such acquisitions, if Iran wants to have nuclear weapons it would need to produce sufficient amounts of fissile material indigenously—which we judge with high confidence it has not yet done.

Of course that won't stop the people at Warmongers Inc. (i.e. WINEP, that research center of the Israeli Ministry of Defense, just look at who wrote that report) to continue talking about how exactly they should be bombing Iran.

But it does raise some pretty big issues about why the Bush administration has exaggerated the threat that Iran's nuclear program, why this year's NIE contradicts previous ones, and how much this change of mind is politics rather than pure tradecraft and new information. The most likely source of new information for the American intelligence agencies would be the alleged Iranian defector believed to have been either selling intelligence to Western agencies for several years or to have more recently been turned. Remember this story from this Spring? It was hard to trust at the time, since it came out in the Sunday Times (that favorite clearinghouse for Mossad disinformation) and various Israeli newspapers.

Either way some might take it as a sign that the US intelligence community was either (1) scared into being extremely cautious after the Bush administration tried to blame it for missing the boat on Iraq, (2) going on the offensive against the Bush administration's clear desire to sanction or bomb Iran as a form of revenge against being bullied about for the last seven year because they now face a discredited lame-duck president, or (3) both. Although now may now be a time to commend them for agreeing with the assessment of other intelligence agencies and of the IAEA (by the way: how about an apology to Mohamed Baradei?), in the end no matter which way you look at it they (the spy community) come out looking pretty bad. It's going to take them a while to recover from the lack of trustworthiness demonstrated in the whole Iraq WMD fiasco.

I am now looking forward to seeing some of the wingnut commentary about how the people who wrote NIE are a bunch of appeasers, traitors and anti-semites. And, just maybe, a new policy towards Iran not designed to bring the Persian Gulf to the brink of apocalypse and that gives ordinary Iranians more, not less, access to the outside world. That's the lesson to be learned from over a decade of sanctions against Iraq that destroyed that country's civic fabric and, with the occupation, led to the present sorry state of affairs.