New Grist for Hype on Iran

by , February 23, 2010

Here we go again. A report issued Thursday by the new director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Japanese diplomat Yukiya Amano, has injected new adrenaline into those arguing that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon.

The usual suspects are hyping – and distorting – thin-gruel language in the report to “prove” that Iran is hard at work on a nuclear weapon. The New York Times’ David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, for example, highlighted a sentence about “alleged activities related to nuclear explosives,” which Amano says he wants to discuss with Iran.

Amano’s report said, “Addressing these issues is important for clarifying the Agency’s concerns about these activities and those described above, which seem to have continued beyond 2004.”

Sanger and Broad play up the “beyond 2004″ language as “contradicting the American intelligence assessment … that concluded that work on a bomb was suspended at the end of 2003.” Other media have picked that up and run with it, apparently without bothering to read the IAEA report itself.

The Times article is, at best, disingenuous in claiming that “The report cited new evidence, much of it collected in recent weeks, that appeared to paint a picture of a concerted drive in Iran toward a weapons capability.”

As far as I can tell, the “new evidence” consists of the same-old, same-old allegations and inferences already reported in the open press – material that failed to convince the director of intelligence, Dennis Blair, to depart from previous assessments during his congressional testimony on Feb. 2. Rather, he adhered closely to the unanimous conclusions of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies expressed in the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of November 2007.

So what’s new? The director-general of the IAEA, for one thing.

Yukiya Amano found huge shoes to fill when he took over from the widely respected Mohamed ElBaradei on Dec. 1, 2009. ElBaradei had the courage to call a spade a spade and, when necessary, a forgery a forgery – like the documents alleging that Iraq had sought yellowcake uranium in Niger.

ElBaradei took a perverse – if diplomatic – delight in giving the lie to spurious allegations and became persona non grata to the Bush/Cheney administration. So much so that, in an unsuccessful campaign to deny him a third four-year term as director-general, the administration called in many diplomatic chits in 2005 – the same year ElBaradei won the Nobel Peace Prize.

In addition to a strong spine, ElBaradei had credentials that would simply not quit. His extensive diplomatic experience, together with a Ph.D. in international law from New York University, gave him a gravitas that enabled him to lead the IAEA effectively.

Gravitas Needed

Lacking gravitas, one bends more easily. It is a fair assumption that Amano will prove more malleable than his predecessor – and surely more naïve. How he handles the controversy generated by Thursday’s report should show whether he means to follow ElBaradei’s example or the more customary “flexible” example so common among UN bureaucrats.

Press reports over the past few days – as well as past experience – strongly suggest that the “new evidence” cited by the Times may have comes from the usual suspects – agenda-laden sources, like Israeli intelligence.

On Saturday, the Jerusalem Post quoted the Israeli government as saying the IAEA report “establishes that the agency has a lot of trustworthy information about the past and present activities that testify to the military tendencies of the Iranian program.” The newspaper cited the IAEA report as suggesting that “Teheran had either resumed such work [on a nuclear weapon] or had never stopped when U.S. intelligence said it did.”

Perhaps the Jerusalem Post should have stopped there. Rather, in a highly suggestive sentence, it went on to suggest that “intelligence supplied by the U.S., Israel, and other IAEA member states on Iran’s attempts to use the cover of a civilian nuclear program to move toward a weapons program was compelling.”

Compelling? Not so much. It beggars belief that Israel would withhold such “intelligence” from the U.S. And judging from the congressional testimony of National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair on Feb. 2, the U.S. intelligence community sees the evidence as neither new nor compelling.

The analysis and judgments of the November 2007 NIE were a product of the original ethos of CIA’s intelligence directorate where the premium was on speaking without fear or favor – speaking truth to power. That NIE was like a breath of fresh air for those of us aware of the importance of that kind of integrity. Some of us proudly bear the retaliatory scars from administration officials, pundits, and academics pushing agenda-shaped, alternative analyses.

The supreme indignity was former CIA Director George Tenet’s tenet that intelligence should be cooked to order – as was done in the September 2002 NIE regarding WMD in Iraq. That was, pure and simple, prostitution of our profession, and not very different from what John Yoo and his lawyer accomplices did to the legal profession in finding waterboarding and other acts of torture not torture.

An Honest Estimate

After a bottom-up investigation of all evidence on Iran’s nuclear activities and plans, the November 2007 NIE boldly contradicted what President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and their Israeli counterparts had been claiming about the imminence of a nuclear threat from Iran.

Happily, courage was not limited to Tom Fingar, then chair of the National Intelligence Council, and those working under his supervision on the NIE. The most senior U.S. military officers took the unusual step of insisting that the essence of the NIE’s key judgments be made public.

They calculated, correctly, that this would put a spike in the wheels of the juggernaut then rolling toward a fresh disaster – war with Iran. Recall that Adm. William Fallon, who became CENTCOM commander in March 2007, leaked to the press that there would be no attack on Iran “on my watch.”

Fallon was fired in March 2008. While not as outspoken as Fallon, his senior military colleagues shared his disdain for the dangerously simplistic views of Bush and Cheney on the use of military power.

Among a handful of "key judgments" of the November 2007 NIE were these:

  • “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 assess with moderate confidence Tehran has not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.”

But that was more than two years ago, you say. What about now?

February 2010

In formal testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Feb. 2, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair wore out the subjunctive mood in addressing Iran’s possible plans for a nuclear weapon. His paragraphs were replete with dependent clauses, virtually all of them beginning with “if.”

Blair repeated verbatim the 2007 judgment that Iran is “keeping the option open to develop nuclear weapons,” and repeated the intelligence community’s agnosticism on the $64 question: “We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”

Addressing the uranium enrichment plant at Qom, Blair pointed out that its small size and location under a mountain “fit nicely with a strategy of keeping the option open to build a nuclear weapon at some future date, if Tehran ever decides to do that.”

Such “advancements lead us to affirm our judgment from the 2007 NIE that Iran is technically capable of producing enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon in the next few years, if it chooses to do so.”

Notably absent from Blair’s testimony was the first “high confidence” judgment of the 2007 NIE that “in fall 2003 Iran halted its nuclear weapons program,” and the “moderate confidence” assessment that Iran had not restarted it.

These were the most controversial judgments in 2007. Blair did not disavow them; he just didn’t mention them – probably in an attempt to let sleeping dogs lie. Less likely, Blair may have chosen to sequester for closed session any discussion of “recent evidence” bearing on these key judgments. It is likely that Blair was aware of the doubts that would be raised by Amano’s IAEA report just two weeks later.

Spreading Confusion

As if the considered judgments of the intelligence community had no weight, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice was quick to cite the IAEA report to charge that Iran is pursuing “a nuclear weapons program with the purpose of evasion.” Presumably, she was merely repeating the talking points given to her boss a week ago on her way to the Middle East.

Speaking a week ago in Qatar, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed her deep concern at “accumulating evidence” that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon – as though deterrence is a thing of the past. On the question of what kind of threat the “accumulating evidence” poses to the U.S., Clinton inadvertently spilled the beans.

The evidence is deeply concerning, she said, not because it “directly threatens the United States, but it directly threatens a lot of our friends” – read Israel. Recall that Clinton is on record saying the she would “obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel with a nuclear weapon. It is de rigueur never to mention the 200-300 nuclear weapons already in Israel’s arsenal.

Greg Thielmann, senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, notes that it would be far better if the U.S. would stress that Iran’s right to uranium enrichment, consistent with Non-Proliferation Treaty Article IV, is contingent on Iran’s adherence to the treaty’s Articles I, II, and III.

Thielmann notes that Iran has no inherent right to uranium enrichment while it is violating its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA.  Yet this point is being lost by the West’s unqualified emphasis on the demand that uranium enrichment be suspended and by inconsistent U.S. statements about Iran’s intention to develop nuclear weapons.  Consequently, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can posture that the West is just trying to keep Iran down and deny it the rights guaranteed under the NPT.

Déjà Iraq All Over Again

On June 5, 2008, then-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Jay Rockefeller made some remarkable comments that got sparse attention in the Fawning Corporate Media in the United States. Announcing the findings of a bipartisan report of a multi-year study on misstatements on prewar intelligence on Iraq, Rockefeller said, “In making the case for war, the administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even nonexistent.  As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed.”

For God’s sake, spare us such “intelligence” on Iran.

Read more by Ray McGovern