The latest National Intelligence Estimate, the compilation of assessments from the 16 US public intelligence agencies, includes the surprising assertion that Iran’s nuclear program has been effectively dormant since 2003.
Stratfor, a geopolitical risk consulting firm that relies on professional-intelligence “word on the street” and efficient use of open source information (which btw, for the money, is by far the most insightful, current analysis of political risk around the world, especially re: Iraq), has interpreted this to mean that American-Iranian negotiations have turned a corner. As I have argued in recent posts, I believe recent events contradict Stratfor’s interpretation. Stratfor appears to be making the same misjudgments it made in the run-up to the Petraeus report on September 7, 2007.
Many people hold the intuitive, but completely false, presumption that US intelligence agencies are unblinkingly loyal servants of the President. The CIA, and some other segments of the intel community, have actively undermined Bush since the run-up to the 2004 elections. However, with the near-treasonous (and still anonymous) leaking of the SWIFT program to the NYT in the summer of 2006, at least a minority within the intelligence community dramatically escalated their opposition to Bush.
George Friedman, Stratfor’s CEO, was quick to note the significance of that event. But the degree of open rebellion on the part of US intel agencies did not seem to make a lasting impression on him.
[October 03 2006] Now, this may not be a fair perception. We are not in the White House and do not know what is going on there. But this is now the perception, and that fact must be entered into the equation. True or not, and fair or not, the president appears to be denying what the intelligence communities are saying and what some of his closest advisers have argued, and it appears that this has been going on for a long time. …
[August 24 2007] A new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq was issued Thursday. It made grim reading. …
The strategy of the United States has been to use its forces to create a security environment in which a stable, pro-American government could be created in Baghdad and assume the responsibility for internal security using Iraqi forces under its command. The NIE is essentially stating that that strategy has been a failure. …
It is hard to imagine that the much-awaited report from Gen. David Petraeus, scheduled to be released Sept. 15, is going to read much different. If it does, it will create an interesting situation in which the military and the intelligence community are deeply split. …
[August 30 2007] Between leaks and already released National Intelligence Estimate reports, it is clear the surge has failed to achieve meaningful changes in the military situation on the ground.
… On Sept. 15, Petraeus will present his assessment of the surge’s progress to the U.S. Congress. All political developments in Iraq and the United States for the past several months have been building to this moment, and the report will be influential. It will not, however, be a surprise. Between leaks and already released National Intelligence Estimate reports, it is clear the surge has failed to achieve meaningful changes in the military situation on the ground.
In approximately two weeks, the U.S. military and intelligence community will be in public agreement that the Bush strategy has failed and is irrecoverable. That means that very soon the Bush administration will need to face down an emboldened and hostile Congress flirting with stripping away some presidential powers, an angry and disaffected public tired of the war, a force structure in Iraq that is telling Bush that things must change, and an Iran champing at the bit to pick up whatever pieces the Bush administration drops.
As things turned out, Petraeus did contradict the leaked segments of the 2007 NIE. Stratfor’s prediction, though well reasoned, was incorrect.
Fast forward to today:
There is speculation arising that the latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report stating that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003 is part of a campaign launched by individuals in the U.S. intelligence community to sabotage … Bush in dealing with Iran.
Such an incendiary action would only take place if the Bush administration were seriously planning military action against Iran. …
However, Stratfor highly doubts this to be the case … Instead, the release of the NIE is more likely linked to the larger negotiations taking place between Iran and the United States.
Such an action would hardly be “incendiary” by the standards of the intelligence community. The intelligence community’s unhappiness with Bush’s foreign policy is no secret, and their previous NIE, in retrospect, was an attempt to alter the trajectory of Bush’s Middle East policy. Moreover, the spate of assassinated Iranian scientists, culminating with the Mossad assassination of Ardeshir Hosseinpour (a story first confirmed by Stratfor), combined with the Israeli bombing of Syria–Iran’s main Mideastern ally–on Sept. 6, 2007, and other activities by Iran’s Gulf neighbors, all argue that Iran’s neighbors take the possibility of Iranian regional hegemony much more seriously than America’s politicized intelligence establishment does.
Additionally, the judgment that Iran has a fully operational nuclear program is not some kind of right-wing fringe idea. We are living in truly bizarre times when when France’s Foreign Minister (a capital-S Socialist) favors sanctions on Iran over its nukes, the Guardian and the United Nations both take an Iranian nuclear program very seriously–whereas the US intelligence establishment says it’s been dead for 4 years. [*] As the Guardian says:
Iran has installed 3,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium – enough to begin industrial-scale production of nuclear fuel and build a warhead within a year, the UN’s nuclear watchdog reported last night.
The report by Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), will intensify US and European pressure for tighter sanctions and increase speculation of a potential military conflict.
The installation of 3,000 fully-functioning centrifuges at Iran’s enrichment plant at Natanz is a “red line” drawn by the US across which Washington had said it would not let Iran pass. When spinning at full speed they are capable of producing sufficient weapons-grade uranium (enriched to over 90% purity) for a nuclear weapon within a year.
And US intel says there has been no Iranian nuclear program for 4 years? That even contradicts what they themselves said in 2005.
Even if the NIE’s latest declaration (that Iran stopped its nuke program in 2003) is true, it strips Bush of crucial leverage–a realistic avenue towards marketing a war–in his dealings with Iran. The United States is not as worried about Iranian nukes, but Iranian fingerprints are all over most of the violence in Iraq. Any effort to market retaliatory strikes on Iran to the public would center around Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons, rather than merely accusing Iraq of supplying Iraqi insurgents. Thus, even if the NIE’s statement is sincere (I don’t believe it is), there is no reason to say so yet, unless 1) US and Iran have already reached behind-the-scenes accommodations (what Stratfor thinks); or 2) the intelligence establishment were genuinely fearful of the possibility of a Bush escalation.
Considering that once US intelligence spikes the possibility of public support for an escalation, Bush loses his best card, one would think that a declaration of this sort would come only after public, concrete steps to wind down hostilities. Considering that the Europeans are puzzled at what a ‘disaster’ their most recent talks were, Ahmadinejad has consolidated political control, and Russia is as strong as ever, such a move on the part of the US government would seem highly premature. At the same time, NIE politicization at Bush’s expense is a time-honored tradition of the US intel establishment.
As for the notion that “the costs would be too high” if America bombed Iran, it all depends on the time horizon one chooses. If Ahmadinejad is seen as in unalterable control over Iran, over a long time horizon, the United States must either take the battle to Iran or concede Iraq.
Additionally, there was a huge spate of leaks, such as this one, to UK media in February-March 2007 (around the beginning of the surge, coincident with the assassinations and assorted intrigue) suggesting that British generals were violently opposed to a planned American escalation of the war (granted, it could well have been to psych Iran out). And Ahmadinejad’s kidnapping of 15 UK sailors (remember that?). And the March 6, 2007, defection of Iranian Deputy Defense Minister Ali Reza Askari to either Israel or the United States.
Also note that the UK forces were wound down rapidly, with a glaring “no comment” from the Americans, beginning after the return of the UK hostages.
The only window to success in Iraq is through bombing Iran. I believe the aggregate of open-source evidence indicates a powerful unanimity within the Pentagon, on the one hand, for escalating the war to include overt airstrikes on Iran, and antiwar unanimity on the other hand among the US intel community. I believe that the latest NIE is a more unanimous effort by the US intelligence community to sabotage the potential marketing of a war with Iran, and thus sabotage Bush.
Btw, it’s telling that about 15 minutes after Stratfor posted its initial “NIE suggests imminent detente with Iran” interpretation, they felt compelled to note speculation that the effort was aimed at undermining Bush, and as such indicated nothing about “larger US-Iran negotiations” at all. I’m not alone out in left field with that hypothesis.
[*] Potentially incendiary news to the American public, e.g., implying that Iran has WMD that must be taken out (and thus war is coming), has a funny habit of being leaked in UK media before being published in American publications… which is one reason why I pay a lot more attention to UK media than US media.
Update: This makes the oil trajectory completely uncertain. I wasted enough time watching DC to know a strategic leak by a hostile bureaucracy to stall policy movement when I see one.
In previous instances, President Bush simply ignored the NIE. In 2005, when the NIE implied that Iran was the only country with WMD potential (though it was 5 years or so off–thus insinuating that Bush had bumbled into the wrong country in his WMD search), Bush shrugged it off, and nothing happened. In 2006, the NIE leaked 6 weeks before the midterm election said that Iraq was a failure, and it had made terrorism worse. Then, kind of hilariously, Bush lost the election–but acted as if he had just woken up from a coma a couple of days after the election was over, and ratcheted up the pressure on Iran still more, via the surge.
This time, it’s going to be a tougher sell, just because as Bush’s time horizon in office is diminishing, so too is the bureaucracy’s willingness to obey him. However, on the other hand–and this is an extremely subjective call on my part–the intelligence agencies have been badly discredited through all this, and the Pentagon wants a war very badly anyway, so perhaps Bush will be able to steamroll this one just as he has the previous NIEs.