The intelligence on Afghanistan that Obama refuses to reveal

Steve Coll writes: In late 2008, the United States intelligence community produced a classified National Intelligence Estimate on the war in Afghanistan that has never been released to the public. The N.I.E. described a “grim situation” overall, according to an intelligence officer’s private briefing for NATO ambassadors.

In late 2010, there was another N.I.E. on the war. This one painted a “gloomy picture,” warning that “large swaths of Afghanistan are still at risk of falling to the Taliban,” the Los Angeles Times reported. This N.I.E., too, has never been published.

This autumn, intelligence analysts have again been poring over their secret district-by-district maps of Afghanistan, finding and assessing patterns. A new N.I.E. on Afghanistan is just about finished, people familiar with the latest draft told me this week. This one looks forward to 2014, when President Obama has said U.S. troops will be reduced to a minimal number, and Afghan security forces will take the lead in the war.

The new draft Afghanistan N.I.E. is a lengthy document, running about a hundred pages or more. As is typically the case, it is a synthesis, primarily written by civilian intelligence analysts—career civil servants, mainly—who work in sixteen different intelligence agencies. These days, an Estimate usually contains “Key Judgments” backed by analysis near the front of the document. There are six such judgments in the Afghanistan draft, I was told. I wasn’t able to learn what all of them were; according to the accounts I heard, however, the draft on the whole is gloomier than the typical public statements made by U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan.

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Iran postulates first nuclear test

Jamsheed K. Choksy writes:

Media outlets and blogs in Israel, England, and the U.S. have responded with considerable incredulity to claims by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of sanguine reactions if Iran tests an atom bomb.

The IRGC’s scenario underscores an unfortunate reality, however. After years of hollow threats, politicians and generals in the U.S., E.U., and Israel likely will adapt to the mullahs obtaining a nuclear weapon. World stock markets would follow their lead and recover from initial tumbles. Crude oil and natural gas prices may surge for a while but will fall back down. Arab countries relying on petroleum revenues to stay afloat and Western ones needing a steady flow of energy to power their societies are likely to back away from challenging Iran.

In February 2011 a new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate maintained an earlier conclusion that Iran’s leadership had not yet made the decision to assemble nuclear weapons. Indeed, until now, Iran has gone back and forth with the West at the negotiating table. The Revolutionary Guards’ statement seeks to break the deadlock by suggesting Iran’s policymakers should not fear domestic and foreign consequences of crossing the nuclear breakout threshold.

There is history in Iran for such media-based nuclear maneuvers. The Islamic Republic recommenced its atomic program, originally begun by the last shah, after suffering Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons attacks during the 1980s. But even then only concerted pressure persuaded its first Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. A major turning point occurred in October 1988 when a speech by Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then speaker of Iran’s parliament, recommending atom bombs was published by the IRGC.

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Why sanctions against Iran won’t work

Reza Marashi writes:

To the surprise of few, new Iran sanctions legislation was recently introduced in the House and Senate, shortly before this year’s AIPAC conference commenced. In what has become a game of domestic political one-upsmanship, some members of Congress are now supporting Iran-related legislation that would effectively seek to impose an oil embargo on the Islamic Republic — irrespective of the economic costs to the U.S. or the humanitarian costs to the Iranian people — and reduce President Obama’s waiver authority on sanctions that run counter to U.S. national interests (read: China).

Ostensibly, sanctions are devised as a multi-level (unilateral and multilateral) strategy to sharpen Iran’s choices, and build tough-minded international recognition of Iran’s failure to adhere to its international obligations. In practice, political constraints at home and abroad inhibit America’s ability to move beyond tactics centered on sanctions, and instead toward a strategy that deconstructs the U.S.-Iran institutionalized enmity through sustained diplomacy. Sanctions are a tool that American policymakers know — they know how to add them, change them, intensify them, push them through Congress, and negotiate them bilaterally and at the U.N. Lesser known is how Iran perceives this paradigm that seemingly traps U.S. policy. Indeed, the logic of some in Congress (and the Obama administration) regarding what sanctions can achieve is largely misguided.

For decision-makers in Tehran, the heart of the matter is how they perceive that the West will (and will not) react to its foreign policy posturing in general and the nuclear question in particular. The Iranian narrative can be summarized as follows: Former President Mohammad Khatami’s détente failed, so Iran must now deal with the West from a position of strength. To that end, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assumed the presidency in 2005, the Islamic Republic analyzed the finite scenarios surrounding the nuclear impasse, observed the inherent limitations of sanctions as panacea and perceived a reasonable degree of strategic flexibility over the short to medium term.

Daniel Luban writes:

Seymour Hersh’s new piece in the New Yorker has generated a fair amount of buzz, so much so that Iran hawks have quickly leaped into action to try to discredit it. Virtually none of the criticism of Hersh’s piece has actually addressed the substance of his article, however, and since the article is subscription-only, it’s possible that not many people have actually gotten a chance to read it. It may therefore be worthwhile simply to spell out what Hersh’s piece actually says.

By far the most significant revelation in the piece concerns the recently-completed 2011 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). NIEs represent the consensus judgments of the 16 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community, and as such their findings frequently have major political ramifications. The 2007 NIE was particularly important (and contested), for it concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and found no evidence that the program had resumed.

Predictably, the 2007 NIE elicited howls of outrage from hawks who have been pushing military action against Tehran, and in the years since they have constantly attempted to discredit it. It’s worth making clear, however, just what the NIE did and didn’t say. It found no evidence of an active Iranian nuclear weapons program — that is, a nuclear program with elements that had no conceivable civilian uses (e.g., nuclear warhead design). The NIE never claimed that Iran had halted its nuclear program entirely, only that none of the nuclear program’s projects were unambiguously military in scope. Thus, to point to the fact that Iran continues to enrich uranium as evidence that the 2007 NIE has been discredited, as the Iran hawks have frequently tried to do, simply misses the point; the NIE did not suggest that Iran had stopped enriching uranium.

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Israeli attack on Iran not imminent

If there was a ministry of information it would release reports like this: “US Assures Israel That Iran Threat Is Not Imminent.” But why would Washington need to create such an agency when the New York Times so gladly provides the service?

In a report transparently written as a quasi-official response to Jeffrey Goldberg’s “The Point of No Return,” we learn that contrary to all the feverish speculation about an imminent strike on Iran, it turns out everything’s cool.

And maybe it is — though the Times’ Mazzetti and Sanger could do more credible reporting if they made an effort not to sound like a mouthpiece for the administration.

The one priceless quote in their article comes from Gary Samore, President Obama’s top adviser on nuclear issues, who when referring to an anticipated one year “dash time” that the Iranians would need to convert nuclear material into a working weapon, said: “A year is a very long period of time.”

Israeli officials said their assessments were coming into line with the American view, but they remain suspicious that Iran has a secret enrichment site yet to be discovered.

American officials said, in contrast to a year ago, that Iran’s nuclear program was not currently the central focus of discussions between top leaders in Washington and Jerusalem. During the last visit to Washington by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in early July, the Iranian program was relatively low on the agenda, according to one senior administration official.

The next time Netanyahu takes questions from the press, maybe someone can ask him whether he agrees with the White House’s assessment about the nature of time and that a year is indeed a very long period.

Another issue the article touches upon is the breakout capacity for the long-delayed National Intelligence Estimate. Since the White House seems eager to say what the NIE will say even before its been released, can we interpret this as an effort to shape the report that is itself supposed to shape the administration’s policy?

Finally, just to be sure that the Israel lobby does not become too despondent when they hear another war might not be just around the corner (despite their best efforts), the article closes by saying:

Even as American and Israeli officials agree that the date that Iran is likely to have a nuclear weapon has been pushed into the future, that does not mean that Israel has abandoned the idea of a possible military strike.

American officials said that Israel was particularly concerned that, over time, Iran’s supreme leader could order that nuclear materials be dispersed to secret locations around the country, making it less likely that an Israeli military strike would significantly cripple the program.

So have no fear — the option of a strike is still on the table, or to be precise, at some indeterminate point in the future there might be a strike and it could happen sooner rather than later because at some point (future or past) the Iranians could hide everything and maybe they already have secret facilities in which case the opportunity to destroy them has already past. Clear?

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Israel’s indispensable enemies

The brutality with which the Iranian authorities have suppressed political dissent since last June’s disputed presidential election has been widely reported. The Washington Post now reveals that the political turmoil has had another effect: it has resulted in a new supply of intelligence as disaffected officials leak information about Iran’s nuclear program.

As a result, a National Intelligence Estimate being prepared for President Obama which was due out last fall is not expected to be completed until August.

The revisions to the NIE underscore the pressure on the U.S. intelligence community to produce an accurate assessment of Iran’s nuclear ambitions as President Obama pursues a policy aimed at preventing the country from acquiring an atomic bomb. The community’s 2007 assessment presented the startling conclusion that Iran had halted its work on developing a nuclear warhead, provoking enduring criticism that the report had underestimated the Iranian threat.

Officials briefed on the new version, which is technically being called a “memo to holders” of the first, say it will take a harder tone. One official who has seen a draft said that the study asserts that Iran is making steady progress toward nuclear weapons capability but that it stops short of concluding that the Islamic republic’s top leaders have decided to build and test a nuclear device.

There is little question that Iran sees strategic value in making its nuclear intentions hard to decipher, but let’s for the sake of argument assume that its goal is to put itself in the same position as Japan: not to assemble a nuclear arsenal but to have the means to do so at short notice. Could such a capability pose an existential threat to Israel (or anyone else)?

Israeli leaders have already made it clear that they draw no distinction between a nuclear armed Iran and an Iran that has nuclear weapons capability, yet this may say less about the nature of an Iranian threat than it does about the nature of Zionism. Deprive Israel of its existential threats, and the necessity for a Jewish state becomes less imperative. Take away the fear of annihilation and Jewish identity will lose one of its most unifying attributes.

Israel might fear its enemies, yet can it survive without them?

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NEWS & OPINION: Bush’s effort to undermine the NIE

Artificial intelligence

President George W. Bush hasn’t accomplished much on his voyage to the Middle East, but he did take the time to inflict another wound on the entire U.S. intelligence community—and on the credibility of anything he might ever again say about the world.

In the latest Newsweek, Michael Hirsh reports that, during a private conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Bush “all but disowned” the agencies’ Dec. 3 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. A “senior administration official who accompanied Bush” on the trip confided to Hirsh that Bush “told the Israelis that he can’t control what the intelligence community says, but that [the NIE's] conclusions don’t reflect his own views.” [complete article]

In Iran reversal, bureaucrats
triumphed over Cheney team

Senior officials at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the umbrella organization that coordinates the U.S.’s 16 spy agencies and that oversaw the report, say payback wasn’t a factor. They defend the report as a righting of the ship after the Iraq intelligence failures.

Hundreds of officials were involved and thousands of documents were drawn upon in this report, according to the DNI, making it impossible for any official to overly sway it. Intelligence sources were vetted and questioned in ways they weren’t ahead of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Thomas Fingar, 62 years old, is one of the lead architects of the Iran report. A veteran State Department official, Mr. Fingar helped lead the office that argued in 2002 that evidence of Iraq’s nuclear program was faulty. He is now a senior official at the DNI.

Of the backlash against the report, Mr. Fingar says, “A lot of it is just nonsense. The idea that this thing was written by a bunch of nonprofessional renegades or refugees is just silly.” [complete article]

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NEWS: Israel’s new intelligence estimate – mixed threats

Exclusive: Annual Israeli Intelligence Estimate

Deep pessimism alongside cautious optimism- those are the two key principles that emerge from this year’s Annual Israeli Intelligence Estimate. The report will be presented to the security cabinet in several days time by IDF Intelligence Chief Major-General Amos Yadlin, but the highlights are here for you now in a Ynet exclusive report.

The aforementioned pessimism concerns Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The American National Intelligence Estimate “dropped quite a bomb” on Israel’s struggle against Iran’s nuclear program, said officials within Israel’s defense establishment. The US report only diminishes the likelihood that the international community will impose harsh, effective sanctions on Iran and also that the US itself will strike Iranian nuclear facilities.

“It is clear to us now that no one will do the work for us,” one of the report’s authors told Ynet, Israel can now rely solely on its own military capabilities, if and when the Iranian nuclear program achieves its aims.

The differences of opinion among the Israeli and American intelligence communities stem from different methodologies for analyzing raw data. Washington and Jerusalem are in almost total agreement regarding the known facts, as the two supply each other with whatever information they posses. [complete article]

Israel: US Iran report may spark war

Israel’s public security minister warned Saturday that a U.S. intelligence report that said Iran is no longer developing nuclear arms could lead to a regional war that would threaten the Jewish state.

In his remarks — Israel’s harshest criticism yet of the U.S. report — Avi Dichter said the assessment also cast doubt on American intelligence in general, including information about Palestinian security forces’ crackdown on militant groups. The Palestinian action is required as part of a U.S.-backed renewal of peace talks with Israel this month.

Dichter cautioned that a refusal to recognize Iran’s intentions to build weapons of mass destruction could lead to armed conflict in the Middle East. [complete article]

Israeli envoys to U.S. to argue Iran still aiming for nuclear bomb

Israel has dispatched an unscheduled delegation of intelligence officials to the U.S. to try to convince it that Iran is still trying to develop nuclear weapon – contrary to the findings of a recent U.S. intelligence report, security officials say.

The delegation, which set off last week on its unscheduled mission, will wind up its visit this week, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.

It was not clear what type of material the Israeli delegation – for the most part military intelligence officers – presented to U.S. officials.

“The U.S. and Israel will also hold additional joint formal meetings on the matter in coming weeks,” the Israeli officials said. “Israel will use these forums to try to persuade the Americans that Iran is trying to development nuclear weapons, and intends to present information classified as top secret for security reasons,” the officials said. [complete article]

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NEWS: Israeli official: U.S. is not doing enough on Iran nukes

Israeli official: U.S. is not doing enough on Iran nukes

A senior Israeli official has fiercely criticized U.S. President George Bush’s administration for the way it has dealt with the Iranian nuclear issue.

The official said that the administration was not doing what was required of it to create an international coalition and wide agreement to pressure Iran over its nuclear program.

Criticism from senior members of Israel’s political echelon with regard to U.S. policy on the matter is rare. The official mainly spoke out against Bush’s failure to enlist support from China, Russia and, to a certain extent, India, for increasing pressure on Iran and North Korea. [complete article]

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FEATURE: Intelligence reform

Nine little words in the NIE

Intelligence stories rarely get more complicated than this one. But this much is clear: Bush is the nation’s chief classification officer; he can make and unmake secrets at will. The White House says the president was briefed on the findings in the nearly 140-page report on Nov. 29, but the chief subject of that meeting was probably the question of declassification — whether to send the secret National Intelligence Estimate with its explosive first sentence to Congress and let it emerge in a slow agony of leaks over a matter of days or weeks, or to cauterize the wound and declassify the key judgments at the outset, hoping the argument would quickly burn itself out?

One of the basic laws of intelligence is that no big secret can be kept that can be written on the back of an envelope. No matter who first suggested declassification, it was the president who ultimately decided to release the nine words that reversed the conclusion of a previous intelligence assessment on Iran’s bomb program in 2005, and he did it because it was going to come out anyway.

One thing we know, from the document and from the fact of its declassification, is that reform of the intelligence community has apparently worked. The creation of Mike McConnell’s job as director of national intelligence has successfully insulated the CIA from pressure by the White House of the sort that played such a big role in the Iraq WMD fiasco. To call the new NIE “inconvenient” is simply another way of saying that it is not politicized. It is free from influence by policymakers. It represents the honest conclusion of the analysts given the job of deciding whether Tehran was trying to build a bomb. The fact that the NIE says what it says, and its release, both show that the White House has lost control over American intelligence. This good news probably needs a lot of hedging and qualification, but it is good all the same. [complete article]

Revisiting intelligence reform

As the Bush administration winds up nearly seven years of intelligence fiascos, a quiet revolution has been going on at the Pentagon, which controls more than 80% of America’s $60 billion intelligence budget. Since taking over from Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense in winter 2006, Robert Gates has greatly scaled down the Pentagon’s footprint on national security policy and intelligence. Working closely with Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Michael McConnell, he has slowly begun to assert civilian control over the key spy agencies funded by the defense budget and halted the Pentagon’s efforts to create its own intelligence apparatus independent of the CIA. The recent intelligence assessment of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, in contradicting early administration assertions, is perhaps the most significant sign of this newly won independence.

Those are significant actions. Under Rumsfeld, the Pentagon had become the dominant force in U.S. intelligence, with vast new powers in human intelligence and counterterrorism, both at home and abroad. By 2005, it was deploying secret commando units on clandestine missions in countries as far afield as the Philippines and Ecuador, sometimes without consulting with the local U.S. ambassadors and CIA station chiefs. At some point, President George W. Bush and his national security team apparently decided that the genie had to be put in the bottle, and sent Gates – a former CIA director who had worked closely with Vice President Dick Cheney during the first Bush administration – to put the kibosh on Rumsfeld’s private intelligence army.

But these efforts by Gates and McConnell to demilitarize U.S. Intelligence will never succeed until Congress, with the support of the next administration, removes the three national collection agencies – the National Security Agency (NSA), the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) – from the Pentagon’s command-and-control system and places them directly, like the CIA, under the control of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). [complete article]

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NEWS: More on NIE

Diving deep, unearthing a surprise

As they digested the new findings, Bush and his aides chose to focus on the part that confirmed their suspicions — that Iran previously had a secret weapons program and might still restart it. In their discussions at the White House, officials said, no one suggested Bush tone down his public rhetoric or change his policy.

Still, they understood the sensitivity of the new conclusions. At first, Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, decided to keep the new findings secret, but reluctantly reversed course in a flurry of discussions last weekend out of fear of leaks and charges of a coverup, officials said. At that point, only the Israelis had gotten a heads-up. Congress, European allies and the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency were not given full briefings about the report until hours before it was released.

That irritated European allies. “The administration is going to pay a price for not allowing allies in on it at an earlier date,” said Robert J. Einhorn, a former State Department nonproliferation official. “The French had carried the administration’s water on this issue and really went out on a limb to get the European Union to adopt tough sanctions. And now the rug has been pulled out from under them.” [complete article]

Intelligence expert who rewrote book on Iran

The intelligence came from an exotic variety of sources: there was the so-called Laptop of Death; there was the Iranian commander who mysteriously disappeared in Turkey. Also in the mix was video footage of a nuclear plant in central Iran and intercepts of Iranian telephone calls by the British listening station GCHQ.

But pivotal to the US investigation into Iran’s suspect nuclear weapons programme was the work of a little-known intelligence specialist, Thomas Fingar. He was the principal author of an intelligence report published on Monday that concluded Iran, contrary to previous US claims, had halted its covert programme four years ago and had not restarted it. Almost single-handedly he has stopped – or, at the very least, postponed – any US military action against Iran. [complete article]

Unilateral military strike still an option, senior ministers insist

Senior Israeli officials warned yesterday that they were still considering a military strike against Iran, despite a fresh US intelligence report that concluded Tehran was no longer developing nuclear weapons.

Although Israel says it wants strong diplomatic pressure put on Iran, it is reluctant to rule out the threat of a unilateral attack. Matan Vilnai, Israel’s deputy defence minister, told Army Radio yesterday: “No option needs to be off the table.”

Avigdor Lieberman, the hard-right deputy prime minister, said Israel should be ready to act if sanctions did not work. “If they don’t, we will sit and decide whatever we have to decide,” he told the Jerusalem Post in an interview yesterday. [complete article]

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ANALYSIS & OPINION: A new approach to Iran

Why containing Iran won’t work: Washington’s flawed new Middle East strategy

The Middle East is a region continuously divided against itself. In the 1960s, radical Arab regimes contested the legitimacy and power of traditional monarchical states. In the 1970s, Islamic fundamentalists rejected the prevailing secular order and sought to set the region on the path to God. In the 1980s, much of the Arab world supported the genocidal Saddam Hussein as he sought to displace Iran’s theocratic regime. Today, the Middle East is fracturing once more, this time along sectarian and confessional lines, with Sunnis clamoring to curb Shiite ascendance. Again and again, in the name of preserving the balance of power, U.S. policy has taken sides in the region’s conflicts, thus exacerbating tensions and widening existing cleavages. Beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict, the United States has shown limited interest in mediating conflicts, settling disputes, or bringing antagonists together. Washington sided with the conservative monarchies against Arab socialist republics, acquiesced in the brutal suppression of fundamentalist opposition by secular governments, buttressed Saudi power and the Iraqi war machine to temper Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamist rage. It is now courting Sunni regimes to align against Iran and its resurgent Shiite allies. Every time, as Washington has become mired in the Middle East’s rivalries, its goal of stabilizing the region has slipped further away.

Instead of focusing on restoring a former balance of power, the United States would be wise to aim for regional integration and foster a new framework in which all the relevant powers would have a stake in a stable status quo. The Bush administration is correct to sense that a truculent Iran poses serious challenges to U.S. concerns, but containing Iran through military deployment and antagonistic alliances simply is not a tenable strategy. Iran is not, despite common depictions, a messianic power determined to overturn the regional order in the name of Islamic militancy; it is an unexceptionally opportunistic state seeking to assert predominance in its immediate neighborhood. Thus, the task at hand for Washington is to create a situation in which Iran will find benefit in limiting its ambitions and in abiding by international norms.

Dialogue, compromise, and commerce, as difficult as they may be, are convincing means. An acknowledgment by the U.S. government that Tehran does indeed have legitimate interests and concerns in Iraq could get the two governments finally to realize that they have similar objectives: both want to preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq and prevent the civil war there from engulfing the Middle East. Resuming diplomatic and economic relations between Iran and the United States, as well as collaborating on Iraq, could also be the precursor of an eventual arrangement subjecting Iran’s nuclear program to its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. If Iran enjoyed favorable security and commercial ties with the United States and was at ease in its region, it might restrain its nuclear ambitions. [complete article]

After the Iran NIE

Since the NIE’s release, Bush has emphasized the passages of the report that continue to sound warning bells. But this effort will be dismissed as—and, in fact, will be—lame propaganda unless he also acknowledges, and embraces, the positive passages.

If Bush wants the rest of the world to acknowledge the caveats, he has to acknowledge—and act on—the main message. In other words, if he wants Russia, China, and the European Union to continue the diplomatic pressure on Iran, he has to offer Iran diplomatic inducements. Pressure may be needed to keep the Iranians from resuming their nuclear-weapons program. But negotiations should be started, as a reward for halting their program—and the prospect of further rewards should be held out if they unwind their program still further.

Bush should have started serious talks with Iran two years ago, for a variety of reasons. The NIE offers two additional, compelling reasons for starting them now. [complete article]

The zero-sum fiasco

Bush’s woefully misguided invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, carried out under false pretences, has not only drained the United States treasury, but reduced Washington’s standing in the Middle East in a way not yet fully grasped by most commentators. Whereas Washington once played off Tehran against Baghdad, while involved in a superpower zero-sum game with the Soviet Union, the Bush administration is now engaged in a zero-sum game, as a virtual equal, with Iran. That is, America’s loss has become Iran’s automatic gain, and vice-versa. [complete article]

A new Chinese red line over Iran

The highly respected former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans has assessed after a recent visit to Tehran and meetings with top Iranian officials that the outlines of a deal are emerging and the NIE “gives us the chance to break out of this impasse [of Iran insisting on its right to enrich]“. He suggested that the “red line” should no longer be the issue of enrichment, but could be between the “civilian and military capability” of NPT signatories, and if such a new red line would hold, “it would not matter whether Iran was capable of producing its own nuclear fuel”.

Evans added, “That [red] line will hold if we can get Iran to accept a highly intrusive monitoring, verification and inspection regime” with additional safeguards, and if Iran could be persuaded to “stretch out over time the development of its enrichment capability and to have any industrial-scale activity conducted not by Iran but by an international consortium”.

Evan assesses that Iran is “capable of being persuaded” if incentives include the lifting of sanctions and normalization of relations with the US. Evans concluded: “This is a country seething with both national pride and resentment against past humiliations, and it wants to cut a regional and global figure by proving its sophisticated technological capability. One only wishes that something less sensitive than the nuclear fuel cycle had been chosen to make that point.” [complete article]

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NEWS: Republicans want intelligence to their liking

Review of Iran intelligence to be sought

Senate Republicans are planning to call for a congressional commission to investigate the conclusions of the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran as well as the specific intelligence that went into it, according to congressional sources.

The move is the first official challenge, but it comes amid growing backlash from conservatives and neoconservatives unhappy about the assessment that Iran halted a clandestine nuclear weapons program four years ago. It reflects how quickly the NIE has become politicized, with critics even going after the analysts who wrote it, and shows a split among Republicans.

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) said he plans to introduce legislation next week to establish a commission modeled on a congressionally mandated group that probed a disputed 1995 intelligence estimate on the emerging missile threat to the United States over the next 15 years. [complete article]

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NEWS & ANALYSIS: Israel and American Jewish organizations respond to NIE

Israel warns Iran to co-operate or pay price

Israel has warned Iran to either co-operate with the West over its uranium enrichment program or face military action.

Ron Prosor, Israel’s newly appointed ambassador to Britain and one of his country’s leading experts on Iran’s nuclear program, said that Tehran could enrich enough uranium to make an atomic bomb by 2009.

“At the current rate of progress, Iran will reach the technical threshold for producing fissile material by 2009,” he said.

“This is a global threat and it requires a global response.

“It should be made clear that if Iran does not co-operate, then military confrontation is inevitable. It is either co-operation or confrontation.”

Mr Prosor, who served Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, as his senior adviser on Iran, said that time for resolving the nuclear issue was rapidly running out. But he was non-committal about the possibility of Israel launching military action. [complete article]

Intel bombshell sends community scrambling to hold line on Iran threat

American Jewish groups are scrambling to reformulate their message on Iran following the release this week of a new American intelligence report that states with “high confidence” that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago.

In a conference call Tuesday hurriedly arranged by the umbrella body of Jewish organizations, communal leaders decided to immediately send letters to the presidential candidates from both parties, urging them to continue pushing for sanctions against Iran.

According to participants in the conference call, concern is high that the unexpected conclusions drawn in the National Intelligence Estimate not only may lead Washington to withdraw the threat of military action against Iran but may also erode the recently reached international consensus on pressuring Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. [complete article]

Israeli policy on Tehran unchanged by American assessment

Israel will continue reviewing the implications of the U.S. intelligence assessment that Iran has no nuclear program, and will not stop its diplomatic and public relations efforts against the Iranian bomb, government officials decided yesterday.

The statement came after a meeting called by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to discuss the significance of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate.

Olmert said at the meeting that Israel’s strict working assumption had not changed. [complete article]

Is Iran NIE a blessing in disguise for Israel?

The US National Intelligence Estimate’s assertion that Iran currently does not have a nuclear weapons program has caused much frustration in Israel. Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh referred to the report as a lie at a recent breakfast in New York, and Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer reportedly “doesn’t buy” its findings.

Though the report aggravates Israel’s effort to compel Washington to pursue an increasingly harsh line against Tehran, all is not lost for Israel. In fact, despite these initial knee-jerk reactions, the NIE may very well end up being a blessing in disguise for the Jewish state by pulling Israel out of its state of paralysis vis-à-vis Iran.

Israel has long been at odds with Washington’s intelligence agencies. It started sounding the alarm bells on Iran’s nuclear program back in 1991, arguing that in the post-Cold War world, Iran and Shi’ite fundamentalism were emerging as the new strategic threat to the Middle East.

The Israeli warnings were met with great skepticism and surprise within the Beltway. After all, only a few years earlier – at a time when Iran’s revolutionary fervor was still riding high – the Israelis had gone to great lengths to bring Iran and the US back on talking terms, dismissing all notions that Iran was a threat. [complete article]

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NEWS, ANALYSIS & OPINION: NIE reverberations continue

Why the Pentagon is happy about the NIE

The latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran was the final factor in a military equation that now appears to guarantee that there will be no war with Iran during the Bush Administration. It meshes with the views of the operational types at the Pentagon, who have steadfastly resisted the march to war led by some Administration hawks. The anti-war group was composed of Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs; and Admiral William Fallon, who oversees the U.S. forces that would have had to wage that war. In recent months, all have pushed back privately and publicly, on the wisdom of going to war with Tehran. Indeed, the Pentagon’s intelligence units were instrumental in forming the NIE’s conclusions.

The U.S. military contributes nine of the 16 intelligence agencies whose views are cobbled together in NIEs: the Counterintelligence Field Activity, the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency, Army Intelligence, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Security Agency, and the Office of Naval Intelligence. Some critics have suggested that the military simply found a public way to quiet the drumbeat for war coming from Vice President Dick Cheney and his shrinking band of allies in the Administration.

There was no formal response from the Pentagon. It is evident, however, that the U.S. military, already strained by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has no appetite for a third war. That’s true even if a series of strikes against nuclear and other targets inside Iran were carried out by the Air Force and Navy, the two services who have sat, somewhat frustrated, on the sidelines as the Army and Marine Corps has done the heavy lifting in the two wars now under way. Some Pentagon officials welcomed the new NIE as evidence that the intelligence community is not tied to ideology, as some critics argued was true during the buildup to the Iraq war in 2003. [complete article]

Details in military notes led to shift on Iran, U.S. says

American intelligence agencies reversed their view about the status of Iran’s nuclear weapons program after they obtained notes last summer from the deliberations of Iranian military officials involved in the weapons development program, senior intelligence and government officials said on Wednesday.

The notes included conversations and deliberations in which some of the military officials complained bitterly about what they termed a decision by their superiors in late 2003 to shut down a complex engineering effort to design nuclear weapons, including a warhead that could fit atop Iranian missiles.

The newly obtained notes contradicted public assertions by American intelligence officials that the nuclear weapons design effort was still active. But according to the intelligence and government officials, they give no hint of why Iran’s leadership decided to halt the covert effort. [complete article]

Bush tells Iran to disclose nuclear activities

President Bush called on Iran to “come clean” about the scope of its nuclear activities Wednesday, as the White House made it clear there will be no change in its policy toward Tehran despite new intelligence questioning his claims about the country’s nuclear ambitions.

Traveling here for a political fundraiser, Bush indicated that he still sees Iran as a serious threat. He demanded that its leaders fully disclose details of its nuclear weapons program, which the intelligence community said Monday was shut down in the fall of 2003.

“The Iranians have a strategic choice to make,” Bush told reporters. “They can come clean with the international community about the scope of their nuclear activities and fully accept” the U.S. offer to negotiate if they suspend their nuclear enrichment program — “or they can continue on a path of isolation.” [complete article]

Iran’s nukes: now they tell us?

In August, National Intelligence Director McConnell ordered CIA Director Michael Hayden to have ready by Labor Day a new intelligence estimate reflecting the latest information. Hayden said he needed more time. McConnell set a Nov. 30 deadline. Because some of the information sources were new, Hayden decided to launch a “red team” counter-intelligence operation to make sure that the U.S. wasn’t falling for Iranian disinformation. In late October, the Persia House and red-team analysts offered their findings to Hayden and his deputy, Steve Kappes, around the coffee table in Hayden’s office. The red team found that the possibility of Iranian disinformation was “plausible but not likely.” That assessment led two of the 16 intelligence agencies, but not the CIA, to dissent from the final “high” degree of certainty that Iran had stopped its weapons program in 2003. On the other hand, there was general agreement on a “moderate” finding that Iran had not restarted the program. The National Intelligence Board met and reached its conclusions on Tuesday, Nov. 27. “The meeting took a little more than two hours,” a senior intelligence official told me. “There have been times when it has taken multiple meetings that went on for hours and hours to reach a consensus, especially when dealing with one of Iran’s neighbors.”

Hayden and his senior Iran analysts briefed President Bush on the new NIE on Wednesday, Nov. 28. But it seems apparent the President made little effort to figure out how his Administration could leverage the shocking candor of the intelligence report to his advantage in dealing with Iran. “He could have said to the Iranians, ‘This document shows that we’re not rushing to war. We’re not out to get you,’” said Kenneth Pollack, a National Security Council staff member during the Clinton Administration and author of The Persian Puzzle. “‘But we — and the rest of the world — are very concerned about your uranium-enrichment program, and so let’s sit down and talk about it.’”

Oddly, Bush didn’t seem to ask for a delay in the release of the report. He could easily have requested a few weeks for his Administration to chew over the import of the NIE, discuss it with our allies, organize a new diplomatic initiative to negotiate with the Iranians. As it was, Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns briefed the U.N. Security Council members who had been considering a new round of sanctions against Iran about the same time that word of the NIE broke in the press. When it did, the Chinese, who had seemed surprisingly ready to approve the sanctions, started backing away from that position. [complete article]

See also, Spinning the NIE Iran report (Tony Karon), A pattern of deception (Dan Froomkin), White House Iran intel story 2.0 (TPM).

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EDITORIAL: When reason prevails

When reason prevails

To some political observers there is something vaguely disappointing about witnessing events shaped by reason. Reasonable behavior is somewhat predictable and lacks the zest and drama of the unexpected.

In as much as news-watching is driven by the stimulating effect of the shock of the new, there is then a tendency for one revelation to trigger a desire that this be followed by a cascade of revelations. In the current context, this is provoking a notion that now, anything could happen.

In a game of whack-a-mole, as soon as the National Intelligence Estimate had knocked down the notion of the “mad mullahs”, the image of “mad dog” Israel popped up.

For the past several years, U.S. intelligence analysts have doubted hawkish U.S. and Israeli rhetoric that Iran is dominated by “mad mullahs” — clerics whose fanatical religious views might lead to irrational decisions. In the new NIE, the analysts forcefully posit an alternative view of an Iran that is rational, susceptible to diplomatic pressure and, in that sense, can be “deterred.”

“Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs,” states the NIE. Asked if this meant the Iranian regime would be “deterrable” if it did obtain a weapon, a senior official responded, “That is the implication.” He added: “Diplomacy works. That’s the message.”

But not so fast, says Seymour Hersh — “there’s always Israel… Israel can always decide to take military action.” And on CNN last night, Hersh continued. “I’m told that Olmert had a private discussion with Bush about it during Annapolis — before Annapolis. Bush briefed him about it.” This contradicts National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley’s claim that Bush was not briefed on the NIE until Wednesday — the day after the Annapolis Conference. Indeed, there is further evidence that the Israelis were informed well before the conference.

In today’s Haaretz, Amos Harel writes:

Israel has known about the report for more than a month. The first information on it was passed on to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and to Shaul Mofaz, who is the minister responsible for the strategic dialog with the Americans. The issue was also discussed at the Annapolis summit by Barak and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and it seems also between Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

What surprised Israel is the sharp turn from the previous line presented by the DNI [Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell], and the fact the report was made public. Based on his short comments yesterday, it seems Barak, like Olmert, is trying to avoid open disagreement with the U.S. government.

But the issue of the NIE is expected to create tension on two levels. It will cloud the tight cooperation between the two countries intelligence agencies, since now it will no longer look as if it is only a disagreement over timing, but a fundamental disagreement over Iran’s intentions. It will also cause a feeling of distress on the Israeli side, as now it will seem that the U.S. is abandoning Israel to fight alone.

But is there really much likelihood that Israel would take on the fight alone?

Some would argue that Israel’s September 6 strike on Syria was intended as a warning shot — a signal to Tehran that “mad dog” Israel can, if it chooses, just as easily strike Iranian targets. At the time, it was certainly easy to accept such an interpretation. Now, things look different.

It seems more reasonable — in accordance with the principle of Ockham’s razor (cleaving to the simplest explanation) — to believe that bombs dropped on Syria were intended to send a message to Syria, not Iran. The message? Just because of last summer’s mess in Lebanon, don’t get the idea that you’d stand a chance in a military confrontation with Israel. We can hit you whenever we want, wherever we want. Now we’ve made that clear, we’re ready to talk.

When it comes to Iran, the political challenge now is for those who until very recently were hysterically presenting Iran as the greatest threat to the world, to make an about face without losing face and say that Iran can now effectively be engaged.

Those still feeling the sting of the NIE’s claims will predictably revive Rumsfeld’s line of reasoning that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But this always was, and remains, a faultless yet deceptive line of reasoning since the absence of evidence is not evidence of concealment. Just as there are still those who believe that Saddam Hussein’s WMD were never found because they were so well hidden, the same line is being used again: “The Israelis interpret the evidence to mean the Iranians have almost certainly continued to conduct their military nuclear program in secret.”

That’s all well and good, but while the masters-of-secrecy argument might have some limited value in sustaining the image of Iran’s government as a nefarious and deceptive entity, at the same time, it’s hard to plausibly argue in favor of missile strikes on targets so well hidden that their locations are unknown.

The neocons know the game is up and some of them are being surprisingly quick to concede the fact. Norman Podhoretz sees the intelligence community engaged in a scheme to “head off the possibility that the President may order air strikes on the Iranian nuclear installations.” But even if the father of neoconservatism doesn’t like what he sees, he concedes that the plot has worked.

Robert Kagan, perhaps the most nimble-minded among the neocons, says, “With its policy tools broken, the Bush administration can sit around isolated for the next year. Or it can seize the initiative, and do the next administration a favor, by opening direct talks with Tehran.” Part of Kagan’s motive for advocating talks now is that this “would give the United States a better chance to frame the discussion, at home and abroad.” Which is to say, a better chance for Kagan and his friends to frame the issues.

Be that as it may, the opportunity that has now opened up needs to be grasped. The question is, who is going to quickest off the mark in becoming the strongest advocate of a bold and strategic policy shift? Those who have nothing to advocate will do no more than sustain the culture of political reactivity in which nothing really gets said and nothing much gets done.

So far there are no signs that inside Bush’s brain there are any new neuronal pathways being tickled by an action potential. It’s time for Iran to “come clean” he says — and Ahmadinejad could say just the same. If the absence of cunning is a precondition for U.S.-Iranian talks, they’re not going to happen.

But Bush’s isn’t the only voice that needs to be heard right now. There are a bunch of folks waltzing around America at the moment claiming they want to lead the nation. OK. Now’s the time to show your mettle. And just in case anyone needs reminding: whether or not Iran has an active program for developing nuclear weapons, it does remain the strategically most important country in the Middle East.

The release of the NIE may have the effect of making presidential candidates think that Iran can quietly be dropped from the political agenda. This would be a mistake. The opportunity here is not limited to finding a new way to approach Iran; with some courage and imagination the conversation could actually start to shift away from its myopic focus on national security threats and towards a new focus on engagement. Instead of talking about how America must lead the world, save the world or protect itself from the world, it’s time to start talking about working together and raising America’s awareness of a convergence of national and global interests.

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NEWS & ANALYSIS: Evolving perspectives on Iran

Time has come for U.S. to pursue talks with Iran

The American intelligence report that makes the option of a military strike against Iran – and possibly the next dose of sanctions – less likely to materialize gives us an important time-out to try a new avenue vis-a-vis the Islamic Republic.

That route would center on diplomacy aimed at neutralizing Tehran’s motivation to further pursue the development of nuclear arms. For some time now, Iran has held an internal debate – which sometimes reaches the Iranian media – on how far Tehran can go in defying international pressure to abandon its nuclear program. [complete article]

Europeans see murkier case for sanctions

The Bush administration’s new intelligence assessment that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 is likely to complicate efforts to impose new sanctions on Iran at the United Nations Security Council, European officials said Monday.

The officials, who declined to be identified under normal diplomatic rules, stressed that their governments were formally studying the new assessment of Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities by the administration’s intelligence agencies.

But they added that they were struggling to understand why the United States chose to issue the report just two days after the six powers involved in negotiating with Iran — the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany — had decided to press ahead with a new Security Council resolution.

“Officially, we will study the document carefully; unofficially, our efforts to build up momentum for another resolution are gone,” said one European official involved in the diplomacy. [complete article]

Anatomy of an about-face on Iran

The new intelligence was considered compelling enough to call it to Bush’s attention in August. In a news conference at the White House on Tuesday, Bush said that the nation’s intelligence director, J. Michael McConnell, “came in and said, ‘We have some new information.’ ”

Bush said that McConnell did not provide details. “He didn’t tell me what the information was,” Bush said. “He did tell me it was going to take awhile to analyze.”

The decision to hold those details back has come under question because Bush and others in the administration continued in the succeeding months to use heated rhetoric to warn of the dangers posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. In October, Bush described that scenario as potentially pointing to World War III.

But U.S. intelligence officials said they felt compelled to employ that level of caution in part because of the searing experience surrounding the war in Iraq.

“Back in 2002, one of the knocks on the process at the time was that information was not vetted by analysts and was being rushed into the Oval Office,” said the senior U.S. intelligence official.

That experience showed, the official said, that bringing unvetted intelligence to senior officials could backfire.

This time, even as they vetted the new intelligence and launched into major revisions of the estimate on Iran’s nuclear program, intelligence officials said, they deliberately shielded analysts from administration officials and policymakers. [complete article]

Spies show Bush a way forward on Iran

The NIE does refer to the role of “international pressures” in halting Iran’s program, but contrary to Hadley’s argument, it suggests that the decision to halt weaponization was not prompted by threats and pressure. The key finding of the estimate also indicates that the intelligence community believes Iran is more likely to forego the nuclear weapons option if the United States deals with its security and political interests than if it relies on threats and sanctions.

The estimate concludes that the halt in the weapons program was ordered “in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work”. That is a reference to the situation facing the Iranian leadership in 2003, when its acquisition of nuclear technology from Pakistani Abdul Qadeer Khan’s network had already been exposed but there was no threat of either military action or economic sanctions against Iran over the nuclear issue.

A major feature of the diplomatic situation in the autumn of 2003 was the willingness of Britain, France and Germany to negotiate an agreement with Iran on a wider range of security issues, based on voluntary Iranian suspension of uranium enrichment. [complete article]

Diplomatic “disaster” led to Iran intel spill?

The National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nukes has been in the works for months. So why did it get released now? Various commentators are guessing that hardening opposition had “caused Cheney and his team to fold their cards,” or that a Democratic-controlled Congress pushed the Director of National Intelligence, or that the spooks are trying to undermine Bush. The latter two, respectively, appear to be untrue and ridiculous, and Cheney’s team folding its cards sounds unlikely in the extreme.

Another possibility exists, though: the Bush administration may have wanted to salvage negotiations with Iran after the “disaster” this weekend in London. This story has been largely lost in the NIE furor, but the new Iranian nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, told diplomats that all proposals made in previous negotiations over the nuclear issue were irrelevant – that the diplomatic efforts to date were for naught. This led to intimations that the negotiations would shut down, with one official quoted saying “we can’t do business with these guys at this point.” [complete article]

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