Friday, December 7, 2007

U.S. policy on Iran: Confusion to our friends!

By Ami Isseroff - 05-12-2007


The latest US National Intelligence Estimate on the Iranian Nuclear program claims that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons development program in 2003. One conclusion to be drawn from this information is that the problem is not urgent.

Indeed, China has already drawn just that conclusion, and is reevaluating its support for sanctions against Iran. One can hardly blame them.

The report claims with "high confidence" that Iran has halted work on nuclear weapons. Notably missing from the public summary of the report is any mention of the Arak heavy water reactor that can produce fissionable plutonium. As UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband pointed out, the report also does not explain what Iran intends to do with all the fissile uranium to be produced by its centrifuges, since they have no reactor except the Bushehr reactor, supplied with fuel by the USSR. The NIE was completed on October 31, before the IAEA report which had pointed out continuing gaps in Iranian reporting of its nuclear program and cooperation with the IAEA and before the row caused by Iran's renewed refusal to cooperate with European negotiators. These additional data may imply that Iran really is intent on building a bomb, or they may just be posturing like that of Saddam Hussein over Iraqi WMD. Shouldn't the NIS have reviewed their data and conclusions in the light of this new information?

In 2005, the National Intelligence Estimate claimed with the same high confidence, that Iran was developing nuclear weapons. Dare we suggest that the confidence is misplaced. The report also claims the gift of prophecy, since it assesses with moderate confidence that Iran is not going to develop nuclear weapons in the future. Who can know the future? We can, apparently, discount all the prognostications of the NIS (National Intelligence Service) as uneducated guesses. What is known for certain is that Iran is enriching uranium on a large scale for no evident reason, is withholding information from the IAEA, built a reactor capable of producing fissile m

As I wrote elsewhere, the worst aspect of the National Intelligence Estimate, however, is not the report itself, but the way in which the information was handled, and the more we consider it, the worse it gets.

As the Washington Post points out, President Bush was aware of the substance of the findings for quite some time, yet US policy statements on Iran continued to sound extreme and urgent danger signals on Iran, and to gather support for sanctions against Iran, knowing that this report was to be made public shortly. And when the report came out, President Bush minimized it and provided half-coherent spin, as though he was unaware of the actual implications or how it would be understood by others.

Some claim that the report represents an intentional administration change of direction, but that is not necessarily the case. It seems that it represents only noisy signals emitted by a chaotic governmental apparatus.

The NIS was created as a coordinating agency to ensure the flow of information between different governmental intelligence services in the United States. This function appeared to be necessary following the intelligence failures of 9-11 and the failure to find Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. But when Congress mandated that the NIS prepare a report (in Public Law 109-364) it in effect forced the NIS to do more than that - to reach a consensus opinion that ignores dissent and presents "the official version" to elected officials, without given them a chance to see the different opinions of different agencies. Worse, this report was then reduced to a sanitized public version, which was recommended, but not mandated by law. The NIS was thus in effect turned into an agency for forming foreign policy.

The implications for Israel and other allies of the United States go well beyond the National Intelligence Estimate and the Iran nuclear issue:

·         Anarchic government and policy - US policy is no longer determined and presented to the world by a single government, but is rather pulled this way and that by different agencies and bodies.

·         Poor administrative structure - Forcing, or allowing, the NIS to prepare an "official" unified intelligence report that reflects all the agencies hides real information from elected officials, and tends to produce "herd thinking" that increases errors such as those we saw in the past: "Everyone" thought that the USSR was not about to collapse, "Everyone" thought there would be no war in 1967, "Everyone" thought that Saddam had WMD. In reality, not everyone believed any of those things, but consensus psychology produced that impression. It has now been reinforced by the demand that NIS produce unified reports.

·         Incompetent intelligence gathering - If indeed the Iranians halted their nuclear weapons program in 2003, how is it possible that there was no hint of this in 2005?

·         Incompetent intelligence evaluation - When presented with such different findings in 2005 and 2007, the NIS should have understood that they can no longer have "high confidence" in any of their findings about Iran, and should have been more cautious in evaluating what they found. Moreover, they should not attempt to make any predictions about the future behavior and plans of states, which relate to information they could not possibly know.

·         Political influence - The possibility that the content of the different National Intelligence Estimates reflects the vicissitudes of political currents in Washington more than it reflects that data on which they are based cannot be excluded. U.S. Middle East policy increasingly reflects U.S. domestic policy and professional and personal biases of the different agencies and bodies. In reality, there is only one Middle East. There is not a neoconservative reality and a pragmatic reality and a Democratic reality etc. Everyone should at least agree about the facts. American policy makers seem to have no understanding of the Middle East that is independent of their own political exigencies and prejudices.

·         Incompetent leadership - President Bush should have assimilated the import of the National Intelligence Estimate and made a more realistic assessment of the effect that this information would have on allies and partners, as well as internal US political support for sanctions against Iran. Instead, he totally ignored it until the findings were made public, and then tried to minimize the impact. Either the NIE is wrong, or the policy is wrong, and his attempts to spin it are not convincing.

·         Contempt for allies and partners - The British, the Israelis, the participants in the Annapolis conference were all left in the dark about the NIE, a "bomb" that would be dropped as soon as the conference had broken up, which seems to have made the Middle East a "whole new ball game," regardless of its accuracy.

The United States government plainly needs to get its act together. The question of how Israel should react is a subject for a different article.

Ami Isseroff

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.



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