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The Iran nuclear issue and the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate


The US National Intelligence Estimate on the Iranian Nuclear program threw a hand grenade into the Bush administration policy effort regarding sanctions for Iran. Some claim that it 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 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) estimated "with high confidence" that Iran had halted its nuclear program at least temporarily, and with moderate confidence that it had halted it permanently. But both President Bush and UK Foreign Secretary Miliband insisted that the Iranian nuclear program remained a threat. Miliband pointed out that Iran was producing fissile material, but had no reactor which could use that material.

The NIE was completed 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 may signal that Iran really is intent on building a bomb, or they may just be posturing like that of Saddam Hussein over Iraqi WMD.

The real questions that the NIE report raises are why it was made public, and why the particular conclusions that it contains were included. The 2006 defense budget law, Public Law 109-364 mandated that an NIE report on Iran be produced, but the decision to make the findings public was optional. Director of National Intelligence McConnell had earlier stated that he was not planning to make the report public. However, in the cover letter for the report, Deputy Director of National Intelligence Donald Kerr stated:

"The decision to release an unclassified version of the Key Judgments of this NIE was made when it was determined that doing so was in the interest of our nation's security. The Intelligence Community is on the record publicly with numerous statements based on our 2005 assessment on Iran. Since our understanding of Iran's capabilities has changed, we felt it was important to release this information to ensure that an accurate presentation is available."

Of course, we don't really know what the "Key Judgements" of the report are, since these have been selected for us. Moreover, given the additional input from the IAEA and the recalcitrance of Iranian negotiators, perhaps the conclusions might have been updated. The claim, with "moderate confidence" that Iran has permanently halted its nuclear weapons program is highly suspect, since it is unlikely that the Iranians themselves know or can know what they will do five or ten years hence, when they have sufficient fissile material to build a bomb, and Mr. Kerr cannot predict who will be leading Iran in ten years or what that person's or groups policies might be. Iran experts cannot even say today if policy is being made by Mr. Ahmadinejad or by the religious leaders. How can anyone know what Iranian plans will be five years hence?

Suppose an Iranian estimate had predicted in 1996 with "moderate" confidence that the United States had "permanently halted" plans to invade Iraq? Would such a prediction have been meaningful? In 1973, Israeli intelligence predicted "with high confidence" that the Egyptians were not planning an attack, but Israeli intelligence was spectacularly wrong. Predictions about the future are inherently uncertain, especially when they are predictions about reversible policy decisions. Such statements can be at best little more than honest hunches, and at worst political spin. Therefore, the reasoning given for public release of the "findings" and of the particular findings that were released, is at best disingenuous.

Conservative commentators (Podhoretz, NY Sun) believe that the report may have been a deliberate attempt by the CIA to sabotage Bush administration policy. That may or may not be the case.

This report, cannot have much more or less credibility than the 2005 estimate, which claimed with equally "high confidence" that Iran was building a bomb. No intelligence service should make dogmatic "high confidence" statements that are reversed in successive reports, and certainly every intelligence service should refrain from even "moderate confidence" statements about the future plans of a foreign country, The United States National Intelligence Service is not likely to have perfected clairvoyance.

While we can't know what Iran will do or is doing with any confidence, we can and must draw some obvious conclusions on the way in which US policy is being conducted. United States policy about the Middle East is increasingly concerned with inter-agency US policy debates and domestic politics, and is less and less related to realities of the Middle East itself. The intelligence services are there to provide and evaluate intelligence, not to influence public policy. The government should be listening to its own agencies and formulating policy accordingly. If it cannot trust its own intelligence services, then it must draw the appropriate conclusions. Instead, we have release of a report that offers one set of conclusions and American and British leaders who are spinning the report to reach opposite conclusions.

From a distance, it looks as though US policy is not being coordinated in any effective way. It is instead being pulled this way and that by different partisan groups, each with their own unrealistic programs and views, which do not trust each other. That is not government or leadership. It is chaos. "In those days there was no king...every man did that which was right in his own eyes.." (Judges- 17:6). How can the United States government expect its Middle East allies - or anyone else - to follow its leadership if nobody knows where it is really leading? Any government is better than total anarchy.

Ami Isseroff

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000654.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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Replies: 4 comments

Issarof said:

"This report, cannot have much more or less credibility than the 2005 estimate, which claimed with equally "high confidence" that Iran was building a bomb. No intelligence service should make dogmatic "high confidence" statements that are reversed in successive reports, and certainly every intelligence service should refrain from even "moderate confidence" statements about the future plans of a foreign country, The United States National Intelligence Service is not likely to have perfected clairvoyance."

This reports backs the IAEA statements that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons programs. The IAEA maintains their position on Iran since 2005. To claim this report is not very credible is laughable. Seymour Hersh reported that sources in the CIA were passing around a report that theri was no evidence of an Iran nuclear weapons program.

Keep spinning Issarof but this NIE report punches the warmongers in the mouth.

Posted by Butros Dahu @ 12/10/2007 01:43 AM CST

This NIE report punches no one in the mouth. What it does is let the US off the hook and eliminates the question from the candidates' repertoir (sp?)

And stating that the weapons track was stopped in 2003 doesn't say it can't or won't be restarted.

The NIE doesn't make me feel any better about the current Iranian government's intentions in the least. And unfortunately, it also gets those who hemmed&hawed over sanctions off the hook as well.

Posted by Amy @ 12/11/2007 05:43 PM CST

I am amazed at how quickly those who previously excoriated the US intelligence community for its incompetence on the subject of Iraqi WMD's now acept it as an unimpeachable source on the subject of Iran's nuclear armaments program.

If they were so clearly wrong the first time around with Iraq, on what basis can it be assumed that they are so clearly right with Iran?

Posted by Steve @ 12/12/2007 05:13 AM CST

Amy, Issarof, and Steve are all dumbfounded by what the NIE report says.

Issarof and Steve claim that the American intelligence agencies have no idea what they are talking about but that issue should have discussed after the 2005 NIE report but it wasn't. Instead this website was pretty certain that Iran had a weapons program. Now the intelligence is not favorable in the warmongers favor so the intelligence is unreliable. The IAEA has not found evidence that Iran is enriching a nuclear weapons program and the 2007 NIE report confirms the IAEA's conclusions. Even if the NIE is unreliable that doesn't mean Iran has a weapons program so Iran is innocent until proven guilty.

Amy asserts that Iran could restart its nuclear weapons program. However, that's like saying that a man having a kitchen knife is going to kill someone when all he really intends to do is cut his steak. Without direct evidence that Iran is enriching uranium for weapons program then Iran should not be sanctioned or attacked.

This NIE clearly punched the warmongers in the mouth. Here in the States debate about Iran is confrontational in the media even CNN canceled a program because the NIE shot a hole through their program. Neocons and warmongers could argue but with their own intelligence services doubting their accusations it is going to be very hard to convince the world to join the U.S. on taking any serious action on Iran.

Posted by Butros Dahu @ 12/23/2007 11:54 PM CST

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