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March 29, 2005

Cheney's Other Trick NIE?

by Ray McGovern

Hats off to journalist Dafna Linzer and Sunday's Washington Post for exposing a familiar but fallacious syllogism favored by senior Bush administration officials:

Iran has a lot of oil.
Ergo, Iran does not need nuclear energy for civil purposes.
Ergo, Iran's nuclear development program must be for weapons.

Linzer and her researcher, Robert Thomason, remind us that in 1975 – with Gerald Ford president, Dick Cheney his chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz responsible for nonproliferation at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and Henry Kissinger secretary of state and national security adviser – the Ford administration bought the shah's argument that Iran needed a nuclear program to meet its future energy requirements.

This is precisely what Iranian officials claim today. There is legitimacy to that claim. Energy experts note that oil extraction in Iran is already at or near peak and confirm that the country will need alternatives to oil in the coming decades. At the same time, it seems altogether likely that the Iranian leaders also believe they need a nuclear weapons capability and are preparing to produce one.

Here's to the Shah… and Westinghouse

Ford's advisers eventually persuaded the hesitant president to sign a directive in 1976 offering Iran a deal that would have meant at least $6.4 billion for U.S. corporations like Westinghouse and General Electric, had not the shah been unceremoniously ousted three years later. The offer included a reprocessing facility for a complete nuclear-fuels cycle – essentially the same capability that the United States, Israel, and other countries now insist Iran cannot be allowed to acquire.

Not surprisingly, given Vice President Dick Cheney's success in orchestrating the overture and accompaniment for the invasion of Iraq, he is now choreographer/director of this year's campaign against Iran. Last week, Cheney told reporters that he was uncertain as to whether the Iranians already have nuclear weapons, but, as he put it, "We have made the judgment that they are seeking to acquire" such weapons. (In the intelligence business, a source is evaluated largely on his/her past reporting record. And one does well to recall that it was Cheney who assured us before the invasion that Iraq had "reconstituted" its nuclear weapons program.)

To the degree that Cheney's reasoning is based on the supposition that Iran has no civil use for its nuclear development program, his new "judgment" requires a 180-degree turnabout regarding the future energy needs of the Iranians. But White House PR guidance apparently suggests that when there is a disconnect, no problem; ignore it. Following that dictum, Cheney recently said: "They're already sitting on an awful lot of oil and gas. Nobody can figure why they need nuclear as well to generate energy."

Go Figure

With the cat out of the bag on the advice given President Ford by these same officials, one might conclude they would be embarrassed into abandoning that argument. Think again. The White House embarrassment threshold is quite high. And the simplistic syllogism – like the "weapons-of-mass-destruction-in-Iraq" canard of recent memory – has the distinct advantage of simplicity.

The American people prefer something they can understand – true or not. It's simple: Iran has so much oil that it does not need nuclear power – just nuclear weapons. There are canards for all seasons, and the administration is unlikely to jettison the latest one until it can be proved to have outlived its usefulness. Better to wait to see if Linzer's story elicits more resonance than can be expected from the relative few who made it to the bottom of page A15 of the Washington Post on Easter Sunday. The story is hardly likely to end up on cable TV news.

In any case, the White House is armed with a familiar set of default rationales to explain why Iran's nuclear program must be stopped cold – by military means, if necessary. These rationales bear a striking similarity to those used by the same administration officials to "justify" war on Iraq. Now, as then, they do not bear close scrutiny.

The Scariest One

Let's look briefly at the scariest rationale – if Iran is allowed to produce fissile material, it may transfer it to terrorists bent on exploding a nuclear device in an American city.

This seems to be the main bogeyman, whether real or contrived, in U.S. policymaking councils. Its unexamined premise – the flimsily supported but strongly held view that Iran's leaders would give terrorists a nuclear device or the wherewithal to make one – is being promoted as revealed truth. Serious analysts who voice skepticism about this and who list the strong disincentives to such a step by Iran are regarded as apostates.

For those of you with a sense of deja vu, we have indeed been here before – just a few years ago. And the experience should have been instructive. In the case of Iraq, CIA and other analysts strongly resisted the notion that Saddam Hussein would risk providing nuclear, chemical, or biological materials to al-Qaeda or other terrorists – except as a desperate gesture if and when he had his back to the wall. Similarly, it strains credulity beyond the breaking point to posit that the Iranian leaders would give up control of such material to terrorists.

Yes, but Didn't the President Say…

Many remember President George W. Bush's frightening words in his Cincinnati speech of Oct. 7, 2002, just three days before Congress voted for war: "We've learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and gasses." What few recall is that this information was unconfirmed. It came only from Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, an al-Qaeda commander captured in Pakistan just two months after 9/11, and al-Libi later recanted. Typically, his about-face never really caught up with the story. The episode is significant for a number of reasons:

  • Al-Libi was the sole source of that information not only in Bush's remarks on Oct. 7, 2002, but also for the corresponding passage in Colin Powell's now-infamous UN speech of Feb. 5, 2003;

  • Al-Libi's statement was relied upon heavily to buttress administration pre-war claims that Osama bin Laden had a collaborative relationship with Iraq (claims refuted by the 9/11 Commission); and

  • The capture of al-Libi, a relatively high-level al-Qaeda commander, sparked the first debate on how roughly such detainees could be interrogated. The C.I.A. was authorized to use "enhanced interrogation methods." No one will say whether the juicy misinformation used by Bush and Powell was extracted using "enhanced" techniques, and whether al-Libi, in an effort to spare himself, was "persuaded" to tell his interrogators what they clearly wanted to hear. Small wonder that such interrogations continue to this day. It is no time for squeamishness. "Enhanced interrogation methods" can produce just what the doctor ordered.

Needed: An Honest Intelligence Estimate

According to recent press reports, a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran and its nuclear plans is to be finished soon. Such an estimate will be of little value if it does not include an objective assessment of:

  • The likelihood that Iran would transfer nuclear materials to terrorists.

  • The degree to which recent history may be driving any Iranian plans to acquire nuclear weapons. Iraq, after all, did not have them, and the United States invaded it; North Korea probably has a few, and the United States has done nothing.

  • What it would take in the way of security guarantees, as well as economic incentives, to get Iran to agree to drop any plans it has for developing nuclear weapons?

  • What is known about the strength of Iranian "democratic forces?"

  • The aftershocks to be expected in the wake of a U.S. or U.S./Israeli attack on Iran. How, for instance, do Pentagon planners expect the U.S. Navy to contend with Iran's formidable array of supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, which already pose a threat to U.S. ships providing logistical support to American forces in Iraq?

  • The wider international implications as Iran builds alliances on the energy front with key players like China, India, Russia, and even Venezuela.

The long-awaited NIE may not address all these questions. And with quintessential politician Porter Goss as CIA director and malleable functionary John Negroponte as National Intelligence Director, there is no guarantee that the intelligence community will be encouraged to stand up to the vice president – in other words, no guarantee that the estimate on Iran will be any less politicized than the one on Iraq's putative "weapons of mass destruction" six months before the war. As we await the estimate, the following can already be said of the setting.

Some Things Already Clear

What seems clear is that all but the most incorrigible ideologues and the criminally insane realize that an attack on Iran would make the debacle in Iraq seem like child's play. And yet chances appear good that the ever narrowing circle of advisers around President Bush will persuade him to do just that, and for the same underlying reasons – oil, Israel, and a strategic presence in the region.

But, you say, such an attack would not conform to international norms of behavior. Neither, of course, did the attack on Iraq. And a truly remarkable document, "National Defense Strategy of the United States of America," just issued by the Pentagon asserts a U.S. right to go after regimes that do not "exercise their sovereignty responsibly."

It will be the height of irony if the United States attempts to "justify" an attack on Iran by a need to prevent it from transferring nuclear material to terrorists. For such an attack would be a tremendous fillip to widespread terrorism. Recruiting pool? The 1.3 billion Muslims in this world. And this time, many more would be strongly motivated to wage jihad , adding to the thousands that signed up after the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

But where, you ask, could terrorists get fissile material? Did you not receive the mail-order catalogue? The North Koreans are offering such nuclear materials at a discount this month – and can arrange free and secure smuggling/shipping – to any terrorist or group of terrorists with enough cash. This may sound macabre, but it approximates the actual situation, and it is not in any real sense funny.

There are a few positives. The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency has completed an inventory of North Korean isotopes, so the North Koreans know that any "loose" material would be traceable back to them, inviting their demise. In ordinary circumstances, this should act as a powerful disincentive to providing such material to others. And North Korea has no history of selling nuclear material to terrorists or nation-states.

Much will depend on whether the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran deals forthrightly with these key issues, or whether intelligence analysts are again persuaded to take the course of least resistance and tell the vice president and president what will please – as they did in the NIE, "Iraq's Continuing Program for Weapons of Mass Destruction" of Oct. 1, 2002. That was the worst NIE on record – so far.


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Ray McGovern's Bio

Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years – from the John F. Kennedy administration to that of George H. W. Bush.

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