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A COCKTAIL OF AMBIGUITY
by Amir Taheri
Gulf News
December 12, 2007

Whatever the merits of the latest American National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear ambitions in terms of reliable information, one thing is clear. The new NIE has something for everyone.

The US President George W. Bush can cite it in support of his contention that Iran had been lying about its nuclear programme for years and that at one point it had been actually engaged in building a bomb.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can also use the new NIE in support of his no-compromise stance against the American "Great Satan". Last Wednesday he told a crowd in western Iran that he had inflicted a major diplomatic defeat on the US and "other ill-wishers" of the Khomeinist revolution.

The Congressional leaders in the US can also find something to be pleased with in the new NIE. After all it was the Congress that ordered the new assessment because of the new Democrat majority's desire to tie Bush's hands as tightly as possible.

The Europeans are also happy, along with the Russians and the Chinese, because the new American report comforts them in their illusion that the whole dreadful shadow created by the prospects of Khomeinism obtaining a nuclear arsenal may be fading.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) can also spin the new NIE in favour of its own exercise in diplomatic chiaroscuro. It has demonstrated that Iran has had a hidden and illegal nuclear programme at some point but refuses to commit itself on whether or not this is still the case.

The NIE also offers the so-called "intelligence community" in the US an opportunity to improve its badly tarnished image. The "intelligence community" received a lot of flak because it reported that Saddam Hussain was still busy building weapons of mass destruction. Having learned its lesson, it now offers the kind of product that the market wants: a cocktail of ambiguity, wishful thinking and pious hope.

The new NIE report is problematic on several accounts.

To start with, its methodology remains a mystery. It seems that much of it is based on minutes of secret conversations between senior Iranian military leaders and their political bosses in Tehran. And that, of course, opens the possibility of disinformation. Is it not possible that the Khomeinist leadership in Tehran cooked up the whole thing to confuse its enemies? Why would one of the most senior of Khomeinist diplomats suddenly contact the British and, according to Ahmadinejad, provide them with "top secret material" on Iran's nuclear programme? And why should that same diplomat be arrested and then quickly exonerated from all charges?

And what if General Reza Asgari who defected to the US, or according to one version was abducted by the Americans last year, was a mole sent by Tehran to provide Washington with false minutes of the supposed conversations?

The possibilities for political spin, not to mention concocting yarns of espionage, around the new NIE are simply endless.

The new NIE may have more to do with American domestic politics and to some extent the diplomatic relations among the major powers.

The estimate does not change the fact that Tehran has always claimed and continues to assert with greater self-confidence, that it never had a secret programme in the first place. Therefore, what we have here is not comparable to the cases of South Africa, Libya and North Korea which admitted the existence of their respective nuclear programmes before undertaking to stop and scarp them.

The new NIE does not tell us where the supposed secret programme was located. By the latest account the Iranian nuclear industry as a whole was spread over 32 centres in Tehran, Arak, Kelardasht, Isfahan, Natanz and Bushehr. The day the new NIE was unveiled in Washington all those cites were still working as before. If the "secret programme" was located in other cites, the NIE should tell us where. (Or at least tell the IAEA). If, on the other hand, the secret programme was carried out in the same cites that are still in full operation, one would like to know what it is that it is no longer being done there.

Great deal

The NIE could do a great deal of harm in a number of ways. It may confirm the already widespread illusion that intelligence can be a substitute for policy. That would enable the political leadership to avoid even debating a credible policy on dealing with the Khomeinist regime.

The NIE could shift, and to some extent has already done, the focus of the debate from a possible threat from Iran to the time at which Bush learned about the so-called "new facts". That, in turn, could add fuel to American self-flagellation while encouraging professional anti-Americans across the globe.

As we have suggested in this column on numerous occasions, Tehran's policy has never been aimed at actually making a nuclear weapon. From the late 1960s, even before the Khomeinists seized power, its policy has always been aimed at acquiring what scientists call a nuclear "surge capacity". This means having the knowledge, the technological base, the industrial infrastructure, and the raw material needed to make nuclear weapons in a short time but not to actually do so.

Acquiring the possibility of becoming a nuclear power at short notice was a key ingredient of the late Shah's overall strategy and was confirmed as one of the pillars of the Iranian defence doctrine in the early 1990s. The late Ayatollah Khomeini stopped the Iranian nuclear programme in 1979 along with many of the Shah's projects. This was re-started by President Hashemi Rafsanjani and has been pursued with varying degrees of vigour by his two successors.

As far as the scientific knowledge and technological base are concerned Iran has made great strides. So, the kitchen is built and the ingredients for the soup are being fast assembled. But no one can come up with a lawyer-proof case that the Khomeinists are actually building a bomb. The trouble is that when, and if, such lawyer-proof case becomes possible, it may be too late. This is the beauty of a policy aimed at creating a "surge capacity".

While the Americans are settling scores with one another and the Europeans dancing around the issue, Iran under its new radical leader is surging ahead to achieve the late Shah's ambition. It is this fact that many might wish to ponder, not the Byzantine subtleties of an NIE crafted to please everyone.

It is certainly foolish to cry wolf where none is around. But it could be suicidal to pretend there can be no wolf where one may come along.

Amir Taheri is an Iranian writer based in Europe.

 

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