13 December 2007
Despite NIE: White House policy towards Iran unchanged
By Daan de Wit
This article has been translated into English by Ben Kearney
The release of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) earlier this month is bringing a serious conflict among the American elite to the surface. The neoconservative block within this group of elites is being driven into a corner by the rest of the establishment. These opponents, responsible for the NIE, don't want a war with Iran. However, the ideology of the neocons is intact, and they are the ones who are still calling the shots. This resistance will only make the resolve of this group greater. In this way the report may actually increase the likelihood of an escalation, while at the same time the result of such - a war with Iran - continues to be a real possibility.
The writing was on the wall when the report from former Secretary of State James Baker's Iraq Study Group was released one year ago, followed by the testimony from former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February of this year. Brzezinski and Baker are not the only ones who have voiced criticism of neoconservative policy. The events in Iraq have opened the eyes of many people, and have provided some room to critics who, without 'Iraq', would simply be cast aside as unpatriotic. Admiral William Fallon, the supreme commander of Centcom - the command center that the military maintains during time of war - is said to have privately expressed in no uncertain terms his opposition to a war with Iran. Sources of The Sunday Times within British intelligence and defense circles reported in February that approximately four or five American generals and admirals are prepared to step down, should the decision be made to attack Iran. The newspaper wrote that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has repeatedly warned against a military confrontation with Iran, and it's assumed that he is representing the opinion of his highest-level commanders.
The underlying issue behind the fight against the hardliners in the White House seems to be that - in addition to the damage to the U.S.'s reputation, the failure of the war against Iraq, the U.S. trade deficit and sky-high oil prices - one more problem, perhaps a much greater one, cannot be tolerated. The end of the Bush era is in sight, and the establishment is looking forward to a change in course. Iran expert Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, put it this way (MP3, 36'02): 'The NIE is an interesting part of a larger narrative; namely, how the formal institutions of government are now determined to resist the White House, which wasn't the case in 2002. The head of the intelligence organization, McConnell, basically undermined the president's attempt to have a military option. It's inconceivable that the United States of America can attack a country whose intelligence services say does not have a weapons program. Second of all, the military uniformed services also will be in a position of resisting, as Admiral Fallon and others have said. In many ways, this narrative suggests the irrelevance of the Bush White House, the irrelevance of the president himself. This is not like it was -- these institutions are trying to tell the White House it isn't like 2002, when they were just going to roll over and accept the White House's judgments and the White House's exaggerations. I mean, this is not George Tenet anymore.'
The National Intelligence Estimate has neoconservative America in disarray. Hawk John Bolton believes that the White House was 'floored' by the report, and wonders whether the NIE has been used by its authors as a political weapon against the Bush Administration. In his opinion, Iranian disinformation may have also played a role. Neoconservative icon Norman Podhoretz is experiencing the report as a 'serious blow' and has 'dark suspicions' that the intelligence community is systematically undermining George W. Bush. The website DebkaFile, well-informed by way of Israeli military and intelligence circles, responded angrily to the report, and sees it as a pull-back by the U.S.: the military confrontation is off the table; Israel will have to work it out by itself. President Bush says he sees the report as a warning signal: '[They] had the program, they halted the program, [...] they could restart it'. Israeli Defense Minister Barak went a step further and said that the report can't be trusted, and supposes that Iran has since restarted its nuclear weapons program. His intelligence service, Mossad, believes that Iran could have nuclear weapons by 2009. Kaveh Afrasiabi, author of an upcoming book entitled Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts versus Fiction, points out that the evidence that Iran had a nuclear program (let alone has) is not furnished by the report and that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has never established such a thing. This is confirmed by recent statements from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who says: '[...] there has never been a nuclear weapons programme in Iran'. Whatever the case may be, the assessment by the group of sixteen intelligence agencies is a clear signal from opponents within the establishment to the current American administration.
The National Intelligence Estimate, excerpts of which were made public at the beginning of this month, has been known about internally for a year or longer, according to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. It was so long in coming because it was sent back three times by the White House with a memo stating that it needed to be rewritten, according to ex-CIA agent Philip Giraldi. Bush would have been informed in August of the fact that Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Because this report has been circulating for so long, it's quite possible that it's at the root of the change in course in the American approach to the Iran problem. Since this summer, the American emphasis has shifted from the alleged Iranian desire to manufacture nuclear weapons to their alleged involvement with the Iraqi insurgency. This indicates that - in spite of the facts - the most powerful elements in the White House want to stay the course, in the direction of a confrontation with Iran. Shortly before the release of the NIE there were still indications that America was preparing an attack in the near future, based on attack plans that remain otherwise unchanged. The White House intention to stay the course is also evidenced by the fact that, despite having prior knowledge of the NIE, President Bush was still warning of World War Three in October, followed a few days later by a statment almost as forceful from Vice President Cheney: 'We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon'. Bush, on December 4, 2007 after publication of the report: 'My opinion hasn't changed. Our policy remains the same. I see a danger, and much of the world sees the same danger'. To some extent he is correct about this because Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, the leaders of Germany and France respectively, let it be known in a response to the report that they had not changed their minds regarding their position towards Iran. On the same day that Bush made his statments about WWIII, Seymour Hersh, acting on the basis of information from his sources, offered a glimpse into the President's mind, saying that Bush is privately of the opinion that the Iranians must put a complete halt to their nuclear activities and will have to destroy everything, after which American inspectors should be brought in to monitor the situation. The change in direction along with the statement by Bush indicate that the neoconservative goal remains unchanged, though a few adjustments have been made to the plan.
A sense of relief resonates throughout a lot of the commentary surrounding the NIE, often even a sense of optimism. 'World War Three just isn't in there', writes the American correspondent for Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. He reckons that Bush's role has been played out, 'unless a catastrophe or attack occurs'. In an article with the explicit headline Forget war with Iran by Newsweek journalist Michael Hirsh, that same optimism can be heard, though he maintains similar reservations as well. After having concluded that the case against Iran will now have to be solved through diplomacy, 'not war', he takes care to note in parentheses: 'That's assuming the Israelis don't act on their own'. Any suspicion that the optimism found throughout these commentaries might be misplaced can be traced to wording that the authors evidently feel is necessary to include: 'unless...', 'assuming...'. The significance of this wording should not be underestimated. This has to do with the fact that the data in the report, which are of such importance to the world, are of secondary importance to the deciders in the White House. That was proven quite clearly during the run-up to the war with Iraq.
The Bush Administration's targeting of Iraq had nothing to do with the facts that were presented and the arguments that were made by the world community. The world talked about facts and arguments as if they lay at the root of the question as to whether or not the regime of Saddam Hussein should have been overthrown. The desire to attack Iraq was not based on facts and arguments. What is was based on was an ideology. Because it wasn't about the facts - arguments made in favor of attacking Iraq were adjusted as necessary. First Saddam was implicated in the September 11th attacks. Later, when that didn't stick, a different option was chosen for 'bureaucratic reasons', according to war architect Paul Wolfowitz. The new option was to use weapons of mass destruction as a reason for a war against Iraq. Because this argument also fell short of reality, facts were distorted and adjusted in order to achieve the goal; 'the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy', as the British noted with a flair for understatement. It can be compared to a magic trick in which the public is manipulated into looking at the right hand while the left hand pulls off the major sleight of hand. Sometimes the magic gets ruined later on. By Wolfowitz for instance, who said that Iraq 'floats on a sea of oil', and by former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, who divulged the public secret that Iraqi oil was a key motivation behind America's removal of Saddam. The war with Iraq had an ideological motive, just like a potential war with Iran. But you can't convince the public with ideology. You need magic for that.
With Iraq, Bush and Cheney didn't allow themselves to be held up by the facts. At that time, everything possible was done - with success - to skirt and twist the facts. The ideology of Cheney and Bush also remains unaffected by the facts in the case of Iran. Former weapons inspector Scott Ritter feels the same way: 'But what we have is an administration that has already made up its mind about what it wants to do with Iran and has been fabricating a case based on a nuclear weapons programme that the US intelligence community now says doesn't exist today. Do you think there will be a change in policy? And the answer of course is no because they have got the cart before the horse. They have got the policy out in front; inconveniently the intelligence community didn't back them on the nuclear weapons issue. [...] Anybody who thinks for a second that this National Intelligence Estimate retards the ability of the Bush Administration to engage in military action with Iran, you are sadly mistaken. The Bush administration's policy has been made. This estimate was not used to make policy and [...] the president is not going to let this estimate get in the way of continuing to articulate Iran as a threat. [... The] Bush administration has never shown a tendency to respect the normal system of governance. This estimate won't have an impact at all.'
It will of course be more difficult for the neoconservative movement to carry out its ideology in the form of what up until now has seemed like the unavoidable result of their policies - an attack on Iran. This situation 'does not mean that the chances of a military action is zero, but it just means that it is now that much harder for this administration to sell the case of war to its own people and to its allies', says Vali R. Nasr, Adjunct Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Considering the fanaticism of the neoconservatives in the White House, it is unlikely - just like during the lead-up to the Iraq war - that no further efforts will be made to this end. Precisely because of the NIE, these efforts might take on a more extreme quality in order to overcome the hurdles presented by the facts as laid out in the report.
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