National intelligence curveball
While Bush is still panning for war on Iran, America's intelligence community expresses its doubts, or so it seems, writes Hassan Nafaa*
The last edition of the US National Intelligence Council's National Intelligence Estimate report on Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities reverberated around the world like a bomb. Although it was issued in November, it was only made available to the public a few days ago, and this would not have happened had it not been for pressure from Congress.
Because of the obvious importance of the report, I searched the Internet until I found the complete text. To my surprise, it was not as long and detailed as I had expected. In fact, rather than providing raw information or intelligence, it essentially outlined the "estimates" and conclusions drawn by 16 US intelligence agencies, among which was the National Intelligence Council, on the basis of the information available to them. About five of its nine pages were devoted to an explanation of the aims, various phases and process of "intelligence estimates" and the significance of their conclusions. As a result, the section pertaining directly to the Iranian nuclear programme was no more than four pages long.
How could a meagre four pages have had such a powerful effect? As I read through the pith of the analyses performed by all those intelligence agencies that had been monitoring the Iranian nuclear programme so closely and for so long I realised why. Their conclusions boiled down to the following:
First, Iran suspended its nuclear arms programme at the end of 2003. There is not a hint of evidence that it has resumed it since. Second, in the event that Iran does resume its nuclear arms programme it would most likely have to rely primarily on the uranium it enriches itself in reactors it has constructed and put into operation again in January 2006. Third, Iran is currently encountering major technical problems in operating these reactors, a large number of which are concentrated in Natanz, the country's most important nuclear energy site. Fourth, theoretically, the earliest possible date Iran could produce sufficient enriched uranium to be able to produce a nuclear bomb is 2009. However, the likelihood of Iran succeeding so soon is "very weak". Closer to 2015 would be a more realistic estimate. Finally, Iran will not be technically capable of producing a sufficient amount of plutonium to produce a plutonium bomb before 2015.
No wonder the White House was keen to suppress the report. Its conclusions are diametrically opposed to the line the Bush administration has been feeding the world. This administration has persistently held that Iran is secretly persisting in its ambition to build a nuclear bomb and is set on perpetrating a "nuclear holocaust". Therefore, the world has to join the US in doing whatever it takes to halt the nuclear programme of that renegade state, even if that involves recourse to force of arms. Then along came this report that not only proves Bush a liar, again, bent upon deceiving the American public and the rest of the world in the same way he duped them into war against Iraq, but should also prove a highly effective instrument in putting a halt to his extremely reckless and dangerous schemes.
To better appreciate the magnitude of the blow Bush received we should recall this extraordinary eccentric's vision of the world and the diabolic plans he had to put into effect. As we have long been painfully aware, Bush is a member of a clique of neo- conservatives closely connected with the fundamentalist Christian Zionist movement that believes that the resurrection of Greater Israel is a prerequisite for the second coming of Christ. Bush personally believes himself to be on speaking terms with God and that he was divinely singled out to lead the charge against evil terrorists -- on the top of the list of which rank Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas. But this mission was not just the glimmering epiphany of a born-again who was made to see the light by a Christian Zionist priest. It was the smokescreen for a carefully designed strategy, devised or supported by various American interests and political forces, for securing American hegemony over the world by taking complete and direct control over the area in which are located the world's largest oil fields.
Weak and beleaguered and very oil-rich Iraq was the natural starting point for setting this strategy into motion. Preparations for an invasion were already in full swing even before 11 September 2001. But when that occurred, Bush saw it as part of the Lord's design to light the way for the performance of his divine mission. The invasion of Afghanistan, according to this design, was the necessary prelude. But having accomplished this detour as soon as possible, he quickly turned his attention to Iraq as the keystone to the grand strategy of reordering the Middle East in a way favourable to securing American control over this region, its oil and the rest of the world. What Bush did not expect was for Iraq to turn into such a quagmire. Soon, however, he identified the source of that nightmare and began to draw up plans and set the regional and international stage for a military strike against that "satanic" power.
But a ground invasion of a country as large and rugged as Iran is simply not feasible, especially with American forces bogged down in Iraq. Yet neither could Bush conceive of the possibility of peacefully co-existing with Iran as a regional power whose strength and influence were growing by the day due to its ability to capitalise on America's drastic blunders in the Middle East. So he bided his time until the opportunity presented itself to contain the "danger" as he continued to tinker with his plans in accordance with regional and international developments. Naturally, the Iranian nuclear programme offered the most "credible" key and primary avenue towards the pursuit of weakening and isolating Iran through economic sanctions and lashing out at its allies. The war against Hizbullah and the attendant mass destruction of Lebanese infrastructure two summers ago was a tragic episode in this unfolding campaign. Although Hizbullah's ability to withstand and ultimately defeat the Israeli onslaught caused that invasion to backfire, the setback seemed to have strengthened Bush's resolve to efface that "enemy" whose strengths were mounting with every American and Israeli debacle.
Anyone who kept track of what was going on in Washington over the past year could see how desperately the US administration's most fanatical wing, led by Dick Cheney, was working to set the stage for a lethal strike against Iran. There is no doubt that if the administration had been reasonably convinced that its plans for such a blow would succeed it would have already delivered it some time ago. But the ever daring, ever stubborn Bush would not despair. Indeed, he could almost taste the thrill of this next military adventure -- that is until that nasty little report from America's own intelligence agencies appeared, as though deliberately intended to make his plans go up in smoke.
Still, some see the situation differently. They think that such a potentially damning report would never have been made public without a green light from somewhere in the ruling establishment and that the reason this green light was given was because it needs a way out from the hole it has dug itself into. They have a rather powerful argument on their side. The Bush administration, or at least some an influential part of it, seeks a change of tack in American policy towards the region, some say, and the publication of the report furnishes the opening. In support of their argument the same analysts point to developments that suggest a deliberate attempt to cool down the region. For instance, there were the intensive direct, indirect and secret communications with Syria to persuade Damascus to participate in the Annapolis conference. The conference, which was attended by delegations from 52 states and international organisations, among which were 16 Arab delegations, had the immediate impact of reducing the level of tension in Lebanon to such a degree as to open the possibility not only of an agreement on the person of Michel Suleiman as president but of comprehensive reconciliation. In addition, there is news of intensive Egyptian-Syrian-Saudi Arabian coordination aiming to prepare the internal Palestinian scene for what some believe will be a serious negotiating process that will culminate in a final Palestinian-Israeli settlement by the end of 2008. Indeed, some predict that the three Arab nations will be convening a summit soon and that this summit may also include Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
I, for one, think that this viewpoint is overly optimistic and does not hold water in face of a close analysis of the information at hand. Above all, the National Intelligence Estimate report in question had to be pried into the open by considerable pressure on the part of a Democratic-controlled Congress and against a climate of mounting political party rivalries as the official onset of the American presidential campaign approaches. At the same time, I would not rule out that influential circles in the US -- and perhaps even in the Bush administration also -- favoured the publication of the report in order to forestall a military confrontation that might not only backfire, but that could precipitate untold damage to US interests.
In other words, the report was published in the context of growing and widespread alarm that the Bush regime's insane and reckless folly would severely jeopardise the very future of the US. It was also published in the context of the contest between two warring visions of America's role in the world, the one holding that America can not rule the world on the strength of its military might alone and that it must seek a new mode of conducting its international relations based on diplomacy and "soft power", and the other, championed by the American ultra right, maintaining that America is still all-powerful in spite of its many setbacks. This does not mean that there is not a consensus in the US over the Iranian nuclear issue. What the publication of the report tells us is that some important people in the US realise that Iran is not as close to possessing a nuclear weapon as the Bush administration had hoped everyone would believe, and therefore that there is still time to address the issue under an administration that is not as maniacal and that is hopefully wiser.
But Bush is not the type to give in easily. Already he has attempted to use portions of the report to support his claim that just because Iran halted its nuclear armaments programme doesn't mean that it won't resume it in the future, because the Iranian regime just can't be trusted, and so on. As a result of his tenacity and other factors, the direction US policy will take towards the Middle East will not be clear at least until the official kick-off of the US presidential election campaigns in a few months from now. The attempt to turn down the heat in the region by reducing tensions in Lebanon, for example, may only have ushered in the calm that precedes the storm. Whether the situation remains calm in Lebanon and the Middle East in general is heavily contingent upon progress towards a true and lasting settlement to the Middle East conflict. Unfortunately, the prospects of this still appear dim given that Israel has offered no indication that it is ready or willing to commit to that type of settlement and given that Washington has shown no sign that it is ready or willing to exert any pressure whatsoever on Israel.
Indeed, it is sufficient to observe what transpired before, during and after Annapolis to realise how bleak the situation still is. Before that conference, Abbas was unable to secure an agreement over a declaration of principles and a timeframe. In Annapolis, he failed to achieve more than an agreement to return to the negotiating table on the basis of a "roadmap" that is far more ambiguous than UN Security Council Resolution 242. Immediately in the wake of that conference Israel announced the beginning of a new programme for expanding its settlements in and around Jerusalem. What kind of settlement could possibly arise against that backdrop?
* The writer is a professor of political science at Cairo University.