Nuclear Fallout

“Dishonest”, “misleading”, “lying” and “spinning” are just some of the measured adjectives used in the mainstream US media to characterise George Bush, the president, and Stephen Hadley, his national security adviser, after they embraced the damning National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) summary report on Iran as proof of the effectiveness and success of the administration’s Tehran policy.

The NIE judges “with high confidence that in the fall of 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons programme”, and that “Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons programme suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005”.

NIE report: Iran Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities

It further said that “…Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs”. And that “this NIE does not assume that Iran intends to acquire nuclear weapons”.

The White House seems to have known of much of this and more for some time, but chose to escalate the war rhetoric against Tehran.

Depending on which version of the story one believes, the White House knew about the “discovery” any time between last spring and summer.

Even when new intelligence compelled the National Intelligence Board (NIB) to make a 180-degree change in its estimate, rendering the Iranian threat anything but imminent, administration officials continued to speak of the threat of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme until hours before its publication.

The White House sent its third carrier into the Gulf transforming its “crisis management” mode with Iran into direct “confrontation management” and sealing the war scenario against Tehran when the decision comes down.

President Bush also warned during a news conference on October 17 that an Iranian nuclear bomb could lead to “world war three” and asked Congress to pass the highest defence budget in the history of the country, mostly under the guise of an imminent Iranian threat that he knew did not exist.

Déjà vu

In a repeat of the dreadful and misleading escalation against Iraq prior to its 2003 invasion, the Bush administration escalated the war rhetoric against Tehran even though it knew with high confidence that it had no programme, no capability and, with moderate confidence, no intention of developing a nuclear weapons programme.

The leading presidential candidates followed suit.

Rudy Giuliani claimed: “As we all know, Iran is seeking nuclear weapons and they’re threatening to use them.”
Likewise, Senator John McCain insisted: “There’s no doubt that [Iran is] moving forward with the acquisition of a nuclear weapon.”

And Hillary Clinton, before giving the president another vote of confidence to go to war, insisted that “Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is in the forefront of that, as they are in the sponsorship of terrorism.”

To the surprise of many Western observers, it turns out that the policies of the Iranian and Iraqi leaders were based on realistic “cost and benefit” grounds, not the irrational behaviour Washington accused them of as dangerous and unpredictable crazies.

On the other hand, the Bush administration’s war policies towards Iraq and Iran have proven to be hardly cost and benefit driven even when calculating the oil and strategic interests.

Worse, the Bush administration lost all credibility when it went on to intimidate its allies and foes alike to punish Iran. It also attacked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Mohamed ElBaradai, its director, for being soft on Iran, knowing all too well that they have been right all along.

Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of sate, told ElBaradei that his body was not “in the business of diplomacy”.

ElBaradei, to his credit, has long believed Iran possessed no nuclear weapons programme and made a deal under which it would answer long-standing questions about its nuclear activities.

Cover up?

According to Senator Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Bush knew about the new information regarding Iran’s nuclear programme, because he and his deputy on the committee were also informed, albeit in a more general manner, by the intelligence community.

Gary Sick, a US-based Iran expert, estimates that the president might have known some nine months ago, when according to him the Iranian deputy defence minister defected to the West.

On November 14, Mike McConnell, NIE director, told the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars that he was not going to make his report public. Which begs the question, why has the White House allowed the publication of this embarrassing report?

Two possible scenarios have surfaced since the publication:

First, Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, insisted on it. The Pentagon finances most of the programmes and departments that contribute to the NIE database.

Unlike the 2005 pro-war Rumsfeld, Gates does not want another Middle Eastern war as he told Congress recently, especially in light of the debacle in Iraq.

Second, it seems that congressional leaders who oppose Bush’s Iran policy insisted that it be publicised after hearing or reading some of its preliminary conclusions.
In an election year, any such news is good news for the Democrats.

By default or by design?

Some believe that the Bush administration, famous for its political discipline, is none the less using the NIE in a clever, even if desperate, attempt to climb down from the hysterical “Carthage must be destroyed” line.

After all, how many times can you mention World War Three without eventually having to start it?

Now that it is out, the new estimate could neutralise the neo-conservative fringe, and let the administration out of a rhetorical corner.

The White House announcement of the president’s Middle East trip at the beginning of next year, following the attendance this week by Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the Iranian president, at the Gulf co-operation summit, underlines the desire to relax tensions in the region following Annapolis and the relative “improvements” of the Iraq situation.

Today and in light of the NIE findings, some observers believe the central issue for the US and Iran is no longer the nuclear question but rather the future of Iraq.

The US understands that it “needs Iran for the endgame in Iraq”, while for Iran, the recent developments in Iraq encourage it to make a deal with Washington before the latter strikes a deal with its adversaries.

Three scenarios

Now that the new estimate is out, something has got to give.

First, international and domestic pressure will build up against a pre-emptive strike and, my guess, at least two permanent members will stand against another UN Security Council resolution punishing Iran, despite its civilian programme that contradicts past resolutions.

Second, the NIE publication might pave the way to bilateral negotiations between the US and Iran without stiff preconditions in order to relax the tensions in the Gulf with the participation of Iran’s Arab neighbours, as well as its European allies.

Now that the nuclear roadblock is out of the way, Washington will find it ever more necessary and ever more enticing to talk to Iran about a “helpful” and perhaps beneficial role for itself and Iraq in the Gulf.

Either way, the White House will certainly face more questions and inquiries regarding the discrepancies of timings and policies; as more insiders come clean on US policy towards Iran. Americans would want to know what Bush and Co knew, when did they know it and what have they done or not done about it?

As so many commentators have said the morning after Bush and Hadley embraced the NIE report, the central question begging for an answer revolves around how corrupt politics have lead to dangerous policies.

MARWAN BISHARA is a senior political commentator for Al Jazeera.