US reversal on Iran intel reflects breaking of the ranks: analysts
WASHINGTON, Dec 7 (AFP) Dec 07, 2007
The US reversal on Iran's nuclear weapons program has exposed a breaking of ranks within a waning administration, with US intelligence and military professionals asserting themselves on issues of war and peace, analysts said.
Senior US intelligence officials said this week they were responding to new information, subjected to more rigorous analysis than in the past, in declaring with "high confidence" that Iran halted a covert nuclear weapons program in 2003.
But their willingness to set aside all previous assumptions flowed from a determination not to repeat the errors made in 2002, when bogus intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction set the United States on a course to war, they said.
And unlike 2002, when US intelligence officials complained of administration pressure to "cherry-pick" intelligence that supported going to war, the intelligence community this time has asserted its independence.
"This is ours," a senior intelligence official said this week, telling reporters that policymakers had no input in the conclusions of the National Intelligence Estimate, as the assessment is called.
The US military also increasingly has taken its own tack since the ouster of Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary, quietly but firmly distancing itself from White House saber rattling on Iran.
The tough talk reached a peak with President George W. Bush's warning on October 17 of the threat of "World War III" if Iran acquires the knowledge to make nuclear weapons, language reminiscent of US rhetoric leading up to the Iraq invasion.
Vice President Dick Cheney followed up days later, telling a Washington think tank: "We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon."
But Admiral William Fallon, the head of the US Central Command, complained in a newspaper interview that incessant press speculation about military action was harming efforts to bring Iran onto a more positive path.
"It's a fundamental reversal of civil-military relations, and intelligence and political relationships, that were obvious in 2002," said Ray Takeyh, an expert on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations.
He said the new intelligence assessment was "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."
"In many ways this narrative suggests the irrelevance of the Bush White House, the irrelevance of the president himself," he said.
John Bolton, the former UN ambassador and a hawk on Iran, charged that intelligence agencies have used the assessment to "torpedo" the administration's policy on Iran.
"Too much of the intelligence community is engaging in policy formulation rather than 'intelligence' analysis, and too many in Congress and the media are happy about it," he said in an opinion piece in the Washington Post.
Bruce Riedel, who served as a CIA officer for 30 years, said the new intelligence estimate has turned the military option into "a dead letter," and the administration has only itself to blame.
"By politicizing the intelligence process so badly in 2002 and 2003, and by their constant interference they created a backlash -- not so much in the intelligence community per se, but in the Congress," he said.
"And the Congress I think can be credited with having forced the administration to go public with these kinds of things, and to put them out there," he said.
Bush said the new findings were driven by a "great discovery" which prompted a re-evaluation of the evidence.
But George Perkovich, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, had reached the same conclusion as the estimate two years earlier after talks in Tehran with Iranian leaders.
In a remarkably prescient paper in 2005, he urged US intelligence to look for evidence that Iran had shut down its program in 2003, arguing that without a weapons program Iran could play by the rules while still developing a nuclear "breakout" option.
"If you think about it, it is a very, very effective strategy and it would cause us the greatest possible difficulty," Perkovich said. "It would make it much tougher for the US to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue."
US intelligence failed to see it sooner, he said, because it was intent on finding evidence to support the assumption that Iran had a nuclear weapons program.
"But if you don't take that assumption and you look for an alternative explanation, it's relatively easy to find."All rights reserved. © 2005 Agence France-Presse. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presse.