Former US National Intelligence Council chairperson Thomas Fingar received the 2013 Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence on January 23 for his role overseeing the 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran.
The NIE finding’s that all 16 US intelligence agencies judged “with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program” removed the immediate threat of a US-Israeli military attack on Iran.
It contradicted the previous NIE report from 2005, which had judged with “high confidence” that “Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure”.
In his memoirs, then-US president George W Bush complained that the NIE “tied my hands on the military side … how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?”.
Fingar accepted the Sam Adams Award in a ceremony at the Oxford Union, which was attended by previous winners. The 2010 winner, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange, spoke via video-link from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Assange applauded Fingar for “trying to correct the movement towards war with Iran based on lies”.
Instead of welcoming the NIE’s findings as good news for “international peace and security”, the NIE panicked Western governments who feared the report would undermine their efforts to demonise and isolate Iran.
Scaremongering about Iran’s nuclear program has provided the pretext for sanctions and other measures aimed at forcing regime change in Iran, and serves to divert attention from US-Israeli aggression in the Middle East.
Bush wrote that he took the unusual step of authorising publication of a declassified version of the NIE’s key findings because he feared that the report’s conclusion “was so stunning that I felt it would immediately leak to the press”, and he wanted to be able to “shape the news stories”.
US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks show that the US went into damage-limitation mode following publication of the NIE’s key findings on December 2, 2007. According to the Cablegate database, 73 cables on the subject of Iran and the NIE were sent from US embassies in 48 different countries during the week after the report’s release.
Most of these cables relate to demarches the US sent to each country, which included the US’s “talking points” on the NIE and a request that the country make a public statement in support of the US position.
The cables show that US allies were also acutely aware of the need to spin the NIE’s findings. A French foreign affairs official acknowledged that the NIE posed a “public affairs problem”.
A December 4 cable reported that in a meeting with the US Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in London, British permanent under secretary of state, Peter Ricketts, “repeatedly stressed the ‘critical importance of the presentation’ of the NIE’s conclusions”.
The aim was to ensure that the report would “not detract from our collective ability to generate pressure on the regime via a third UNSC resolution and via EU action on sanctions”.
This was followed by meetings that the US and its allies used to “put the NIE into its proper context”. Diplomats and politicians argued that, despite the NIE’s key finding, “Iran could restart its nuclear weapons program at any time”. They repeatedly referred to uranium enrichment as “the real pacing element”, not weaponisation work.
Since the weaponisation was judged to have stopped in 2003, it was necessary to focus the rhetoric on Iran’s legal nuclear program.
On December 4, the British Foreign Office issued press guidance on the NIE saying, “[n]ow would be the worst time to relax … it is still vital to stop the Iranians now”.
The US and its allies also repeatedly raised Iran’s so-called “confidence deficit”. They claimed that because the NIE judged that Iran had a nuclear weapons program prior to 2003, “Iran should not have a program which could be used for military purposes”.
In a meeting with “like-minded” International Atomic Energy Agency ambassadors, it was agreed that a confession from Iran about alleged past weapons development was “not enough”. The British ambassador argued that some "penance" from Iran was required “to redress fundamental concerns about its nuclear program”.
In other words, Iran should relinquish the right to a civilian nuclear program accorded to it by virtue of its membership of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The cables show that the US also seized on the NIE’s finding that Iran decided to abandon its nuclear weapons program, “primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure”, as a justification for further punitive measures in preference to negotiations.
However, United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions were not imposed on Iran until 2006 and several countries, including The Netherlands and Azerbaijan, questioned the logic of this argument. Others suggested that, in light of the NIE’s findings, diplomacy should take precedence over sanctions and threats.
Swiss proposals to facilitate “direct confidential U.S.-Iranian talks” and promote “negotiation on an overall package without preconditions” were described in a December 5 cable about the NIE as “recurring, troublesome themes in Swiss [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] thinking”.
The US also used the threat of an increase in the price of oil to justify a continuing tough line on Iran, warning the deputy foreign minister of Tanzania that markets “react not only to real risk, but to mere perceptions of risk, and in a world where supply and demand are carefully balanced, a nuclear Iran could precipitate a dramatic spike in oil prices affecting the global economy, and particularly net importers like Tanzania”.
On the whole, US allies fell into line and insisted that the NIE would not change their policy towards Iran. However, many cables note their concern that the report would make it harder to persuade other countries, including UNSC permanent members, Russia and China, to back more UNSC sanctions against Iran.
Others clearly felt slighted by the US’s decision to release the NIE without telling them first, and several questioned the timing of its release.
Minister of State at the British Foreign Office Kim Howells said that the NIE had “floored” him. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said the NIE had “blindsided” him and complained that it “took the military option off the table and increased the difficulty of negotiations with the Iranians”.
French political advisers called the NIE a “disaster” and “[t]he best Christmas gift Ahmadinejad could have imagined". They anticipated “lasting consequences, including eliminating France's ability to build consensus in Europe”.
Saudi King Abdullah reassured the US that the NIE had not changed his view that Iran intended to pursue nuclear weapons, saying “the Iranians are not good people”.
Then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert said that the NIE was “not helpful” and that “Israel was convinced that Iran was determined to get the bomb, but there was no smoking gun”. He “stressed that every means must be used to pressure Iran”.
Likud Party chairperson Benjamin Netanyahu (now prime minister) took the same position, saying that “nobody in Israel believes Iran has stopped its nuclear program” and “it was important that the US not take the military option off the table”.
International Atomic Energy Director General Mohamed ElBaradei drew condemnation when he welcomed the NIE’s findings, stating publicly that “Iran obviously has been somewhat vindicated in saying they have not been working on a weapons program at least for the last few years”.
A December 21 cable reported: “The UK took particular exception to ElBaradei's post-NIE remark that Iran had been ‘vindicated’.”
Another cable entitled “IAEA/Iran: Like-Minded Ambassadors Regroup Post-NIE” reported the Australian Ambassador to the IAEA as saying, “we need to ‘come down hard’ on the DG”.
[This is the first of a three-part series by Linda Pearson on the significance of WikiLeaks and the NIE to war-drive against Iran.]
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