The Ironic IAEA

Mohammed ElBaradei has issued a new IAEA finding that states Iranian explanations of its nuclear activities — with one glaring exception –are “consistent” with the agency’s own findings. Danielle Pletka and Michael Rubin slam ElBaradai in today’s Wall Street Journal for his agenda in assisting Iran in hiding the true nature of its nuclear activities, and of hiding behind his Nobel Peace Prize to do so:

The report represents Mr. ElBaradei’s best effort to whitewash Tehran’s record. Earlier this month, on Iranian television, he made clear his purpose, announcing that he expected “the issue would be solved this year.” And if doing so required that he do battle against the IAEA’s technical experts, reverse previous conclusions about suspect programs, and allow designees of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad an unprecedented role in crafting a “work plan” that would allow the regime to receive a cleaner bill of health from the IAEA — so be it.
Mr. ElBaradei’s report culminates a career of freelancing and fecklessness which has crippled the reputation of the organization he directs. He has used his Nobel Prize to cultivate an image of a technocratic lawyer interested in peace and justice and above politics. In reality, he is a deeply political figure, animated by antipathy for the West and for Israel on what has increasingly become a single-minded crusade to rescue favored regimes from charges of proliferation.
Mr. ElBaradei assumed the directorship on Dec. 1, 1997. On his watch, but undetected by his agency, Iran constructed its covert enrichment facilities and, according to the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, engaged in covert nuclear-weapons design. India and Pakistan detonated nuclear devices. A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear godfather, exported nuclear technology around the world.
In 2003, Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi confessed to an undetected weapons effort. Mr. ElBaradei’s response? He rebuked the U.S. and U.K. for bypassing him. When Israel recently destroyed what many believe was a secret (also undetected) nuclear facility in Syria, Mr. ElBaradei told the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh that it is “unlikely that this building was a nuclear facility,” although his agency has not physically investigated the site.

ElBaradei does have an enthusiasm for helping Iran escape the consequences for its nuclear research. Tehran fooled the IAEA for almost a decade while it worked on nuclear weapons, including several years while ElBaradei ran the agency. After the discovery of their attempt to construct a nuclear weapon, ElBaradei remained strangely credulous of their later denials, even though the Iranians have never let the IAEA into suspect facilities such as Parchin.
As with other international regulatory boards and commissions, the IAEA seems more focused on opposing the US rather than stopping nuclear-arms proliferation. This comes as a piece to the UN Human Rights Council, which took up its anti-West, anti-Israeli business right where it left off from the old Human Rights Committee after a change of letterhead. The IAEA and the UN seem determined to prove that pursuit of multilateral bureaucracies are a folly that cannot long be suffered if one wants real security against real threats.
And ironically, the IAEA is helping to undermine the UN. While the UN Security Council tries to contain Iran and take the threat from the mullahcracy seriously, ElBaradei’s pronouncements make gridlock at the UNSC all but inevitable. His rosy reports give Russia and China an excuse to drag their feet on confronting Tehran, which will inevitably force the US, France, and UK to seek solutions that bypass Turtle Bay. As Pletka and Rubin conclude, the IAEA is working overtime to make a military solution the only option left on the table.

A Reworked NIE?

Former UN Ambassador John Bolton wants DNI Michael McConnell to redo the National Intelligence Estimate to properly reflect the threat Iran poses to the region and the US. The do-over should emphasize the dual-use nature of its nuclear program, which Bolton claims got glossed over in the original (via Memeorandum):

Today, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee (and Thursday on the House side) to give the intelligence community’s annual global threat analysis. These hearings are always significant, but the stakes are especially high now because of the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran.
Criticism of the NIE’s politicized, policy-oriented “key judgments” has spanned the political spectrum and caused considerable turmoil in Congress. Few seriously doubt that the NIE gravely damaged the Bush administration’s diplomatic strategy. With the intelligence community’s credibility and impartiality on the line, Mr. McConnell has an excellent opportunity to correct the NIE’s manifold flaws, and repair some of the damage done to international efforts to stop Iran from obtaining deliverable nuclear weapons.

Bolton wants McConnell to commit to three actions in order to rebuild confidence in future NIEs. First, explain to Congress how this NIE got distorted and commit to a rewrite that more objectively reflects the current intel and analysis on Iran. Next, Bolton wants a commitment to a more professional process in compiling future NIEs, especially on the unclassified portions. Finally, the DNI has to enforce operational security by stopping the leaks.
It all sounds great, but can McConnell really commit to this and deliver? I think McConnell would want to have already made these commitments to Congress and the nation, but like most government bureaucracies, turning the ship takes a lot of time and more than a little strength. If the intel community has been as politicized as Bolton argues — and it certainly appears that way — a housecleaning would be required to make the kinds of changes necessary.
Needless to say, a purge during wartime is not the best set of circumstances. Joseph Stalin found that out the hard way in June 1941. It would get messy, and it would take the focus off of national defense and counterterrorism at a time when we can least afford it.
At the least, though, the DNI needs to revisit the NIE and explain how we could go from a high confidence in one year that Iran had continued its nuclear-weapons program to a high confidence the next year that it had been dormant for four years. The nation’s confidence in its intel is not even moderate any more, and thanks to over a decade of bad calls, missing data, and dramatic reversals, it’s not likely to improve much without that destructive housecleaning.

What Part Of Not Authorized Did Khalilzad Not Understand?

The State Department reacted angrily to the appearance of UN Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad on a panel at the Davos Economic Forum, along with two members of the Iranian government. The US restricts diplomatic contacts with Iran and requires prior approval for any such interaction. Apparently, Khalilzad took it upon himself to make that decision:

An appearance by America’s U.N. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, on a World Economic Forum discussion panel — alongside two Iranian officials, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, and a close aide to President Ahmadinejad, Samare Hashemi — was unauthorized by the State Department and angered Secretary of State Rice, Washington sources said yesterday.
The panel, titled “Understanding Iran’s Foreign Policy,” took place in Davos, Switzerland, and dealt mostly with Iran’s nuclear policy, just as Security Council diplomats — including America’s U.N. mission headed by Mr. Khalilzad — began to forge a new resolution that would impose new punitive measures on Iran for its refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment program, as demanded by the council. …
The Bush administration policy, however, calls on all American officials to seek an authorization from the State Department before conducting dialogue with Iranian officials. The only person exempted from that restriction is the American ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, who can discuss Iraq-related issues with Iranian officials on a regular basis, according to a State Department official in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Mr. Khalilzad’s participation on the Davos panel was “not authorized,” the official told The New York Sun yesterday, after a videotaping of the event was posted on the Web site YouTube and made the rounds among diplomats at the United Nations.

According to Power Line, Khalilzad not only defied American policy, but let slide an opening comment that insulted his predecessor, John Bolton. The moderator noted in his effusive introduction of Khalilzad that among his outstanding qualities was “the further, really formidable advantage of having a name that is not John Bolton.” Regardless of whether Khalilzad had prior authorization, allowing the insult to Bolton to stand unchallenged represents an insult to the United States and a lack of testicular fortitude on the part of his replacement.
Some have offered Khalilzad as a Secretary of State in a future Republican administration. I’d say this scotches that as a possibility. If he can’t follow the rules and represent the foreign policy of the US, then he doesn’t deserve the appointment, and may not deserve the one he has now.
The video itself can be seen here:

I find it interesting that the Davos Economic Summit now makes its panel discussions public via YouTube. Three years ago, when Eason Jordan accused the US military of having a policy of assassinating journalists in war zones, Davos couldn’t be bothered to publish the video or audio of the actual remarks of the then-CNN vice president. I guess they find it easier to publish insults towards the American government.

Ahmadinejad Gets His Nose Tweaked

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad got out-populisted by his masters yesterday in a rare public display of disagreement between the Iranian president and the real power, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini. Khameini ordered his president to obey the legislature and fund subsidies for natural gas in a cold winter. Ahmadinejad had previously refused, claiming that the move would not be fiscally responsible:

The political authority of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, suffered a serious blow today after the country’s most powerful figure sided with MPs by ordering him to supply cheap gas to villages undergoing power cuts amid an unexpectedly harsh winter.
In a humiliating rebuff, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader who has the final say over all state matters, ordered the enactment of a law requiring the government to provide £500m of gas supplies from emergency reserve funds.
Ahmadinejad had refused to implement the measure, accusing parliament of exceeding its powers in passing the bill in response to plummeting temperatures and gas cuts, which have left many areas without heating during the country’s coldest winter in years.
At least 64 people are reported to have died after gas supplies were turned off in sub-zero temperatures. The cuts, belying Iran’s status as possessor of the world’s second biggest natural gas reserves, have provoked public outrage and threaten to turn a mood of rumbling unhappiness into a winter of discontent for Ahmadinejad.

Everyone knows that Khameini wields the actual power in Iran, but such a public chastisement is rare. Why did Khameini do it? The “rumbling” against Ahmadinejad may have gotten to a level where the mullahcracy might worry about damage to their own grip on power. After all, they control who can run for the office, and most suspect they control who wins it as well. Ahmadinejad is their man in Teheran, and widespread anger against him means trouble for the mullahs.
The wonder is that they had to intercede at all. Ahmadinejad has worked his populist approach to great effect until now, supporting all kinds of subsidies that have amplified the damage done to the Iranian economy by global sanctions. Why stand on fiscal discipline on the issue of natural gas, when dozens of his previous supporters in the poorer economic strata are literally freezing to death?
The Guardian points out that the relaxation of military pressure on Iran may have allowed Khameini to act against Ahmadinejad. Since the release of the NIE, Khameini has stopped scolding Ahmadinejad’s critics and has essentially become one himself. On the other hand, Khameini is not likely to get another president who so completely personifies the original revolution, both at home and abroad. He would not likely undermine his own creation, and such a public devotee of the 1979 revolution, unless he saw danger in the association.

How Close Were We To War?

According to The Telegraph, we came within moments of open warfare with Iran. Iranian patrol boats harassed the US Navy in international waters in the Straits of Hormuz over the weekend. They dropped unknown objects in the water and sent a threat of attack over the radio, only dispersing as the commander of the American fleet gave orders to open fire:

A Pentagon spokesman revealed that five Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy boats harrassed and provoked three US ships in the narrow waterway at the mouth of the Persian Gulf at the weekend.
The Iranian craft came within 200 yards of the US vessels, which were sailing in international waters.
The Iranian provocations included disregarding warnings to pull back, dropping mysterious objects in the path of the US ships and a hostile radio transmission.
The Pentagon said a radio message warned: “I am coming at you. You will explode in a couple of minutes.”

Ten months ago, the Iranians tested British resolve in the Gulf, and came away with an important propaganda victory after capturing 15 Royal Navy sailors and marines. The UK did not engage in a military response, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave the Brits a “gift” by returning the captives.
Undoubtedly, Iran wanted to test American resolve, but could not isolate a small enough vessel to pursue a similar mission. Instead, they basically did a probe to see how far they could go before provoking an armed response. This information could prove useful for Iran’s terrorist partners in Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad in the Gulf and elsewhere. It looks suspiciously like a dry run for a repeat of the USS Cole bombing in Aden seven years ago.
This cannot be allowed to happen again. The next time patrol boats approach American vessels and threaten attack, one of them has to head to the bottom of the gulf. If the Iranians want a test, we can provide them with one for emergency evac.

Khameini: Goodbye Doesn’t Mean Forever

The man with the real power in Iran hinted that he would like improved Iranian-American relations in the future, although not at the moment. Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the man in charge of Iran’s Guardian Council and the true national leader of Iran’s mullahcracy, also insisted that Iran needs to generate 20,000 megawatts of nuclear electricity within the next 20 years so it can continue to sell its oil and gas reserves for income:

Iran’s supreme leader said on Thursday restoring ties with the United States now would harm the Islamic state, but he did not rule it out in the future.
“Not having relations with America is one of our main policies but we have never said this relationship should be cut forever,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a speech in the central province of Yazd, state television reported.
“Certainly, the day when having relations with America is useful for the nation I will be the first one to approve this relationship.”

Reuters plays its usual game with history as background for its readers. See if you can Spot The Missing Part in its recounting of how Iranian-American ties got severed:

The United States cut ties with Tehran shortly after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. The two countries are at odds over Tehran’s atomic ambitions and also disagree over who is to blame for the violence in Iraq.

Gee, I wonder what they may have missed. Could it be that the ties got severed because Iran invaded our embassy and kept dozens of American diplomatic personnel hostage for 444 days? Apparently, that little factoid didn’t make the Reuters editorial cut.
Iran apparently has had second thoughts about the American as Great Satan policy they’ve pursued publicly for almost 30 years. Their subjects simply are not buying it any longer. Anti-Americanism doesn’t sell with the younger generation no matter how many times Khameini and his minions mention Mossadegh. These Iranians have no personal memory of pre-revolution Iran and the Shah, but they can see how the West lives and know the difference.
They can’t just use the US as a theoretical scapegoat for all that ails Iran, either. Part of that change comes from the proximity of American troops to the Iranian border in Iraq. The Iranians have to deal with the Americans now as more than just a bogeyman, especially since the Iraqis now running the country have allied themselves with us despite Iran’s best efforts to break those ties. Funding and arming insurgents and fomenting a sectarian war didn’t work, and now Khameini and the rest of the mullahs have to deal with the reality of a long-term American engagement on their doorstep.
Khameini may be responding to a series of signals from Washington looking for a diplomatic opening. We have seen this dance before, during the reign of Mohammed Khatami as Khameini’s puppet. Once again, the Iranians have played coy, rejecting the flirtation provided by the Bush administration, although not directly and certainly not completely. Khameini has signaled that he no longer wants to talk about the US as a Great Satan but as a potential partner sometime.
Khameini wants to solidify his country’s nuclear program, and he’s trying to hold off global sanctions long enough to split the Western coalition. A few winks and a diplomatic come-on costs him nothing, and it could be enough to have at least Russia take the bait.

The Russian Conundrum

Russia has begun transferring nuclear fuel to Iran for the completion of its contract for the nuclear power plant at Bushehr. The delivery marks a victory for Iran, but also a potential trap. The Russians claimed today that its delivery of fuel renders a uranium enrichment program by Iran unnecessary — as the UN begins considering another round of sanctions for the Iranian refusal to suspend enrichment:

“We believe that Iran has no economic need to proceed with its program of uranium enrichment,” Lavrov told the daily.
“We are trying to persuade the Iranians that freezing the program is to their advantage as it would immediately lead to talks with all countries of the “six,” including the United States.”
Such talks, he said, would aim to end any suspicion that Iran had any secret aim to produce nuclear weapons. “Iran’s agreement to this proposal is in everyone’s interest.”
Iran was aware, he said, that should there be any deviation from agreements to build Bushehr under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency, “we will freeze our cooperation.”

The sudden warning from Russia comes as a bit of a surprise. Russia had spent the last few weeks defending its resumed cooperation on Bushehr, and had insisted that the Iranians would adhere to the terms of the contract. Now the Russians have sent a not-so-subtle warning to Teheran, telling them in effect that their insistence on enrichment could push Russia into approving a new and tougher round of sanctions.
Russia also warned the US on regime change. In the same interview, Lavrov said that any attempt by the US to force regime change as a goal in the sanctions would be an “improper partnership” and would force Russia to end its cooperation against Iranian proliferation. The US has softened its public rhetoric over the last year about regime change, probably having received this message from both Russia and China less publicly.
What could Russia have in mind with its new public stance? They certainly want to keep their economic engagement with Iran, but probably see that the West has little willingness to allow Iran to go nuclear on its own. Nicolas Sarkozy has made that clear — and Russia needs to trade freely with France even more than with Iran. The Russians also need the UN as a check on American projection of power, and that won’t work unless the UN can be seen to work to keep rogue states like Iran in check. And in the end, the Russians don’t want to see the mullahs wind up with a nuclear weapon any more than the West, especially given the state of th Caucasus.

The Iranian Score

Now that the Russians have begun to fuel the nuclear power station at Bushehr, the Iranians want to build more reactors. In fact, they will build nineteen more while the UN debates whether to increase sanctions on Teheran for their refusal to stop their uranium enrichment program:
Iran will soon announce an international tender for building 19 nuclear power plants, an MP was quoted as saying, a week after Russia said it had begun fuel deliveries to the Islamic state’s first such facility. …

Russia said on December 17 it had delivered the first shipment of nuclear fuel to the Bushehr power plant in southern Iran, a step Moscow and Washington said should convince Tehran to shut down its own disputed uranium enrichment activities.
Iran, however, said it would not halt its efforts to enrich uranium, a process to make fuel for power plants that can also provide material for atomic weapons, if refined much further.
Iranian officials say domestically-produced fuel is needed for other power plants it wants to build as part of a planned network with a capacity for 20,000 MW by 2020.

Now the Iranians want to operate a score of power plants. That may help explain their insistence on enrichment, but it also provides a rather convenient cover for enriching uranium for other purposes. Until Iran fully complies with international covenants and UN resolutions, we simply cannot verify that their program has no malign intent.

Russia Will Finish Bushehr

Russia has negotiated a payment schedule with Iran and will complete the Bushehr nuclear power plant, both nations announced today. The move comes in the wake of the NIE that reversed years of intelligence analysis and declared Iran’s nuclear weapons program halted. The Russians appear happy to accept that conclusion, even if Britain and Israel strongly disagree:

Russia and Iran have settled all differences over the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power station and agreed on a time-table for its completion, the Russian contractor building the station said on Thursday.
“We have resolved all the problems with the Iranians,” said Sergei Shmatko, president of Atomstroiexport. “We have agreed with our Iranian colleagues a timeframe for completing the plant and we will make an announcement at the end of December.”
Russia’s role in building the Bushehr plant on the Gulf is at the centre of a diplomatic dispute. Western powers, which suspect Iran wants to develop a nuclear weapon, have pressed Moscow to drop the project.

After the release of the NIE, this was probably inevitable. The Russians want to export their nuclear technology for much-needed hard cash. They have not supported the sanctions on Iran imposed by the UN Security Council except as lip service, and in any case have never felt themselves bound to honor economic sanctions at all, as their history with Iraq proved. The American conclusion that Iran has stopped work on nuclear weapons provided them with the perfect opening for putting Bushehr back on track.
This puts the situation in a critical state. Once Russia delivers the fuel, an airstrike will be out of the question for Bushehr. The Israelis made sure to hit Osirak before France delivered the fuel in order to avoid spreading nuclear contamination over a wide area, where it would affect civilians. If the Israelis believe that Bushehr represents the same kind of threat as Osirak, it will have to strike very soon or not at all. They have stated over and over again that they will not allow Iran to go nuclear; will they have the same determination as they did in 1981 to stop them?

NCRI: NIE Half Right

Unfortunately, it’s the wrong half. Previous NIEs did not acknowledge a shutdown of the Iranian nuclear weapons program in 2003, but the new one fails to recognize its restart in 2004. The Iranian opposition group that exposed the program in the first place will publicly state that the ODNI’s new estimate ignores evidence of the program’s continuance at new facilities:

The Iranian opposition group that first exposed Iran’s nuclear-fuel program said a U.S. intelligence analysis is correct that Tehran shut down its weaponization program in 2003, but claims that the program was relocated and restarted in 2004.
The claim, to be made public today by the National Council for Resistance in Iran, joins a broad pushback by conservative hawks who say the U.S. analysis has wrongly given the impression that Iran’s nuclear-fuel program doesn’t present an urgent threat.
In recent days, Republican lawmakers have called for a review of the process that created the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, a nonclassified version of which was released last week. Senior U.S. officials have been consulting with allies in Israel and Europe to explain why the estimate differed so drastically from previous assessments.
A former U.S. intelligence official who works closely with the White House on Iran said that all the intelligence related to the NIE was being reassessed and that information coming from sources such as the NCRI would be included. “You have to take seriously what they say, but you also have to realize that they have gotten things wrong,” the official said.

The ODNI has had its problems with the NIE. The authors got the reaction they apparently desired at home, but have been blasted abroad for their reversal. The British and the Israelis have scolded the American intel community for its gullibility; both went so far as to go public with their disgust, a remarkable and pointed development.
Even the IAEA hasn’t bought into the NIE. Today, they announced that they will seriously consider any information the NCRI brings to them in analyzing Iranian intentions. Too bad that the ODNI didn’t do the same.
If the ODNI expected to raise American credibility with this estimate, they have failed miserably. Other nations may not want to go to war with Iran, but they don’t buy for a moment that Iran stopped pushing for a nuclear weapon. Even Bush didn’t want to go to war, but to keep pushing for economic and diplomatic sanctions to force Iran to negotiate. Now those efforts have been crippled by the NIE — and Europe understands that it might bring war faster than ever.
This gambit by a few in high places within the intel community has backfired. It has exposed them as political players, attempting to twist intel in order to justify their view of foreign policy. They did it so baldly and so badly that the White House could leave it to our allies to point out the obvious, and even the administration’s non-allies in the IAEA.
Somewhere, Dick Cheney’s smiling today.