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Looks Like the Iran NIE Has Gone the Way of the Iraq Study Group

03.06.2008 05:22 | DISPATCHES

The UN Security Council just passed a third set of sanctions against Iran ostensibly because it refuses to cease and desist enriching uranium. In truth it was informed by another issue both more immediate and intimidating.

On February 22 the International Atomic Energy Agency issued what seemed like a passing grade to Iran's nuclear program. But shortly before that, its chief of weapons inspection, Olli Heinonen, exhibited approximately 1,000 documents and videos to an array of ambassadors and experts in Vienna.

They'd been downloaded from a laptop described by the Washington Post in 2005 as "allegedly stolen from an Iranian whom German intelligence tried, unsuccessfully, to recruit as an informant [and] whisked out of the country by another Iranian." Among them were apparent designs for nuclear warheads –- light years more menacing than just the enriched uranium that infuses them.

In response "Iran's ambassador, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, nearly shouting, called the [schematics] baseless fabrications," William Broad and David Sanger reported for the New York Times.

"Suddenly, the confrontation with Iran had reignited."

So much for the breather from worrying about the onset of another war that we were enjoying. Thanks for the hiatus from anxiety, however short-lived, were due the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran that pronounced Iran's nuclear weapons program inactive. But it seems to have been relegated to history's dustbin.

It's not common knowledge, but, as Broad and Sanger report, the NIE was shaped in part by the bitter complaints of Iran's scientists about the forced moratorium on warhead design in late 2003. Their notes and journals were obtained, in a rare intelligence coup, by the US.

Suddenly "Washington had a narrow but direct conduit into the most tightly held of Iranian secrets. It was exactly what it lacked in prewar Iraq." Disputes, however, ensued over whether it was wise to abandon judging Iran's nuclear program by its uranium enrichment.

But hidden within the NIE were the very seeds of its own destruction. In effect, the administration informed the intelligence community, "Fine. If you don't want to go the uranium route, no one can bend intelligence to its own purposes better than we can." In fact, the laptop itself might be the beneficiary of their expertise.

Could Ambassador Soltanieh's charges that the laptop material was fabricated be true? The only hint Broad and Sanger give is when they mention that the Vienna presentation "disclosed many new details suggesting the depth of Iran's past work on weapons design." [Emphasis added.]

They must have forgot that in 2005 they wrote that when the laptop first surfaced in 2003 an IAEA diplomat said of the data, "It looks beautiful [but] I can fabricate it."

Another diplomat, according to the AP, felt that "much of it is of doubtful value." Others' comments included "Relatively insignificant" and "It's not the amount, but the quality that counts."

Meanwhile, at Asia Times Online, Kaveh Afrasiabi wrote that "even David Albright, a former weapons inspector [and no friend of Iran] admitted that 'so many pieces are missing' in the US's allegations" about the laptop.

As the esteemed Gareth Porter sums up in a recent piece, the "laptop of mass destruction" (ATimes's headline) has "been regarded with great suspicion by US and foreign analysts."

Whatever the truth of the US story about its provenance, Porter reports that German sources claimed the laptop had been provided by Iran's version of Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress -- the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Its notorious paramilitary arm, the Mujahideen e-Khalq (MEK), enjoys the dubious distinction of having been declared a terrorist organization by both the US and Iran.

MEK was credited by the West with identifying the Natanz facility as a nuclear site in 2002. But, in the interim, when it comes to intelligence on Iran's nuclear program, it's drawn blanks, Porter explains. Still, without naming MEK as its source, the CIA continued to submit its faulty intelligence to the IAEA for the next five years.

File this comment by a former state department official to Porter under understatement: "I think they are without key sources in the Iranian government."

It's bad enough that the US was feeding the IAEA intelligence that's suspect. However, MEK may not have obtained the laptop from an Iranian, but from Israel's Mossad. The rumor has been circulating for some time, but when you hear it from Gareth Porter, it makes substantial inroads into the territory of fact.

Mossad might even have provided MEK with the data on Natanz as well. In light of its later failures, it figures that MEK may owe its only intelligence success to Mossad. In the case of the laptop, though, Mossad may have been feeding MEK, the US, and the IAEA misinformation.

In other words, two links in the laptop's chain of custody -- MEK and the Mossad -- are contaminated by bias.

Yet most damning is a statement that Porter reports Scott Ritter made in an interview elsewhere. He pointed out that the CIA is able to check the authenticity and chronology of computer files with forensic tests (obvious when you think about it).

"The fact that the [CIA] could not rule out the possibility of fabrication, according to Ritter," Porter reports, "indicates that it had either chosen not to do such tests or that the tests had revealed fraud."

The Bush administration has no qualms about being branded as liars. But implicating our European allies and especially the IAEA in our lies is shameful.

Europe, meanwhile, is spooked because it's within range of the Shahab 3 (which, theoretically, would carry the warheads). Consequently, according to Porter, "Diplomats said the Vienna presentation bolstered the Security Council's resolve to impose a third round of sanctions."

Ah, sanctions. That strange word which, at first glance, holds out the promise of permission and endorsement. But, of course, in its other guise, a sanction penalizes. As Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich writes at, sanctions intended for the purpose of "isolating and undermining the government have in reality helped to weaken the social and economic institutions which the country requires if it is to become a viable democracy."

Not to mention bring us closer to war. Afrasiabi can see it now: The latest round of sanctions are "ensuring the [escalation] of the Iran nuclear crisis that should have ended. . . after the IAEA's certificate of Iran's compliance."

Especially "given Tehran's stated promise to resist 'unlawful' pressures and demands [such as] the interdiction" by US and French ships in and around the Persian Gulf of Iranian ships carrying suspected nuclear cargo. That's a design for disaster –- a schematic for doom –- if there ever was one.


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