Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Van Diepen Demarche

Today's New York Sun has an insightful editorial on the problems with the recently-declassified NIE on Iran's nuclear weapons program. Reading between the lines of the document (as we have) the Sun finds it lacking in several respects.

For starters, one of the estimate's primary authors, Vann Van Diepen, seems to be less-than-objective on the issue. According to the Sun:

"Vann Van Diepen...has spent the last five years trying to get America to accept Iran's right to enrich uranium. Mr. Van Diepen no doubt reckons that in helping push the estimate through the system, he has succeeded in influencing the policy debate in Washington. The bureaucrats may even think they are stopping another war."

If that account is accurate, then it raises serious questions about the NIE's ultimate conclusion, since a "frozen" weapons program dovetails nicely with Mr. Van Diepen's position on Iran's enrichment efforts. Obviously, all analysts are subject to personal bias (to some degree), but you've got to wonder how someone with Van Diepen's agenda was assigned to the NIE team. Oh, that's right. He (reportedly) works for the CIA. And we know how elements of that agency feel about the Bush Administration and its policies toward certain countries, including Iran.

The Sun also observes that it's hard to believe that Iran would halt its nuclear weapons program--an effort that has been sustained for decades, despite increasingly international pressure. The estimate also assigns a degree of rationality to Tehran's nuclear decision-making, a quality noticeably absent in other Iranian programs and policies.

Indeed, why would a nation that denies the holocaust and advocates "wiping Israel off the map" suddenly bow to sanctions and pressure that were anything-but-draconian? Then, there's the issue of how much progress Iran made before the program was supposedly frozen, and the related matter of a possible, covert development program. Lest we forget, North Korea supposedly "gave up" its nuclear program in 1994 under the infamous "Agreed To Framework," but simply its developments underground, and produced an unknown number of nuclear devices over the years that followed.

On a similar note, Michael Ledeen (writing at NRO) notes that, "for the NIE to be true, the evidence would have to be awfully good. And evidence of that quality has been in famously short supply. We would add that detailed insights--and amplifying, hard-copy information--from General Asgari might remedy some of those concerns. However, we must add that the reliability of an intel source is validated over time, and through corroboration by other sources. Asgari defected less than a year ago, and (as we noted in the previous post), confirming some of his claims may be difficult, unless we have similar, high-level sources still in place.

Mr. Ledeen is also adept at spotting some of the "spook-speak" and weasel words that invariably qualify any intelligence estimate. At one point, the NIE states that Iran has a "latent" goal to develop nuclear weapons (they're just not doing it right now). And, in the estimate's key judgments, the analysts say that, it's likely that Iran will eventually develop nuclear weapons, perhaps in the 2010-2015 time frame. Apparently, the State Department "took a footnote" on that one, deviating slightly with the "consensus" and stating that development will not occur until after 2013. How they arrived at that conclusion is not explained in the document's declassified version.

Ledeen reminds us that we've been fooled on nuclear programs before, and Iran may be deceiving us now. We would add that Tehran's deception program isn't as advanced as Russia, North Korea or Pakistan, but then again, concealing a covert nuclear program doesn't take a lot of work. Key processes--including uranium enrichment--can be hidden in small, nondescript buildings like a warehouse, with no external indicators or signatures. And quite predictably, the NIE (renamed the Van Diepen Demarche by the Sun), refuses to rule out the possibility of a convert development effort, or the acquisition of fissile material or finished weapons, from external sources.

As with many NIEs, this one raises more questions than it answers. And remember: this document will be a cornerstone of U.S. policy-making toward Iran for at least the next two years, possibly longer. The potential consequences of "getting it wrong" are very grave, to say the least.

12 comments:

Rob said...

I can't help thinking that this new NIE represents a far deeper game than is apparent on the surface. Perhaps it's disinformation itself, to embolden the Iranians to do something spectaculary obvious to tip their hands.

Or, perhaps this is somehow related to whatever it is the Israelis blew up in Syria a couple of months back?

The Duck said...

My bet it was designed to reduce Bush's ability to take kinetic action against Iran's nuclear program later next year.

F said...

rob:

I can believe this is related to Israel's attack in Syria, but I don't think it is credible that NIEs are part of a disinformation campaign. They are written for policy-makers, not newspaper editors, so this hypothesis seems unlikely.

What I find troubling about the message of this NIE is that speculation in the blogosphere is sourcing it to Asgari's defection, but now I'm reading that the NIE is at least a year old. Since Asgari defected in that same time frame there is insufficient time to have vetted him properly. And the Israeli attack took place even more recently (June or July?) so the NIE appears to be based on something else -- or it is based on a pretty unknown source. I have to say I used to believe the NIDs I read in years past were better sourced and based on better analysis than this one. I hope I was right.

I'm thinking the bottom line is that (as Spook86 says in the previous post) this is very much a CYA thing. The question then becomes whose ass is being covered and why? F

F said...

That should have been ". . .the NIEs I read. . ." Damn fingers! F

davod said...

U.S. Intel Possibly Duped by Iran

Ken Timmerman adds an interesting twist to the storey.

Single source with no direct access - does this ring a bell (Curveball anyone).

Add this to partisan or incompetent (or both) authors and what do you have - NIE - Iran - 2007

F said...

Davod: That is truly scary if true. Curveball indeed! Or reverse Curveball if it prevents a war. F

davod said...

Even more troubling than this NIE is the way people get picked for intelligence positions.

davod said...

"Add this to partisan or incompetent (or both) authors and what do you have - NIE - Iran - 2007"

By this I meant the authors of the final product.

davod said...

BigLizards has a good summary and links.

Spook86 said...

F-The Iran NIE was originally scheduled for publication in the spring of 2007, but the date was pushed back to allow the incorporation of new information--an apparent reference to Asgari and whatever he brought from Iran.

F said...

Spook86: Does this leave time for sufficient vetting? Call me skeptical. F

Jill said...

I completely agree with Ken Timmerman-I would add that as a bio-weapons specialist, 'latent' is a term which still means "active"-as the Iranian programme no doubt is. The NIE seems to have created the opposite of what the authors perhaps hoped. Israel may decide to go it alone-igniting the ME, and the timing of the release prior to stiffer sanctions means preventive diplomacy almost surely will fail. Russia and China will both pull out. So far from accomplishing a crisis reduction-they authors may actually have insighted war and killed any chance they had at a diplomatic resolution.

Jill Dekker-Bellamy