Wednesday, December 05, 2007

“A blow below the belt”

The issuance on Monday of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a consensus document involving the 16 intelligence agencies in the US, arguing that, based on evidence, Tehran had very likely ended its nuclear weapon program in 2003 came as a bit of a surprise. More so, it gave one hope that the US intelligence community hasn’t entirely become politicized.

But for those who are now crossing their fingers and hoping the document will prevent sanctions or military action against Iran, cautious skepticism might be in order. Not 24 hours after its release, Israeli officials and the press were attacking the report, calling it “a blow below the belt.” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak even said that despite the findings (but providing no evidence whatsoever), Iran “has probably since revived it [its nuclear weapons program].” As deplorable was US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley’s almost immediate public interpretation of the NIE, which with Orwellian skill he managed to portray as meaning that Tehran must continue to be pressured, isolated and threatened, thus leaving the door open for further sanctions and even military action, although for the moment it would be more difficult to argue for the latter.

In an op-ed piece titled The Iranian test of possibility on Wednesday, Ha’aretz demonstrated Israel’s irrational streak whenever Iran is concerned by, among other things, dissecting the difference between the terms “high certainty” and “moderate confidence” used in the NIE and arguing that a 10 percent chance that Iran would develop an atomic weapon by 2009 may not mean much to the bigger and distant US but makes a world of a difference for smaller and more proximate Israel. The article then puts the entire US intelligence community into doubt by hinting that it once again has been deceived by Iranian “pranks.” The author uses a number of examples, including failure by the US to punish Iran for the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, to make this point. Ironically, by using this example the author underscores his own politicization of intelligence, as it has never been proven with “high certainty” that Tehran had anything to do with the bombing, which in fact intelligence organizations (including Israel's) have, depending on political needs of the time, also blamed on the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Saudi Hezbollah (not connected to the former) and al-Qaeda. It would seem that when it comes to defending oneself against accusations, Ha’aretz will lower its standards and just cannot be bothered with distinctions between “high certainty” and “moderate confidence.”

The op-ed then commends Bush for his commitment to “preventive action” and not “passive[ly] waiting for the enemy to give in.” In other words, Bush, the article says, will likely continue on his mission to isolate Iran despite the shackles of intelligence, and moreover he will receive all the help (and pressure) he needs from Israel. That pressure, in turn, will result in part from Israel’s own failure to distinguish between “threat” and “risk” assessment and to fashion its policies accordingly.

During my years at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), I had a “chance” to read many reports by the Israeli Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS) and Israel's domestic agencies. In every case, the failure to weigh “threat” against “risk” always struck me. The documents would be marred by a lack of criticism that turned what should have been an apolitical product (the very nature of intelligence) into a policy statement. In other words, rather than provide the raw data upon which CSIS could make its own assessment, Mossad was prescribing action and doing so in a way that prevented critical thinking. We can expect that in the wake of the NIE, US and intelligence services worldwide will soon be bombarded by “intelligence” from Israel, which in and of itself constitutes a political statement. For those of us who have already forgotten, this is exactly what Israel did when US interest in striking Iraq prior to 2003 was perceived to be flagging; the Israel lobby shifted into high gear and the intelligence started pouring in. Immediately after the Saddam Hussein regime had fallen, Jerusalem embarked on a relentless program to pressure the US and its allies into taking action against Tehran.

By focusing on the “threat” and ignoring the diminished risk, no matter what Tehran does (or is said to have done, as the NIE just did), Jerusalem will always cry foul. If this leads to further sanctions and isolation of Tehran — or, though less likely, in independent Israeli military strikes in Iran — good behavior, rather than be encouraged by engagement and reciprocity, will instead lead to punitive action, which in the long run can only but create a self-fulfilling prophecy and compel Tehran to go down the nuclear path. No good can come out of a “damned if you don’t, damned if you do” treatment of Iran.

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