Friday, December 07, 2007

"The smell of deals is getting stronger..." (Updated)

In connection with the 2007-version NIE on Iran, two of the big questions are (1) why was it published now; and (2) if it is true that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003, why did it do so?

The Western mind seems to be divided on the second question between the Bush-administration line that Iran was responding to international pressure (and perhaps also the military pressure of having the US forces next door), or on the other hand that it didn't need such a program any more after the fall of its potential nuclear enemy Saddam. On the "why publish it now" question, the only candidate seems to be the idea that the powers that be are trying to de-link the nuclear issue from the attack-Iran issue in order to gain a little respect for the "intelligence community" held in generally low esteem since the Iraq WMD fiasco. Not convinced?

Raghida Dergham, Washington correspondent and columnist for Al-Hayat, proposes in her column today (Friday December 7) a different hypothetical explanation, (Arabic version from the paper here; an excellent English version on her own website here) which answers both the 2003 nuclear-abandonment question and the "why now" question. It is a version of the US-Iran-Israel cooperation theory, with some but not all of the blanks filled in. The explanation goes back to the motives for the US invasion of Iraq. She introduces the idea this way:
But there is another interesting theory. All of the indications at the time pointed to the pro-Iraq war group - from neoconservatives to those advocating the unleashing of what they called the "Shiite force" - all worked on the basis that the enemy were only Sunnis, who produced terrorism and the 11 September 2001 attack on the US. The basic idea for these people was Iraq, and its president, Saddam Hussein, constituted the "ideal" cover to justify a strike at the country, on the pretext of WMD. They said that the oil-rich Arab lands were inhabited by Arab Shiites, and that the best way to create an oil belt (a "Petrolistan") is to produce chaos in these areas. Then, it would be able to create a Shiite extension of influence in the Arab Gulf for Iran, and via the special Syrian-Israeli relationship, one could link to Israel via Syria and Lebanon.

The next pair of sentences is a little difficult to follow in either language. I believe she is saying that if the Iranians' motives for freezing the program in 2003 had to do with international pressure and military pressure, then the decision was indeed the "correct" one. "But if history proves that the real reasons for the Iraq war involved a desire to partition the country", then the Iranians' decision to abandon their nuclear-weapons program--no longer needed because the Americans were doing their work for them--will turn out to have been "wisdom" itself.

On this theory Ahmedinejad has provided a convenient distraction and cover for the strategy that Rafsanjani and Khamenei have been patiently pursuing. She writes:
What these men can deliver in a big deal - if such a thing has truly taken place - is a strategic partnership with the US and Israel in containing the Arabs. They offer considerable influence in controlling things in Iraq, provided that Iraq is "Iranian." Iraq is the big prize for Iran: an Iraq free of nuclear weapons-making capacity and cowed, unable to be independent… and Iraq subject to Iranian influence, representing a launching-point for influence in the Gulf state, in the name of Shiite leadership, even though it is in fact Persian influence to exercise hegemony over the Arabs.
She says it is still too early to tell what the US is likely to get in return for this out of their wish-list of issues in the Levant. Moreover,'s still not clear if the truce between the US and Iran has launched similar moves by Arab countries toward Iran and Israel, to start a qualitatively new chapter in the entire Middle East. The smell of deals is getting stronger and the timing is intriguing, especially in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon - three issues that distinguish regional and international relations. The preparations are underway to create a US military base in Iraq, by virtue of the understanding and agreement governing bilateral US-Iraqi ties, and this requires an understanding with Iran, according to the analysts.
At this point Dergham's hypothesis starts to sound a little like the proposal by Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs (subscription; Josh Landis reproduces the main parts here; whole text here.) But while Nasr and Takeyh present this as a desirable alternative to present policies, Dergham suggests it may already be in large part a done deal.

Finally, her hypothesis serves to explain why the NIE is being made public now. She writes (here I had to restore a negative that dropped out in their English translation):
Thus, it is perhaps not the "history of failure" in the Iraq leading the intelligence agencies to work for the recovery of their honor...Rather, it was the future of shared interests that meant both of the United States and Iran need to avoid war, and work instead on arranging a division of influence in Iraq, and making use of a new strategic partnership for influence of another kind in the Middle East.
One of the other things that is unclear in all of this, she concludes, is whether the publication of the NIE and presumably the implementation of the above ideas, is something that has been imposed on the lame-duck Bush by the American establishment, or whether it is something he actually agrees with.

UPDATE: Pat Lang says: "The 'jungle telegraph' in Washington is booming with news of the Iran NIE. I am told that the reason the conclusions of the NIE were released is that it was communicated to the White House that "intelligence career seniors were lined up to go to jail if necessary" if the document's gist were not given to the public. Translation? Someone in that group would have gone to the media "on the record" to disclose its contents."

In other words this appears to have been a pre-emptive strike by the "intelligence community" against the war party. Which however, isn't in itself enlightening about the actual policy alternative. To get to that, you need to start by reading the Dergham piece. It is true that Al-Hayat is Saudi-owned, and that a US-Iran alliance has been one of the nightmares of the Saudi regime in recent years (probably only a little less worrisome to them than the other extreme of war with Iran). So it is to be expected that their Washington person would have particular sensitivity to this hypothesis. But her reasoning stands on its own.


Blogger Dr. Mathews said...

Kaveh L Afrasiabi has an interesting take:

This brings one to a consideration of other, intended or unintended, side-effects of the NIE, including the following: the report, released at a time when Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was in Qatar to participate at the summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has the side effect of undermining Iran's regional policy by depicting Iran as a paper tiger that shelved the nuclear program due to cost-benefit analysis. This lessens the fear of the GCC states of Iran and their related proclivity to bandwagon with Iran on regional security and other issues. The "torpedo effect" of the NIE in grounding, if not sinking, the ship of Iran-GCC cooperation, deemed undesirable from the prism of the US's interventionist policies and priorities, is unmistakable.

In conclusion, the NIE may have been the brainchild of bureaucratic infighting aimed at fettering the neo-conservatives pinning their hopes on a US attack on Iran by the lame-duck president. But equally important is the other side effect of this report in dampening oil prices at a critical time when the US, and perhaps the global economy, is headed toward recession, according to many economists. And also when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries cartel is contemplating shifting its currency exchange away from the US dollar.

A pre-emptive strike against that move was needed by the US and, it turns out, the NIE has precisely such a policy effect, on a broad range of issues. Who knows, in retrospect, the NIE, reflecting one of the most flagrant cases of US intelligence reversals in history, may be remembered as also a unique example of American smart power.

9:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Badger, you assume that Iran HAD a nuclear weapon program. There is NO evidence that it ever had such a program.

The IAEA has never said that there was such a thing and emphazised that after the NIE went public.
The Russians say they know of no Iranian nuclear weapon progrom either.

The U.S. "evidence" is beased on sume intelligence from a "Laptop" that was supposly stolen from Iran and got into the hands of the CIA. The U.S. never gave the "Laptop evidence" to the IAEA as it should do. That says something of its value (think Niger papers).

10:01 AM  
Blogger badger said...

I think you will agree with me that it matters what people in the region think. Here Dergham, and presumably an important part of the Saudi establishment, think something changed in the Iranian strategy in 2003 and they ask themselves, why did it change, and why then? And something changed in US strategy this past week and their question is, why did it change, and why now?

This post is about how she answers those questions, with interesting implications about her/their way of looking at US policy.

I'm sure your points about the Iranian "program" are well-taken, and certainly very important, but it is a different topic entirely.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Helena Cobban said...

Badger, I don't think you should extrapolate too much from what Raghida writes in her column to what the Saudi "establishment" thinks.

6:58 PM  
Blogger badger said...

Of course not "thinks," but within the range of what they might think plausible, not out to lunch. That's all I meant. Sheesh

8:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

WRT to Iran as a paper tiger in Afrasiabi's column. I can't take that seriously as all the NIE says is what the IAEA, Russia and Iran itself has been claiming...except for the weapons program prior to 2003.

Also, the main dispute between Iran and the U.S./EU/Israel was not a weapons program per se, but the mere fact of enrichment. For the past 2 years they have tried to pressure Iran through sanctions, threats of war and even leaks of possible nuclear attack.

Iran's response has essentially been the middle finger. That, along with Hizbollah's performance in the war of '06, have earned Iran stand-up-to-the-west credentials that no local government can match.

Now with the U.S. all but conceding defeat on enrichment, and Israeli and U.S. neocon officals pulling their hair out, I'm thinking less "paper tiger" and more "Las Vegas champion at the World Series of Poker."

4:27 PM  
Blogger hr k said...

Bloody terrible reasoning by Dergham. So Hizbollah and Israel somehow are working together? Creating chaos in the oil rich gulf would be beneficial to the US, which is hostile to KSA?

So why didn't the US simply accept the Iranian peace offers passed on through the Swiss ambassador?

This smells like typical Saudi anti-Iranian sentiment, rather.

7:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Look, Dergham probably still doesn't write in Arabic -- as she couldn't years ago -- and both the Arabic and the English versions of her articles are not doubt still written by paid sub-contractors. As to her reasoning ... well, that is not something she is famous for, either. She is good at parroting Arab nationalist-type argumentation that her mentors develop. And, lately, she has also seemed to be in bed with the U.S. neo-cons, too... Hence, this article. Why take what she says so seriously -- it's just responding to her positioning herself demographically...

2:54 AM  
Blogger badger said...

Getting somewhat ad hominem here, but I guess you're actually backing up my point about this being a reflection of her "Arab nationalist-type" constituency, Helena.

7:35 AM  

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