Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Israel-Iran-US Information War

News scoops may happen because of hard work by reporters. That hard work may be supplemented by government officials wanting to leak information that might not be as effectively released through official channels.

Governments may also release information officially that is not true.

Both seem to be happening in the case of Iran, Israel, and the United States. The motives seem to be many and not entirely decipherable.

Iran claims that its nuclear program is for peaceful uses. It has admitted to the pursuit of technologies related to nuclear weapons in the past but says that nuclear weapons are not a current goal, and the ruling mullahs repeat that nuclear weapons are religiously forbidden. However, some of the activities in Iran’s nuclear program lay a foundation for production of nuclear weapons if that decision is taken, and, as a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran is obligated to explain those activities, which it has not. Iran loudly announces advances in its nuclear technology, sometimes claiming more than has been achieved. Putting an Additional Protocol into effect and allowing IAEA inspectors easy access to more sites would help to show the program’s goals, but Iran claims that IAEA inspections in the past have included spies.

Israel has been agitating for an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites and additional sanctions against Iran. Israel claims repeatedly over the years that Iran’s program is reaching a point of no return. The “redline” for attack is poorly defined: the ability to enrich, the development of underground sites, or that Iran can produce a nuclear weapon by some date in the future, some of which have passed with no nuclear weapon in evidence. The poor definition itself may be intended to generate uncertainty. Israel, of course, has long concealed its nuclear weapons programs from the world and even now will not admit to them.

The United States has issued two National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) that say that Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons. It has also pressed for an end to Iran’s enrichment program. The second may be contrary to the goals of the NPT, but that has been fuzzed up by United Nations Security Council resolutions that Iran is in violation of its NPT obligations by withholding information about former weapons work; such resolutions are consistent with limiting a signatory’s rights under the NPT. The Obama administration seems to emphasize an end to Iranian enrichment less than the Bush administration did. At the same time, the President and Secretary of State say that upcoming talks represent a window of opportunity that will not remain open forever.

Evidence on Iran’s nuclear program is difficult to come by, as is information about the sources of that information. The NIEs and the IAEA report from last November don’t provide sources as part of their standard procedure. One likely source has been much discussed: the so-called laptop of death, which may well be a thumb drive or other electronic format. This turned up in 2007 and seems to be part of the IAEA’s evidence, although the IAEA also says that it has done additional checking of the claims it lists in the November report. How much more do the intelligence services of Israel, America, and other countries know about the Iranian program than shows up in the media?

Does Israel really plan to attack Iran? What would be the American response? Presumably President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu discussed these questions more candidly than either has revealed to the press. “We’ve got Israel’s back” is inherently ambiguous. “We’ll back you no matter what you do”? or “We will respond only if Israel is about to be destroyed”?

What are Iran’s intentions for its nuclear program? If they are peaceful, why doesn’t it cooperate more fully with the IAEA?

Motivations are harder to read. Does Iran want a deterrent or a path to regional hegemony? Are Israeli leaders really concerned about a second Holocaust, or are they worried about losing their nuclear weapons monopoly in the region? How far is America influenced by Israel? What do the leaders of the three countries actually believe about the others?

Sheera Frenkel published three articles (here, here, and here) at McClatchy in the beginning of March based on interviews of Israeli officials. She tries to sort fact from propaganda. Bernard Finel suggests three possible motivations for Israel’s latest blast of saber-rattling. There are probably more.

More recently, Mark Perry got a scoop in Foreign Policy: Israel is purchasing the right to use air bases in Azerbaijan, just north of Iran, useful for refueling or landing planes damaged in an attack. Perry’s information is from “several high-level sources I've spoken with inside the U.S. government.” A single source might be speaking on his/her own, but not “four senior diplomats and military intelligence officers.” So the conclusion was easily drawn (by the Christian Science Monitor, Ron Ben-Yishai at Y-Net, and others in Israel) that the United States was trying to scuttle Israel’s preparations for an attack on Iran.

Actions are a somewhat firmer clue than statements. Israel’s war drums have lowered their volume, and Israel seems to be backing off from its apparent sabotage of the Iranian nuclear program. Iran is willing to begin talks again on its nuclear program while warning that it can reply in kind to a military attack. The United States is not advertising detailed expectations of the talks while maintaining a hard line that there must be results.

Articles like this one, of which there have been many over the last month, depend on the author’s best guess as to what the situation and motives are. That goes for what I write as well. Additional layers of “should” are often brought in, the authors recommending what they see as the most desirable actions. Those “shoulds” incorporate more of the hypothetical and unstated assumptions.

It’s important to be alert for those “shoulds”, for the background and expertise of the authors of articles claiming to know the intentions and plans of any of the parties. And to remember that there’s a lot that isn’t known. There’s some hard selling going on.

Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner and The Agonist.

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