Monday, August 13, 2012

Ehud Barak's New Report

On Thursday, Ehud Barak claimed that

“apparently a report by American intelligence agencies - I don't know if it's under the title NIE or under another title - which is making the rounds of high offices," in Washington that makes the American government's concerns more urgent.

"As far as we know, it comes very close to our own estimate, I would say, as opposed to earlier American estimates. It transforms the Iranian situation to an even more urgent one and it is even less likely that we will know every development in time on the Iranian nuclear program."

By evening Washington time, US government officials were saying that nothing in their estimate had changed:

The United States still believes that Iran is not on the verge of having a nuclear weapon and that Tehran has not made a decision to pursue one, U.S. officials said on Thursday.

On Saturday, Barak repeated himself. It’s pretty obvious to me, Jeffrey Goldberg, and Richard Silverstein who the senior Jerusalem official is. From Barak Ravid in Haaretz:

As the dispute between Israel and the Obama administration over how to address the Iranian nuclear threat rages, a senior Jerusalem official has said Iran has made significant progress in assembling a nuclear warhead.

The official, who asked to remain anonymous, said new intelligence obtained by the United States, Israel and other Western countries shows that the Iranian activity around the "weapon group" - the final stage in the development of a nuclear weapon - is progressing far beyond the scope known to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The new intelligence was introduced as a last-minute update to the special National Intelligence Estimate on the Iranian nuclear program that was submitted to U.S. President Barack Obama a week ago.

Is there a report?
The existence of a report is at the center of Barak’s claim. The US statement mentions nothing about a report. Barak said on Thursday that it may be a National Intelligence Estimate, then elaborated it to an update to a recent special NIE. David Albright notes that information about the last NIE on Iran was held closely. If there is an NIE in progress, what would constitute intelligence introduced as a last-minute update? Many things, obviously, but a possibility that Barak would know about would be a contribution from Israeli intelligence.

The US response would probably be the same whether or not there is a change in the available intelligence and whether or not a new NIE on Iran is in progress. A change in the assessment would be made public only when the government felt the time was right. That calculation would include both its effect on the negotiations and any decision for war.

Given the extensive analysis that underlies the conclusions of an NIE, it’s unlikely that a single contribution would turn an analysis around. That single contribution would have to show something like an assembly plant for nuclear weapons. Even a confirmation that nuclear-weapons-related testing was done at Parchin would only tilt the conclusions of the 2011 NIE toward a greater probability that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, and that would not justify war by US criteria.

Barak’s claims are completely unspecific as to what the intelligence is. If he is going to release another country’s classified information, which is the case if indeed another NIE is in progress and he knows something about it, then he might as well go all the way if he has damning evidence and tell us what it is.

Is there any report at all? The US officials don’t mention one, and no reporter seems to have picked up the possibility of a new NIE being developed. Sadly, bluffs from Israeli officials are not unknown with respect to Iran. They have been saying for at least a decade that Iran is on the verge of having a nuclear weapon and that they must attack. Is this an attempt to force out a report that Barack believes exists? Or an attempt to put a justification for the attack he’d like to make into people’s minds?

What is Barak’s motive?
It’s bad form to leak an ally’s intelligence. It’s also bad form to make up stuff about an ally’s intelligence. Either one is likely to irritate said ally, and it’s hard to believe that Israel’s various actions since Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to the United States in the spring hasn’t done some of that anyway. Ottomans and Zionists reminds us that not too long ago, the American intelligence community identified Israel as its number one counterintelligence threat.

During the spring visit, President Obama said that he “had his back” and that he “doesn’t bluff.” Many took this to mean that America would attack Iran at some point or help Israel in that enterprise. But look at Obama’s words carefully. They can be interpreted to mean an attack, and they certainly lean in that direction. But he does not speak of an attack. He also warns Israel against “a distraction in which suddenly Iran can portray itself as a victim.”

What if Obama promised Netanyahu in private much, much more conditional support than most commentaters have inferred? The two nations’ “red lines” are different: Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons for the US, and the much more nebulous “zone of immunity” for Israel. It’s clear from that interview and subsequent events that the US insists on pursuing negotiations and sanctions before any attack can be justified, and it’s also clear from Thursday’s statements that the US believes that there is time to continue that direction.
What if Obama told Netanyahu that any attack on Iran before the US red line is reached will receive no support from the US? The US has not always supported Israel’s wars. In 1956, the US opposed the plan of the UK, France, and Israel to take control of the recently-nationalized canal.

There seem to be two people who want a war with Iran: Netanyahu and Barak.

Did Barak think he could smoke out a report or encourage war hawks in the administration to get behind it? This administration doesn’t have many war hawks, and there has been little of this kind of stepping out of line. It’s possible that Barak could have misjudged or simply overplayed his hand.

Emptywheel takes this to be a straightforward leak to and by Israel, a laundering of another accusation toward Iran in a runup to war. In other words, the US and Israel are in collusion. But she admits that the later US rebuttal doesn’t make sense in that context. I think there is one way that it might, and that would be to make the US look like a bystander if Israel is about to bomb Iran. That interpretation still puts the US in the position of undercutting Israel, though.

Could Barak’s outburst be a Crazy Nixon ploy? Is he, in other words, trying to show Obama that he will leak classified information, do anything, in order to pave the way for an attack on Iran? And, incidentally, show the Iranians and everyone else that he’s about to attack? The continuing bluffing that Israel has indulged in means that subsequent bluffs have to be stronger. The problem with a Crazy Nixon ploy is that it is Israel that will be hurt in a war of its own making, through both Iran’s retaliation and world opinion.

There is a ring of desperation to Ehud Barak’s actions over the last week. A leader who was confident that the US would unconditionally back Israel in a strike against Iran would not have to cite secret (and perhaps nonexistent) reports. He would coordinate and act. The desperation seems to imply that no longer-range plan for a joint attack on Iran exists. Such a plan could be used to pressure for action behind the scenes.

The Times of Israel reported yesterday that Netanyahu and Barak are days away from deciding to attack (as they have been in the past). Today the same newspaper reports a speech by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in which he says that all the talk of an attack “contribute nothing to our ability to deal with the threat that Iran poses for Israel.” Haaretz likewise plays down the need for war.

So the back-and-forth continues. The noise out of Israel is likely to make negotiations harder and increases the possibility of a misstep.

I wrote this up a day or so ago. Here are some further links on this story.

Ben Caspit is getting tired of the empty bluster, but you wouldn't know that from Jodi Rudoren's piece in the NYT. Looks like Rudoren is going for the Judy Miller Award.

Plus, it looks like American rhetoric is being dialed up:
“This is an irresponsible and unprecedented act,” said an American official. “Something like this has never happened…that secret intelligence would be revealed either deliberately or unintentionally to the media. It’s exceedingly rare that a defense minister of a U.S. ally would speak out to the media about the existence of such a report, and bring forth details from it in order to advance his own political agenda.”
Thanks to Steve Hynd for e-mail/Twitter conversations, which are why this post appeared first at The Agonist. It's also at Nuclear Diner.

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