Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Long-Delayed Spy Report on Iran's Nuke Program a Humiliating Defeat for Cheney

Bush Denies Report's Finding That Iran Halted its Nuke Weapons Program in '03 Will Alter U.S. Policy, But White House Is Clearly Embarrassed That New NIE Undermines Case -- Pushed Hard by Cheney -- for Going to War Against Iran


President Bush (right), accompanied by his wife, Laura, and Vice President Dick Cheney (second from left), accompanied by his wife, Lynne, flank French President Nicholas Sarkozy (center) at a performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington during Sarkozy's November 6 visit to the United States. Cheney's months-long push for a national intelligence estimate report on Iran to support his case for military action against the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program ended in failure this week, with the release of the report that concluded that Iran halted its research toward nuclear weapons development in 2003. (Photo: Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse)

By Skeeter Sanders

President Bush rejected Tuesday any suggestions of a change in U.S. policy toward Iran, despite the release the previous day of a long-awaited U.S. intelligence report that concluded Tehran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003.

Bush denied that the new national intelligence estimate -- the collective judgment of the nation's 16 intelligence agencies -- had undercut his administration's repeated assertions that Iran was building nuclear weapons. The report said Tehran's determination to develop nuclear weapons "is less ... than we have been judging."

“I have said Iran is dangerous,” a grim-faced Bush insisted to reporters at his first White House press conference in nearly seven weeks. "The NIE doesn’t do anything to change my opinion about the danger Iran poses to the world — quite the contrary. Iran was dangerous. Iran is dangerous. And Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."

The president vowed that the U.S. would continue to work to "isolate" Iran and asserting the NIE was, in spite of its conclusions, a "warning signal" to the international community.

Report a Clear Embarrassment to Bush -- And Cheney

Clearly, however, the report's finding that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago is an embarrassment to Bush -- and a humiliating defeat for Vice President Dick Cheney, who had put unrelenting pressure on the intelligence community for months to make the document more supportive of his view on Iran that critics charge are aimed at justifying U.S. military action against Tehran.

As recently as October, Bush was invoking the threat of a third world war if Iran was not prevented from obtaining the necessary knowledge to make a nuclear weapon.

On November 12, The 'Skeeter Bites Report published a story by the Inter-Press Service's Gareth Porter that broke the news that Cheney's pressure on the intelligence analysts who wrote the NIE on Iran had held up its release for more than a year in an effort to force the intelligence community to remove dissenting judgments on the Iranian nuclear program.

But now it turns out that those "dissenting judgments" actually reflected the majority opinion of the intelligence community -- which refused to knuckle under to the vice president. Cheney was noticeably tight-lipped Tuesday, declining all media requests for comment about the final report.

The vice president had been sounding increasingly bellicose in his public comments on Iran in recent months. In a speech in October, Cheney warned that if Iran “stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose serious consequences.”

Bush Claims He Learned of NIE Last Week -- But White House Sat On It for 14 Months

Asked if he had been "hyping" the threat from Iran, the president asserted that he was only made aware of the NIE last week and insisted it had changed nothing. "I still feel strongly that Iran is a danger. I think the NIE makes it clear that Iran needs to be taken seriously as a threat to peace. My opinion hasn't changed."

But Former CIA officer Philip Giraldi told the IPS's Porter that the White House had known about the Iran NIE as far back as October 2006 -- and that it pressured intelligence analysts into reviewing and rewriting their findings three times since then.

"The White House wanted a document that it could use as evidence for its Iran policy," said Giraldi. Despite pressures on the analysts to change their dissenting conclusions, however, they refused to go along with White House conclusions they believed were not supported by the evidence.

Giraldi said Cheney's office had objected to the analysts' findings on both the Iranian nuclear program and Iran's role in Iraq. The 2006 draft NIE did not conclude that there was confirming evidence that Iran was arming Shi'ite insurgents in Iraq.

As a result, the White House decided to postpone release of the NIE until after the November 2006 congressional elections. But the infighting continued -- and intensified when the analysts refused to back down, further delaying the report's release.

The White House then decided to keep the NIE secret -- until Porter broke his story on November 7.

Case for Tougher Sanctions -- And Military Action -- Against Iran Now Much Harder to Justify

The new NIE is likely to take the steam out of the Bush White House's efforts to push for further sanctions against Iran at the United Nations. More importantly, however, it makes Cheney's drumbeat for military action against the Islamic Republic much harder to justify -- and seriously undermines the vice president's credibility.

It's the latest sign that Cheney's influence within the administration -- which for most of his seven years in office had been quite formidable -- is rapidly eroding as he approaches his final year as vice president.

Not surprisingly, Iran welcomed the new NIE as proof of its longstanding insistence that its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes. In Tehran, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki held his own news conference ahead of Bush's, telling reporters that his government considered the new report as "a move to correct" Washington's previous claims.

"It is natural that we welcome it [the new NIE] when those countries who in the past have questions and ambiguities about this case... now amend their views realistically," Mottaki said in a separate interview with Iranian state radio. "The condition of Iran's peaceful nuclear activities is becoming clear to the world."

Report: Iran Still Up to 10 Years Away From Making Nuke Bomb

The new NIE does acknowledge that Iran is continuing to produce enriched uranium, which could still provide Iran with enough raw material to produce a nuclear weapon in the next eight to ten years -- a timetable essentially unchanged from previous estimates.

Tehran is likely to "keep its options open" with respect to building a nuclear weapon, but that the U.S. intelligence community “does not know whether it currently intends to develop" any, the report said.

Nonetheless, the new report effectively repudiates a 2005 NIE that concluded that Iran was maintaining an active program intended to transform the raw material into a nuclear weapon. The new estimate declares instead with “high confidence” that the military-run program was shut in 2003, and that it remains frozen.

The report cited "increasing international scrutiny and pressure” as the principal reason for Iran's decision to halt the weapons program.

Israel Rejects New NIE's Findings, Won't Rule Out Military Strike

While the new report was welcomed by Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency -- the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog -- as a confirmation of its own findings that "should help to defuse the current crisis," it was flatly rejected by Israel,
which has backed U.S.-led efforts at the U.N. to impose sanctions on Iran.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert issued a statement saying that the report "only strengthened the need for the international community to tighten sanctions so that Iran will not be able to produce nuclear weapons." Defense Minister Ehud Barak acknowledged that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, but that it has since restarted it.

Barak, a former prime minister, told Israeli Army Radio that Jerusalem was "familiar with this American assessment," but there "are differences in the assessments of different organizations in the world about this, and only time will tell who is right."

Israel has refused to rule out taking military action of its own against Iran, but says it prefers a diplomatic solution. Such a strike would be difficult for Israel to pull off, however, for Iran lies beyond the flying range of most Israeli warplanes.

Asked if the new U.S. assessment reduced the likelihood of a U.S. military strike on Iran, Barak would say only that it was "possible."

Bush's Critics Seize on Report, Call for 'Diplomatic Surge' With Tehran

Almost immediately, critics of the Bush policy on Iran seized upon the new NIE report to argue against U.S. military action. "This new report removes, if nothing else, the urgency that we have to attack Iran, or knock out its nuclear facilities," said Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska), the president's most outspoken Capitol Hill Republican critic on the war. "I don't think you can overstate the importance of this."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) urged the White House to adjust its policy and pursue "a diplomatic surge" to engage with Iran. He said the new NIE “directly challenges some of this administration’s alarming rhetoric about the threat posed by Iran.”

A spokesman for the European Union said the new information strengthens the E.U.'s argument for negotiations with Tehran, but he added that sanctions are still an option to compel Iran to be fully transparent about its nuclear program.

E.U. officials insisted that the international community should not walk away from years of talks with an often-defiant Tehran that is openly enriching uranium for uncertain ends.

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Volume II, Number 61
Copyright 2007, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.