Former US National Intelligence Council chairperson Thomas Fingar received the 2013 Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence on January 23 for his role overseeing the 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran.
The NIE finding’s that all 16 US intelligence agencies judged “with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program” removed the immediate threat of a US-Israeli military attack on Iran.
It contradicted the previous NIE report from 2005, which had judged with “high confidence” that “Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure”.
In his memoirs, then-US president George W Bush complained that the NIE “tied my hands on the military side … how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?”.
Fingar accepted the Sam Adams Award in a ceremony at the Oxford Union, which was attended by previous winners. The 2010 winner, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange, spoke via video-link from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Assange applauded Fingar for “trying to correct the movement towards war with Iran based on lies”.
Instead of welcoming the NIE’s findings as good news for “international peace and security”, the NIE panicked Western governments who feared the report would undermine their efforts to demonise and isolate Iran.
Scaremongering about Iran’s nuclear program has provided the pretext for sanctions and other measures aimed at forcing regime change in Iran, and serves to divert attention from US-Israeli aggression in the Middle East.
Bush wrote that he took the unusual step of authorising publication of a declassified version of the NIE’s key findings because he feared that the report’s conclusion “was so stunning that I felt it would immediately leak to the press”, and he wanted to be able to “shape the news stories”.
US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks show that the US went into damage-limitation mode following publication of the NIE’s key findings on December 2, 2007. According to the Cablegate database, 73 cables on the subject of Iran and the NIE were sent from US embassies in 48 different countries during the week after the report’s release.
Most of these cables relate to demarches the US sent to each country, which included the US’s “talking points” on the NIE and a request that the country make a public statement in support of the US position.
The cables show that US allies were also acutely aware of the need to spin the NIE’s findings. A French foreign affairs official acknowledged that the NIE posed a “public affairs problem”.
A December 4 cable reported that in a meeting with the US Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in London, British permanent under secretary of state, Peter Ricketts, “repeatedly stressed the ‘critical importance of the presentation’ of the NIE’s conclusions”.
The aim was to ensure that the report would “not detract from our collective ability to generate pressure on the regime via a third UNSC resolution and via EU action on sanctions”.
This was followed by meetings that the US and its allies used to “put the NIE into its proper context”. Diplomats and politicians argued that, despite the NIE’s key finding, “Iran could restart its nuclear weapons program at any time”. They repeatedly referred to uranium enrichment as “the real pacing element”, not weaponisation work.
Since the weaponisation was judged to have stopped in 2003, it was necessary to focus the rhetoric on Iran’s legal nuclear program.
On December 4, the British Foreign Office issued press guidance on the NIE saying, “[n]ow would be the worst time to relax … it is still vital to stop the Iranians now”.
The US and its allies also repeatedly raised Iran’s so-called “confidence deficit”. They claimed that because the NIE judged that Iran had a nuclear weapons program prior to 2003, “Iran should not have a program which could be used for military purposes”.
In a meeting with “like-minded” International Atomic Energy Agency ambassadors, it was agreed that a confession from Iran about alleged past weapons development was “not enough”. The British ambassador argued that some "penance" from Iran was required “to redress fundamental concerns about its nuclear program”.
In other words, Iran should relinquish the right to a civilian nuclear program accorded to it by virtue of its membership of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The cables show that the US also seized on the NIE’s finding that Iran decided to abandon its nuclear weapons program, “primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure”, as a justification for further punitive measures in preference to negotiations.
However, United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions were not imposed on Iran until 2006 and several countries, including The Netherlands and Azerbaijan, questioned the logic of this argument. Others suggested that, in light of the NIE’s findings, diplomacy should take precedence over sanctions and threats.
Swiss proposals to facilitate “direct confidential U.S.-Iranian talks” and promote “negotiation on an overall package without preconditions” were described in a December 5 cable about the NIE as “recurring, troublesome themes in Swiss [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] thinking”.
The US also used the threat of an increase in the price of oil to justify a continuing tough line on Iran, warning the deputy foreign minister of Tanzania that markets “react not only to real risk, but to mere perceptions of risk, and in a world where supply and demand are carefully balanced, a nuclear Iran could precipitate a dramatic spike in oil prices affecting the global economy, and particularly net importers like Tanzania”.
On the whole, US allies fell into line and insisted that the NIE would not change their policy towards Iran. However, many cables note their concern that the report would make it harder to persuade other countries, including UNSC permanent members, Russia and China, to back more UNSC sanctions against Iran.
Others clearly felt slighted by the US’s decision to release the NIE without telling them first, and several questioned the timing of its release.
Minister of State at the British Foreign Office Kim Howells said that the NIE had “floored” him. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said the NIE had “blindsided” him and complained that it “took the military option off the table and increased the difficulty of negotiations with the Iranians”.
French political advisers called the NIE a “disaster” and “[t]he best Christmas gift Ahmadinejad could have imagined". They anticipated “lasting consequences, including eliminating France's ability to build consensus in Europe”.
Saudi King Abdullah reassured the US that the NIE had not changed his view that Iran intended to pursue nuclear weapons, saying “the Iranians are not good people”.
Then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert said that the NIE was “not helpful” and that “Israel was convinced that Iran was determined to get the bomb, but there was no smoking gun”. He “stressed that every means must be used to pressure Iran”.
Likud Party chairperson Benjamin Netanyahu (now prime minister) took the same position, saying that “nobody in Israel believes Iran has stopped its nuclear program” and “it was important that the US not take the military option off the table”.
International Atomic Energy Director General Mohamed ElBaradei drew condemnation when he welcomed the NIE’s findings, stating publicly that “Iran obviously has been somewhat vindicated in saying they have not been working on a weapons program at least for the last few years”.
A December 21 cable reported: “The UK took particular exception to ElBaradei's post-NIE remark that Iran had been ‘vindicated’.”
Another cable entitled “IAEA/Iran: Like-Minded Ambassadors Regroup Post-NIE” reported the Australian Ambassador to the IAEA as saying, “we need to ‘come down hard’ on the DG”.
January 28 cable from the US Embassy in Paris said that French strategic affairs adviser, Philippe Errera, “noted that the timing of the release of the NIE was especially bad, with EU Political Directors having been poised for a new UNSC resolution just before the NIE release”.
Errera suggested the US should have postponed the NIE’s release or changed the report’s “characterization of Iran's enrichment activities as exclusively civil”.
As well as increasing the pressure on Iran’s economy, the US and the “EU-3” (France, Germany, UK) wanted to pass another resolution to keep up the appearance of a united front in the aftermath of the NIE.
A December 6 cable from the US Embassy in Berlin reported that Germany had "'ignored the broken china’ from the NIE release and came out ‘immediately, in full support’ of a third UNSCR”.
The Deputy Director General for Foreign Economic Policy at Germany’s Economics Ministry, Michael Kruse, stressed that “a strong, robust resolution is essential to send a strong signal from the international community”.
French officials argued that a quick, albeit weak, UNSC resolution was needed to counter the potential effects of the NIE. Francios Richier, strategic affairs adviser to President Sarkozy, told the US, “the international community's most effective mechanism has been creating a financially difficult operating environment for Iran. If the perception declines in the financial community that investment in Iran is dangerous, this will change”.
However, the NIE raised the opposition to another round of UNSC sanctions against Iran from some states, particularly South Africa, Indonesia and Libya, who were non-permanent UNSC council members at the time.
The US used every opportunity to put forth its interpretation of the NIE: Iran was still working towards a nuclear bomb and needed to be stopped.
China, however, said the NIE had “changed the situation”. A December 6 cable from the US Embassy in Beijing reported China’s assistant foreign minister as saying that “the general view of the international community is that the [NIE] report casts doubt on the need for an additional UNSC resolution”.
The cable reports that the US ambassador responded that it was "'just as important as ever’ to continue down the current path. A key finding of the NIE, he stressed, is that Iran had a nuclear weapons program before 2003; the most difficult part of developing a nuclear weapon, the collection of sufficient fissile material, is continuing and the rest of the program could be restarted in a relatively short time.”
A February 29 cable reported that in a meeting with German foreign minister Frank-Walker Steinmeier, Indonesian foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda, “pointed to the recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate as documenting that Iran had halted its weapons development program”, which Wirajuda believed, “diminished the need for another resolution”.
The cable reports that Steinmeier countered that “Iran's current enrichment activities–in contrast to past weapons programs–were the primary reason for a new UNSC resolution”.
By this line of argument, Iran’s failure to comply with unjust UNSC resolutions requiring it to suspend uranium enrichment provides the justification for further sanctions.
Iran is to be punished for having a nuclear program which could theoretically be used to produce nuclear weapons, even though this is a right accorded to it by the NPT, and it is subject to rigorous IAEA surveillance and inspections to ensure that the program is not used for military purposes.
Many countries have civilian nuclear programs and several, including Japan, Germany and Italy, have “breakout” nuclear weapons capacity. That is, they have the technology and the infrastructure in place to build nuclear weapons quickly if they chose to do so.
These countries have not been subject to sanctions and threats of war, in contrast to Iran which does not have breakout capacity, nor have Israel, India and Pakistan which have all developed nuclear weapons outside the NPT.
Moreover, the Iranian people are to be the casualties in an economic war waged against Iran which has dramatically increased the price of basic goods, created unemployment and poverty, and led to a shortage of essential medical supplies.
UNSC resolution 1803 was finally adopted on March 3, 2008.
It contained few mandatory but several voluntary measures, such as calling on states to voluntarily limit their interaction with Iranian banks operating in their territories.
A February 14 cable reported that German Deputy National Security Advisor, Rolf Nikel, said “[w]hile more could have been included ‘we had to see the reality and importance of maintaining unity, especially after the NIE’”.
The NIE also complicated EU-3 plans to invoke EU sanctions and other unilateral measures against Iran. Within three days of the NIE’s release, Dutch officials complained that it had "made EU action more difficult”. They noted that “Parliament was already asking the Foreign Minister to justify this position in light of the apparently diminished Iranian threat”.
In January 2008, EU Council Secretariat Director General for External and Politico-Military Affairs Robert Cooper insisted that the EU “was not thrown off by the National Intelligence Estimate” but wanted to wait for the “backing” provided by another UNSC resolution.
The US was at this time also seeking to persuade countries to limit dealings with beyond the level required by sanctions. So-called “moral suasion” is the extra-legal means by which governments attempt to influence the private sector.
It had been used particularly by the German government to try to limit business with Iran. The German government’s success depended on its ability to persuade German companies that they could find themselves inadvertently financing WMD proliferation if they dealt with Iranian entities.
This was a much more difficult task following the NIE.
A cable sent from the US Embassy in Berlin on the day following the publication of the NIE’s key findings reported that German National Security Advisor, Christoph Heusgen, told the US he was concerned “about the timing of the information and potential political fallout, particularly in light of Chancellor Merkel's efforts to use moral suasion to convince German companies to end investment in Iran”.
A cable from the same embassy sent three months after the NIE’s release reported that: “German export control officials and banking regulators express concern that small- and medium-size exporters perceive sanctions, as well as the Government's moral suasion efforts, as arbitrary, politically motivated measures aimed at regime change, rather than as tools to prevent proliferation.”
A December 10 cable detailed discussions between the US and Britain about ways the British government could unilaterally shut down Iranian banks operating in Britain.
A representative from the British Cabinet Office official told the US there was “no lack of [British] political will to finding imaginative ways forward, only legal constraints”. The cable said: “The U.S. will need to continue to press the UK to be creative in finding ways to take domestic action against [Iranian] banks that they agree are complicit in nefarious activity.”
It added, “we will need to work hard to convince some of the UK's skeptical EU (and UN) partners of the continued threat after the release of the NIE”.
NIE's effect on missile defence plans
As well as hampering the West’s efforts to pass tough new sanctions against Iran, cables published by WikiLeaks show that the 2007 NIE complicated negotiations about a US proposal for a new missile defence system in Europe.
The NIE was published while the US was pursuing agreements with the governments of the Czech Republic and Poland to establish missile defence sites in those two countries. Poland was intended to be used as the base for 10 US interceptor missiles, with a radar and tracking system site to be built in the Czech Republic.
Missile defence systems are intended to stop enemy ballistic missiles during flight. But after more than 50 years of development, tests have demonstrated that their chance of success in realistic operational conditions is practically non-existent.
The concept has been kept alive by pro-war US politicians and weapons manufacturers, such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing, which have shared in over US$110 billion which has been invested by the US in research and development.
The plan for Poland and the Czech Republic was viewed by the Russian government as an act of aggression, as the missiles intended to be deployed in Poland had the potential to carry nuclear warheads aimed at Russia.
Consequently, the missile defence plan threw several arms reduction treaties into jeopardy and threatened to provoke a new arms race.
Russia was already feeling threatened by NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe and President Putin compared the missile defence proposal to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. In July 2007 Putin threatened to deploy medium-range missiles in Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave which borders Poland.
A majority of the populations of both the Czech Republic and Poland opposed the missile defence plan, which would have made them a prime military target any hostilities. But their governments pressed ahead with it.
The plan was sold as a necessary defence against Iranian and North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), even though neither country possessed ICBMs and the country most aggravated by the project, Russia, is believed to have more than 350.
Cables show the Czech government was worried that the NIE would impact the “domestic debate” and make it more difficult to impose missile defence on the Czech public.
Responding to a US brief on the NIE, Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs political director Martin Povejsil told US officials, “it was important that public statements emphasize that the NIE did not focus on Iran’s missile program”.
The Czech government immediately adopted the US line on the NIE, but some government members complained publicly about not being forewarned of the report’s contents. A cable from December 11, 2007 reported that the US Ambassador “urged the [government of the Czech Republic] to refrain from further public complaints about the NIE and focus on moving the MD project forward”.
In response, the Czechs reassured the US that these complaints “were only for domestic consumption”.
The cable reports that, “[d]espite the lack of advance coordination, Czech official comments from the start were completely consistent with U.S. points, stressing the continuing threat posed by Iran’s enrichment and missile programs, and thus the continued need for the MD project in the Czech Republic and Poland”.
The Czech position on the NIE provoked an angry response from the Iranian government, and set back moves underway to normalise diplomatic relations between the two countries. Iran protested to the Czech government, but a December 7 cable reported that the US was confident that there would be no “change in Czech policy as a result”.
At this time, the Bush administration was also pushing for NATO to endorse the missile defence plan in order to bolster its position against Russia. A cable from January 11, 2008 reported that NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was concerned that NIE had “caused many Allies to become ‘fence sitters’” on the issue of missile defence.
The same cable reports on a “roundtable” meeting with NATO permanent representatives, during which the Dutch representative questioned whether the NIE had “weakened the U.S. case with Russia for missile defense”.
The cable reports that US undersecretary of defence for policy, Eric Edelman, responded with “vigorous rebuttals that the NIE contained much more information about which to be concerned than about which to be sanguine, although Russia was certainly not above using the NIE to score political points”.
A cable from January 24, 2008 shows that the US wanted to capitalise on the Turkish military’s fear of “an Iran-inspired ‘Shiite arc’ of states extending from Central Asia to Lebanon and the Gulf” to push the case for missile defence within Turkey.
The cable reports: “[i]t is essential that we reinforce the [Turkish General Staff] perception of the threat posed by a nuclear-armed and ballistic-missile equipped Iran through regular consultations and intelligence sharing, particularly post-NIE. This can be a unifying theme for US-Turkish [military-military] collaboration in the years to come.”
NATO ultimately endorsed the plan at the Bucharest Summit in April 2008. The Czech and Polish governments signed agreements with the US to have the missile defence sites on their territory in July and August 2008. However, the plan was abandoned by President Obama in 2009 due to continuing Russian opposition. Missile defence installations were instead stationed on US warships in the Black Sea and in Romania.