The recent US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report that Iran is some years away from having the capability to make the bomb (earliest by 2009, but more realistically by 2015) upset many of the ‘shock and awe’ brigade of neo-cons in Washington. Critics of the report have either dismissed it as a politically motivated exercise or as the revenge of those who oppose or dislike George W. Bush’s policy. Israeli strategists and analysts have largely refused to accept the report as the final word. CNN had to hurriedly cancel its two-hour programme, ‘We Were Warned: Iran Goes Nuclear’, after the publication of the NIE report.
Bush has continued to say that Iran was, is, and will remain a threat. But the rhetoric about an impending “third world war” will have to cool down now. It is not going to be easy to ignore the joint report of intelligence community considering that the US government spends $ 40 billion annually on collecting intelligence. Several former CIA analysts and experts have praised the NIE findings for resisting back channel politics and reporting ‘as they saw it’ — not based on a single source but multiple sources that include technical, documentary and electronic. Others feel that this reversal will dent the credibility of US intelligence on countries like Iran. Many see this is an intelligence exercise honestly delivered.
Yet, the use and abuse of intelligence reports is nothing new. In the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war, the famous Downing Street memo of July 2002 recorded after the British MI6 chief had visited the US that the British Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) had stated that “C reported on his recent talks in Washington… Military action was now seen as inevitable. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy... There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.”
The worry today about Iran’s nuclear ambitions is the result of US policy in Iran in the 1970s. President Gerald Ford’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger supported the idea of Iran developing nuclear power and the US hoped to sell billions of dollars worth of nuclear reactors, spare parts and nuclear fuel to Iran even though the Shah had declared rather indiscreetly that Iran wanted to develop nuclear weapons. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld persuaded Ford in 1976 to offer Iran a deal that would have earned GE and Westinghouse contracts worth $ 6.4 billion — a boon in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island disaster. The offer included a reprocessing facility for a complete nuclear fuel cycle — something that the US does not want Iran to have today. The argument now is that Iran’s desire to have its own enrichment facility for nuclear power proves that it wants to develop a bomb. The Shah fell and the Ayatollahs took over, the Soviets moved into Afghanistan and suddenly it appeared as if the arch rival would be sitting on the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. The US had no plan B, except to convert the pariah General Zia-ul-Haq into an ardent frontline ally.
Every major intelligence agency of the day knew what the Pakistanis, led by A.Q. Khan and the entire nuclear-military establishment, were up to. But the Reagan administration, fixated on defeating the Evil Empire, chose to ignore all transgressions. The CIA discovered that the State Department was actually tipping off Pakistani agents in the US. Richard Barlow, a young diligent officer repeatedly and meticulously produced accurate intelligence assessments about Pakistani clandestine activity. Yet, his reports would mysteriously get substituted or altered. Barlow had missed out the realpolitik. Eventually, he was harassed and rendered unemployable and now lives in a trailer in Montana.
Year after year, Reagan certified that Pakistan was not making the bomb so that Congress would not stop the aid to Pakistan even though US money for the jehad was being diverted to make the bomb. The fact that Pakistan had cold tested in 1983, hot tested in 1984 in Lop Nor, that the China-Pakistan nuclear links had burgeoned with Beijing having supplied blue prints, radioactive isotopes and technical assistance; and that the US supplied F-16 aircraft that had been made nuclear capable, was concealed. Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark say this and a lot more in their explosive account, Deception: Pakistan, the United States and the Global Nuclear Weapons Policy.
Having mastered their skills at uranium enrichment, Pakistani leaders were now looking for buyers of this technology. Seymour Hersh first wrote about this in the New Yorker in 1993. But no one bothered. Army Chief General Aslam Beg and ISI chief Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul put together a blueprint to include Iran and Afghanistan in a strategic tie-up in keeping with Zia’s dream of supplying the bomb to the Ummah. Iran had been won over as a customer and additional money would be available for the jehad against India. Acting as the interlocutor between China and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan arranged the sale of 36 long- range nuclear capable CSS-II missiles to Saudi Arabia at a cost of $ 3 billion. In 1988, Zia proposed that the Saudis could be secretly supplied with nuclear warheads as they were not interested in the technology. For the devout Sunni Zia, it made good sense to equip the Sunni Saudis — the Iranians were, after all, Shias.
The post-Afghan jehad period was one of US indifference. Recently, former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds, under a gag order for five years, has revealed details overheard on wiretaps she translated during her time at the FBI just after 9/11. She has disclosed a maze of nuclear black market espionage involving US Defence and State Department officials, where information about nuclear technology was eventually sold to Pakistan and used by A.Q. Khan for development of nuclear weapons. The secrets were then given to Iran, Libya, North Korea, and potentially al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, just weeks prior to September 11, 2001.
The urge to reject unpalatable intelligence harms the recipient. Cover-ups and misuse of intelligence invariably lead to warped policies and we may actually see a nuclear blow-back of US policies in our neighbourhood which may extend far beyond. Blowbacks affect both the perpetrator and the recipient, as in Pakistan today.
Vikram Sood is a former Secretary, Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW)