Did an Iranian Spy Clear Tehran of Nuclear Ambitions?

The new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran says that Iran did have a nuclear weapons research program until early 2003, but then dismantled it. See Farideh Farhi’s excellent discussion of this development at our joint Global Affairs weblog.

There is now a high level of confidence that Iran is no longer seeking nuclear weapons.

This finding reverses numerous statements of George W. Bush to the effect that Iran is frantically trying to get a nuke.

So what convinced the US intelligence community that Iran’s weapons program was long ago dismantled?

A prominent Iran specialist is suggesting on a private email list that very likely, it is explained by one name: Ali Reza Asghari.

Asghari had been head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon in the 1980s. He is someone who knows where all the bodies are buried with regard to Iranian covert operations, from involvement in the 1983 attack on the Marines in Beirut, to the training of the Badr Corps (now back in Iraq) and any Iran links to the Mahdi Army. Likewise he was allegedly privy to information on Iran’s nuclear research. He rose to be deputy minister of defense. It is alleged that around 2003 he was recruited by a foreign intelligence agency (very likely that of Turkey) as a spy. The Iranian authorities may have gotten wise to him in late 2006, forcing him abruptly to flee to Istanbul in early 2007.

Al-Sharq al-Awsat said around the same time:

“According to anonymous officials who spoke to the Turkish newspaper, ‘Millet’, the Turkish intelligence and police had discovered that Asghari was opposed to the Iranian government and that he holds information regarding its nuclear plan.”

Some press accounts say that Asghari was able to bring actual documents out with him about Iran’s nuclear program.

So if the Iranians were doing some weapons experiments in 2002 (which itself is not proved), why did they stop?

1. The anti-government Mojahedin-e Khalq terrorist organization, which Saddam Hussein had given a base in Iraq, was able to discover the nuclear research facility at Natanz and to pass information about it not only to Saddam but also to the US. Anything weapons-related was then obviously open to being bombed, and the government may have decided that keeping such experiments covert was too difficult and the possibility of its enemies bombing them too likely, to continue.

2. Having seen what international economic sanctions did to Iraq, reducing it to a fourth world country, the Iranians were afraid of sanctions once Natanz became known. (Gareth Porter suggests that the decision to negotiate with the Europeans was the turning point.)

3. As the US rushed to war against Saddam, Iran’s rulers saw an opportunity for a grand alliance with Washington, and they knew that one quid pro quo would be giving up any ambitions to become a nuclear state.

Thus, the Iranian government’s decision to drop the experiments at Natanz were probably prompted by a combination of discouragement about the likelihood they could be kept secret and an ambition to do what Libya later did and reposition itself in a less adversarial posture toward Washington.

The Iranians must have been astonished when Dick Cheney shot down their overtures.

Some speculate that Asghari also had information about a secret Syrian missile site, leading to the Israeli strike on it in September.

If the decisive evidence for the lack of any nuclear weapons program in Iran was the documents Asghari spirited out when he defected last winter, then the US intelligence community has had this information for at least 6 months.

So why has the Bush administration continued to rattle sabers at Iran all this time.

Why was Cheney conspiring with Neoconservatives on his staff to convince Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to attack the Natanz facilities, in hopes Iran would over-react and give Bush and Cheney a pretext for doing regime change in Tehran?

Why did the Bushies keep leaking to prominent journalist Seymour Hersh the story that Cheney was planning an attack on Iran?

Why did Bush go so far as to say that World War III could only be prevented if Iran was denied the knowledge of how to enrich uranium?

Cheney and Bush have probably known since at least April that Iran has no weapons program.

I can only speculate, of course. But I believe that Bush and Cheney want regime change in Tehran. Being oil men, they are very well aware that petroleum switched over in the late 1990s to being a seller’s market. There was a danger of China doing proprietary deals with Iran (and Iraq and others) that would ultimately deny the US access to the Gulf oil and gas bonanza.

If Iran learns how to close the fuel cycle, it could always make a bomb fairly quickly if it thought that the US was planning an invasion. (If you use centrifuges to enrich to 5% for fuel, you could theoretically keep feeding the uranium back through them to enrich to 80% for a bomb).

In short, regime change by force becomes impossible if Iran has the knowledge of how to make a bomb. And if you can’t do regime change by force, you might well not be able to forestall a new Iran-China economic and military axis, in which the US increasingly risks being cut out of the petroleum not only in Iran but in the Oil Gulf more generally.

So from a hawkish Cheney point of view, it is irrelevant whether Iran has a weapons program. It cannot be allowed to develop enrichment capabilities even for civilian purposes.

If China found a way to monopolize Gulf petroleum, the US could be reduced to a third rate power during the next century. That’s why Bushco invaded Iraq, and it is why they keep the pressure on Iran. They want to ability to maneuver and to use conventional force if necessary to secure US energy security.

So although the NIE makes it less likely that Cheney can get his way on attacking Iran in the next 12 months, as Fred Kaplan rightly argues, the new finding only postpones the crisis.

Ominously, whereas the Los Angeles Times leads this story with “Iran has no nuke program, U.S. intel says,” the hawkish Washington Postleads with “Iran Is Judged 10 Years From Nuclear Bomb.” The WaPo diction (for which poor Dafna Linzer is almost certainly not responsible) implies facts not in evidence. Iran cannot be 10 years away from a bomb if it has no weapons program. It would have to constitute a weapons program and then it would be X years from having a bomb. But the WaPo way of putting it is going to dominate the debate from here on in. Cheney may yet have his way, down the road, by inspiring younger hawks.