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December 7, 2007
What if the NIE is a Bush gambit?
The NIE report may have been a political move by Bush opponents in the State Department, as many have speculated. Or it could be disinformation. But what if it is something else entirely?
Intelligence breakthroughs are extremely rare and never advertised. The best example may be Britain's ENIGMA breakthrough in stealing a Nazi signals decoding machine , with Polish help. The ENIGMA secret was fiercely guarded at the cost of many Allied lives, and was not revealed until decades after the war ended. Churchill is believed to have allowed the Nazi bombing of Canterbury Cathedral rather than reveal to the Luftwaffe that he knew of it ahead of time.
So the idea that the NIE suddenly flipped from 2005 because of an intelligence breakthrough is pretty unlikely. The Ashgari defection is a possibility, but defectors are double-sided swords. Before the Iraq war, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law defected to the American side, and proved to be of limited value. He was eventually blackmailed into returning by threatening his family, only to be killed by Saddam's thugs in Baghdad.
The NIE may therefore be a Bush poker gambit, with the aid of Bush-hating liberals from the State Department. The Bush administration has become rather expert at deploying the relentless anti-Bush Left for its own purposes. The Left has made itself completely predictable, and a predictable poker player can be beaten.
A deliberately deceptive NIE could have two purposes.
1. It could pressure Israel and the Arabs.
2. It could mislead Ahmadi-Nejad.
Take the first possibility. With Khomeinist nukes on the horizon, both Israel and the Arabs are under unprecedented pressure. If you're Israel, and in A'jad's gunsights, you want American protection, and if possible, a preemptive strike. At the very least you want American cooperation in clearing the path for an Israel Air Force strike on known nuclear facilities in Iran, and US help in containing any blowback. The NIE tells you you're on your own until some time in 2010-2015. (But notice that the 2010 date is only just 2 years and a few days away, just one year later than the current Israeli estimate of 2009).
The Arabs would be under intense pressure for exactly the same reason. Above all they don't want a nuclear Iran next door, threatening each and every one of them. Strategically, Iran wants to control the OPEC price, as A'jad has made very clear. Ideologically, Iran's political Shiite branch of Islam wants to wrest control over Mecca and Medina from the Saudis, the key to Khomeinist control over the Muslim world. During Khomeini's time in power, Tehran sponsored an uprising of Shiite pilgrims to Mecca, which the Saudis have never forgotten. (The Saudis have only controlled Mecca and Medina for less than 100 years, and could be unseated by a powerful Iran-sponsored coup, backed by a nuclear threat against Riyadh.)
So if America seems lax against the Khomeinist rush to nukes, both Arabs and Israelis are put under tremendous pressure. The reason is the apparent failure of the Annapolis conference to produce a breakthrough. The details are still obscure, but the goals are pretty clear: Israel is under pressure to yield more of the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem, while the Arabs are expected to give open diplomatic recognition to Israel. For Israel that may seem like a dangerously bad bargain, which is why Olmert and Livni refused to go along with it. They could not go back to the Knesseth and expect it to win support.
That may change once the Israeli public and political system think through the implications of the NIE, which suggests that Israel's lone superpower ally could reduce its protection in the case of an Iranian attack. The Bush-Rice move may aim to force the entire Israeli political system to take difficult risks to empower the Palestinians. A Palestinian state as such is not at issue; Israel wants that, if for no other reason than to have some state authority be responsible for any attacks on itself. Nor is a symbolic PA presence in Jerusalem much of a problem. The Palestinians want more, because they, too, have to go back home and be able to present an unexpected "gift" to their followers. Otherwise Hamas will kill them, literally and politically.
So pressure on Israel could be one reason for the NIE. Pressure on the Arabs is another, as mentioned above. The massed gents of the Arab leagues, dressed in flowing robes, reacted like Dracula to a cross when confronted with Tzipi Livni. They simply could not bring themselves to shake hands in public. That's partly because of Livni's gender (even A'jad got into trouble from his enemies when he was seen touching an Iranian woman in public), and partly because the Saudis may be victims of their own hate-Israel propaganda campaign. You can't insist on wall-to-wall hate propaganda all your life without soaking it up yourself. And of course the Arabs know the fate of Saddat, after he was photographed kissing Golda Meir on the cheek during his breakthrough visit to Jerusalem.
What about the Iranians? A'jad celebrated the new NIE as a victory for the Khomeini cult. It helped his reputation at home. But it didn't stop France and Germany, which are genuinely freaked out by the Iranian danger, from demanding an increase in UN sanctions against Tehran a few days later. The Europeans didn't go back to sleep after the sort-of-reassuring US NIE. Even China has signaled it may be on board for stronger sanctions.
What the new NIE might do for the Iranians is lull them into thinking they are in less danger from a preemptive US-Israeli strike for the coming year. They know the Israelis would have difficulty striking their nuclear facilities without American cooperation. (It could be done, but not in a sustained bombing campaign.)
President Bush will soon travel to the Middle East. The iron rule for such high-level presidential trips is that any resulting agreements are negotiated beforehand, lest the President be embarrassed and weakened in public. It is possible, but not likely, that George W. Bush is taking a Hail Mary pass on this. So the full-court press is on right now to get solid agreements from the various sides. The negotiations have to take into account not just the principals, but their domestic opponents also. The Arabs in every country are afraid of being assassinated, or being pressured by the radicals. This process must appear as a victory to the Arab sides in order to be accepted at home.
The desired outcome is major Israeli concessions. These inevitably would put at risk two major Israeli red lines. One is the status of significant parts of Jerusalem. The second is the exposure of more of the Israeli population to terrorist acts, including missiles. Those are very painful concessions for the Israeli political class to make.
The US position is presumably that such sacrifices are better than the Iranian nuclear danger. On the upside, the US may be offering nuclear defense guarantees to all sides, along the lines of the NATO guarantees during the Cold War. It would be a de facto Middle East Treaty Organization.
Once its Arab and Israeli ducks are in line, the Bush-Rice line of thinking may be that a preemptive strike against A'jad's nuclear toys might be covertly supported by both the Arabs and Israelis.
The whole business may be an historic gamble, with historic up-sides and down-sides. It is not knowable if it can be pulled off; and if it is, it is not knowable if it would put the parties into grave danger. But as Condoleezza Rice no doubt reminded all the participants time and time again, the Iranian threat is also a grave danger.
If this analysis is approximately right, the Annapolis process is a very high stakes gambit, with possible great rewards, and great risks. There will be turmoil on all sides, though visible mostly on the Israeli side, since they are a let-it-all-hang-out democracy. Expect a fair amount of loud controversy.
Will it work? If it worked, would it turn out to be a positive thing? It's all very murky. But decisions must be made soon.
James Lewis blogs at dangeroustimes.wordpress.com/