Classified and Declassified

On the eve of this year’s visit to New York president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave Ann Curry of NBC a rare interview at his official residence in Tehran. While the interview itself has carelessly been prepared, completely ignoring the mere facts of the brutal crackdown of the opposition movement after Iran’s highly disputed election, one insisting (albeit amateurishly formulated) question was obviously not answered by the president: “Is there a condition under which Iran would weaponize (meaning, creating a nuclear weapon)?”

There is a high risk that the visibly nerved president’s reluctant response will only serve as just another piece of evidence that Iran still has a covert military nuclear program. That he considers nuclear weapons as belonging to the past will not be sufficient in certain western circles.

In November 2007, the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran of US America’s 16 intelligence agencies had concluded that, “with high confidence, until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons.” And that, “with moderate confidence, Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons programs as of mid-2007, but we don’t know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.” (Emphasis added.)

Most of the 2007 NIE is classified. What has been released so far should be considered as a summary of intelligence findings. The declassified summary of the NIE has been heavily discredited and its release criticized since the estimate gives the impression that Iran, at least until mid-2007, has no covert military nuclear program (with moderate confidence). The estimate had been released when the former Bush-Cheney administration was just about to strike Iran’s nuclear sites. It effectively prevented any strike since.

What does moderate confidence actually mean? The authors of the NIE define:

“Moderate confidence generally means that the information is credibly sourced and plausible but not of sufficient quality or corroborated sufficiently to warrant a higher level of confidence.”

Given that most of the NIE is still classified, referring to the declassified summary of the NIE and its main conclusion that Iran does not have, since 2003 and until mid-2007 and with moderate confidence, a military nuclear program, has been questioned by David Albright and Christina Walrond in a recent report of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). They criticize a 2008 German court (Oberlandesgericht Frankfurt) decision which dismissed all charges against a German-Iranian businessman, Mohsen Vanaki, who had allegedly “illegally brokered the transfer of dual-use equipment to Iran with applications in a nuclear weapons program” (high-speed cameras, radiation detectors, night vision goggles), which had recently been overturned by Germany’s Federal Court of Justice. The Bundesgerichtshof decided on March 26, 2009 that the Oberlandesgericht should not have dismissed the findings of Germany’s federal intelligence service Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) which provided the court with additional evidence to the NIE. While the Oberlandesgericht had correctly recognized that the BND’s assessment did not contain proof of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, it failed to recognize that the NIE’s judgment about the program was also not proof.

Circular reasoning has it that no proof formulated twice might cast enough doubt on Iran. The mere fact that Germany’s federal court had ordered a retrial may be considered by interested parties almost as proof that Iran indeed has a covert military program. Albright and Walrond’s report has been published just when American intelligence agencies, in an update of the 2007 NIE, reported to the White House that Iran has not restarted its nuclear weapons development program.

Albright and Walrond’s concluding claim that

“[G]iven difficulties faced by courts and governments in interpreting the declassified NIE and its relevance to international initiatives being taken to address Iran’s nuclear program, the U.S. government should declassify more of the 2007 NIE and any future one,”

sounds reasonable at first sight. But what they actually want to say is: there is more behind the curtain. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its outgoing Director General Mohamed ElBaradei have recently faced similar rumors, in both ways. While in particular Israel has blamed the IAEA to hide incriminating evidence about Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, others claim that the IAEA conceals exculpatory evidence that the so-called alleged studies were forged, an issue which has been mentioned in numerous IAEA reports on Iran in recent years.

One may in fact conclude that highly diverse interpretations of classified intelligence information and declassified parts of it eventually would only serve the dictator(s) in Tehran.

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One Response to Classified and Declassified

  1. Pingback: IAEA Estimates « Freelance

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