Daily Archives: February 27, 2012

U.S. Agencies See No Move by Iran to Build a Bomb

New York Times

Recent assessments by American spy agencies are broadly consistent with a 2007 intelligence finding that concluded that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weaponsprogram years earlier, according to current and former American officials. The officials said that assessment was largely reaffirmed in a 2010 National Intelligence Estimate, and that it remains the consensus view of America’s 16 intelligence agencies.

At the center of the debate is the murky question of the ultimate ambitions of the leaders in Tehran. There is no dispute among American, Israeli and European intelligence officials that Iran has been enriching nuclear fuel and developing some necessary infrastructure to become a nuclear power. But the Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence agencies believe that Iran has yet to decide whether to resume a parallel program to design a nuclear warhead — a program they believe was essentially halted in 2003 and which would be necessary for Iran to build a nuclear bomb. Iranian officials maintain that their nuclear program is for civilian purposes.

In Senate testimony on Jan. 31, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, stated explicitly that American officials believe that Iran is preserving its options for a nuclear weapon, but said there was no evidence that it had made a decision on making a concerted push to build a weapon. David H. Petraeus, the C.I.A. director, concurred with that view at the same hearing. Other senior United States officials, including Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have made similar statements in recent television appearances.

“They are certainly moving on that path, but we don’t believe they have actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Clapper told theSenate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Critics of the American assessment in Jerusalem and some European capitals point out that Iran has made great strides in the most difficult step toward building a nuclear weapon, enriching uranium. That has also been the conclusion of a series of reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspectors, who on Friday presented new evidence that the Iranians have begun enriching uranium in an underground facility.

Once Iran takes further steps to actually enrich weapons grade fuel — a feat that the United States does not believe Iran has yet accomplished — the critics believe that it would be relatively easy for Iran to engineer a warhead and then have a bomb in short order. They also criticize the C.I.A. for being overly cautious in its assessments of Iran, suggesting that it is perhaps overcompensating for its faulty intelligence assessments in 2002 about Iraq’s purported weapons programs, which turned out not to exist. In addition, Israeli officials have challenged the very premise of the 2007 intelligence assessment, saying they do not believe that Iran ever fully halted its work on a weapons program.

Yet some intelligence officials and outside analysts believe there is another possible explanation for Iran’s enrichment activity, besides a headlong race to build a bomb as quickly as possible. They say that Iran could be seeking to enhance its influence in the region by creating what some analysts call “strategic ambiguity.” Rather than building a bomb now, Iran may want to increase its power by sowing doubt among other nations about its nuclear ambitions. Some point to the examples of Pakistan and India, both of which had clandestine nuclear weapons programs for decades before they actually decided to build bombs and test their weapons in 1998.

“I think the Iranians want the capability, but not a stockpile,” said Kenneth C. Brill, a former United States ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency who also served as director of the intelligence community’s National Counterproliferation Center from 2005 until 2009. Added a former intelligence official: “The Indians were a screwdriver turn away from having a bomb for many years. The Iranians are not that close.”

To be sure, American analysts acknowledge that understanding the intentions of Iran’s leadership is extremely difficult, and that their assessments are based on limited information. David A. Kay, who was head of the C.I.A.’s team that searched for Iraq’s weapons programs after the United States invasion, was cautious about the quality of the intelligence underlying the current American assessment.

“They don’t have evidence that Iran has made a decision to build a bomb, and that reflects a real gap in the intelligence,” Mr. Kay said. “It’s true the evidence hasn’t changed very much” since 2007, he added. “But that reflects a lack of access and a lack of intelligence as much as anything.”

Divining the intentions of closed societies is one of the most difficult tasks for American intelligence analysts, and the C.I.A. for decades has had little success penetrating regimes like Iran and North Korea to learn how their leaders make decisions.

Amid the ugly aftermath of the botched Iraq intelligence assessments, American spy agencies in 2006 put new analytical procedures in place to avoid repeating the failures. Analysts now have access to raw information about the sources behind intelligence reports, to help better determine the credibility of the sources and prevent another episode like the one in which the C.I.A. based much of its conclusions about Iraq’s purported biological weapons on an Iraqi exile who turned out to be lying.

Analysts are also required to include in their reports more information about the chain of logic that has led them to their conclusions, and differing judgments are featured prominently in classified reports, rather than buried in footnotes.

When an unclassified summary of the 2007 intelligence estimate on Iran’s nuclear program was made public, stating that it had abandoned work on a bomb, itstunned the Bush administration and the world. It represented a sharp reversal from the intelligence community’s 2005 estimate, and drew criticism of the C.I.A. from European and Israeli officials, as well as conservative pundits. They argued that it was part of a larger effort by the C.I.A. to prevent American military action against Iran.

The report was so controversial that many outside analysts expected that the intelligence community would be forced to revise and repudiate the estimate after new evidence emerged about Iran’s program, notably from the United Nations’ inspectors. Yet analysts now say that while there has been mounting evidence of Iranian work on enrichment facilities, there has been far less clear evidence of a weapons program.

Still, Iran’s enrichment activities have raised suspicions, even among skeptics.

“What has been driving the discussion has been the enrichment activity,” said one former intelligence official. “That’s made everybody nervous. So the Iranians continue to contribute to the suspicions about what they are trying to do.”

Iran’s efforts to hide its nuclear facilities and to deceive the West about its activities have also intensified doubts. But some American analysts warn that such behavior is not necessarily proof of a weapons program. They say that one mistake the C.I.A. made before the war in Iraq was to assume that because Saddam Hussein resisted weapons inspections — acting as if he were hiding something — it meant that he had a weapons program.

As Mr. Kay explained, “The amount of evidence that you were willing to go with in 2002 is not the same evidence you are willing to accept today.”

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Plot to Kill Putin Is Uncovered, Russian TV Reports

New York Times

MOSCOW — Russian television reported early on Monday that the Ukrainian and Russian intelligence services had in recent weeks acted jointly to thwart an assassination attempt on the Russian prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin.

The announcement came less than a week before the Russian presidential election on Sunday. Mr. Putin, the dominant figure in Russian politics, is seeking a return to the presidency, which he held for two terms before becoming prime minister in 2008 and which he is widely expected to win.

A report by the state-controlled broadcaster Channel One said that a band of would-be assassins were arrested in the Ukrainian city of Odessa. Authorities were alerted to the group by an explosion inside an apartment, and discovered that several of its inhabitants had been dispatched to the city by the Chechen terrorist leader Doku Umarov, Channel One reported. One man died in the blast, but two survived.

There was confusion about the date of the arrests in the case. Channel One said the suspects were arrested on Jan. 4, but a statement released by the Ukrainian security services this month, which made no mention of an assassination plot against Mr. Putin, said the arrests were made on Feb. 4.

One survivor, Ilya Pyanzin, told authorities that there was a plan to attack strategic sites in Moscow and then to stage an attack on Mr. Putin, according to the report.

Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said on Monday that an assassination attempt had been in the works, as did a spokeswoman for Ukraine’s security service. A spokesman for Russia’s Federal Security Service would not comment.

Critics questioned the timing of the revelations, just six days before the presidential election but apparently two months after authorities learned of the plot.

“This is a sign that the real leaders of Mr. Putin’s political structure, the people from the Federal Security Service, are trying to mobilize public opinion according to the logic that we are surrounded by enemies and that we have one decisive, effective and intelligent national leader that they want to destroy,” Dmitri Oreshkin, a political analyst, said on Echo Moskvy radio station.

“The timely disclosure of this conspiracy against this leader is a serious addition to the electoral rating of the potential president,” he said.

Channel One released what it said were preliminary details about the plot, including filmed depositions from two of the suspects.

“The final goal was to go to Moscow and attempt to carry out an attack on Prime Minister Putin,” Adam Osmayev, identified as one of the two surviving suspects, said in a police interview on Channel One. “There are combat mines, which are called armor-piercing mines. So it wouldn’t necessarily be a suicide bomber. The man who died, for instance, was ready to be a suicide bomber.”

Mr. Osmayev, who was reported to have lived in London for years, said that the group had studied the routes taken by Mr. Putin’s drivers in Moscow, and that it was actively preparing to stage an attack before Sunday’s elections. He called Election Day “the deadline” for the operation.

Channel One reported that Mr. Osmayev had revealed details of the plan and another plot that was foiled by Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, in 2007, in hopes of receiving leniency from prosecutors.

An official of the agency, who spoke to Channel One on condition of anonymity, said that investigators searching computer files found in the Odessa apartment had discovered video of several top officials’ routes through Moscow, among them Mr. Putin’s. The files noted the positioning of security guards, and the number of back-up vehicles. The official said detonators and plastic explosives had been brought to Moscow earlier.

“It would have been a decent explosion — enough to overturn a truck,” he said.

This month, Russia’s current president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, warned of possible terrorist threats coming from Russia’s volatile North Caucasus region before the election.

“The most important political event of the year is the election for president of the Russian Federation,” Mr. Medvedev said at a meeting with the heads of Russia’s domestic intelligence service. “It is obvious that there could be different reactions to this event, and it is not out of the question that in the period of the campaign the criminal underground in the North Caucasus could become active.”

Also this month, Mr. Umarov, who has claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks including on subway stations and an airport in Moscow, called on his followers to refrain from attacks on civilians in light of a recent protest movement against Mr. Putin.

“The recent events show that the people of Russia do not support Putin,” Mr. Umarov said in a video on the Internet. “Thus, I order all groups carrying out special operations on the territory of Russia not to subject peaceful citizens to suffering.”

Channel One said it would release more details about the assassination plot later on Monday.

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Putin: An attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities will cause ‘catastrophic’ outcome

In article published in Russian newspapers ahead of a presidential vote next week, Russia’s Prime Minister says will oppose any UN resolutions on Syria that could be interpreted as a signal for military interference.

Haaretz

A military strike of Iran’s nuclear facilities would being about “catastrophic” consequences, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wrote in a widely circulated article on Monday, published ahead of an upcoming presidential vote.

Putin’s comments weren’t the first time Russian officials expressed opposition to the possibility of military action in Iran, with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov saying last week that “any possible military scenario against Iran will be catastrophic for the region and for the whole system of international relations.”

“Therefore I hope Israel understands all these consequences … and they should also consider the consequences of such action for themselves,” Gatilov said at a news conference.

In an article published on Monday, the Russian PM said that his country was “worried about the growing threat of a strike on Iran,” adding: “If it happens, the consequences will be truly catastrophic. Their real scale is impossible to imagine.”

He said that the international community must acknowledge Iran’s right to conduct uranium enrichment in exchange for placing the program under close supervision by the UN nuclear watchdog.

Iran has insisted that its controversial uranium enrichment program is aimed at producing energy and medical isotopes, but the West believes it’s a cover for developing nuclear weapons.

“The West has gotten carried away trying to ‘punish’ some nations,” Putin said. “It reaches out for sanctions or even a military club at the drop of a hat.”

He said the Western emphasis on using force could encourage more countries to seek nuclear weapons in a bid to protect themselves: “If I have a nuclear bomb in my pocket, they wouldn’t touch me because it would cost them. And those lacking a bomb should wait a ‘humanitarian’ intervention.”

Referring to Russia’s longstanding rejection of UN action on the Syrian crisis, Putin said the West had backed the Arab Spring to advance its interests in the region, and that instead of promoting democracy the revolts had given rise to religious extremism.

The lengthy article, Putin defended the Russia-China decision earlier this month to veto a United Nations resolution condemning Syrian President Bashar Assad’s crackdown on protests, saying that Moscow wouldn’t allow a replay of what happened in Libya, where NATO airstrikes helped Libya’s rebels oust Muammar Gadhafi’s regime.

“Learning from that bitter experience, we are against any UN Security Council resolutions that could be interpreted as a signal for military interference in domestic processes in Syria,” Putin said in the article published in Moscow News.

He said that any attempt to launch military action without UN approval would undermine the world body’s role and hurt global security.

“I strongly hope that the United States and other nations will learn from the sad experience and won’t try to resort to a forceful scenario in Syria,” Putin said. “I can’t understand that bellicose itch.”

Activists estimate that close to 7,500 people have been killed in the 11 months since the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on dissent began.

Putin said both the government and opposition forces must pull out of populated areas to end bloodshed, adding that the Western refusal to demand that from Assad’s opponents was “cynical.”

Syria is Russia’s last remaining ally in the Middle East. Moscow has maintained close ties with Damascus since the Cold War, when Syria was led by the current leader’s father, Hafez Assad.

Putin said that Russian companies have lost ground in the countries engulfed by the Arab Spring uprisings and are being replaced by firms from the nations that backed the regime change.

“That raises the thought that the tragic events to some extent had been driven not by concern about human rights, but a desire by some to redistribute markets,” he said. “We mustn’t watch that with an Olympian calm.”

Putin also accused the U.S. of using non-governmental organizations as an instrument of “soft power” aimed at destabilizing regimes.

“It’s necessary to draw a clear distinction between the freedom of speech, normal political activities on the one hand, and illegal instruments of soft power on the other,” he said, adding that U.S. attempts to interfere in Russian elections have strained ties.

The statement follows Putin’s earlier claims that the U.S. was behind the protests against his rule.

In Monday’s article, Putin again criticized the U.S.-led plans for a NATO missile defense system in Europe, saying it’s aimed against Russian nuclear forces.

“The Americans are obsessed with the idea of ensuring absolute invulnerability for themselves, which is utopian and unfeasible from both technological and geopolitical points of view,” he said. “An absolute invulnerability for one means an absolute vulnerability for all the others. It’s impossible to accept such a prospect.”

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