Julian Borger — The Guardian Aug 28, 2017
US intelligence officials are under pressure from the White House to produce a justification to declare Iran in violation of a 2015 nuclear agreement, in an echo of the politicisation of intelligence that led up to the Iraq invasion, according to former officials and analysts.
The collapse of the 2015 deal between Tehran, the US and five other countries – by which Iran has significantly curbed its nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief – would trigger a new crisis over nuclear proliferation at a time when the US is in a tense standoff with North Korea.
Intelligence analysts, chastened by the experience of the 2003 Iraq war, launched by the Bush administration on the basis of phoney evidence of weapons of mass destruction, are said to be resisting the pressure to come up with evidence of Iranian violations.
“Anecdotally, I have heard this from members of the intelligence community – that they feel like they have come under pressure,” said Ned Price, a former CIA analyst who also served as a national security council spokesman and special assistant to Barack Obama. “They told me there was a sense of revulsion. There was a sense of déjà vu. There was a sense of ‘we’ve seen this movie before’.”
However, Donald Trump has said he expects to declare Iran non-compliant by mid-October, the next time he is required by Congress to sign a three-monthly certification of the nuclear deal (known as the Joint Comprehensive Programme of Action, or JCPOA). And the administration is pursuing another avenue that could trigger the collapse of the deal.
David Cohen, a former deputy director of the CIA, said it was “disconcerting” that Trump appeared to have come to a conclusion about Iran before finding the intelligence to back it up.
“It stands the intelligence process on its head,” Cohen told CNN. “If our intelligence is degraded because it is politicised in the way that it looks like the president wants to do here, that undermines the utility of that intelligence all across the board.”
In another move reminiscent of the Iraq debacle, the US administration is putting pressure on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to be more aggressive in its demands to investigate military sites in Iran, just as George W Bush’s team pushed for ever more intrusive inspections of Saddam Hussein’s military bases and palaces.
The US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, visited IAEA headquarters in Vienna to press the agency to demand visits to Iran’s military sites. Haley described IAEA inspectors as “professionals and true experts in their field”.
“Having said that, as good as the IAEA is, it can only be as good as what they are permitted to see,” Haley told reporters on her return to New York. “Iran has publicly declared that it will not allow access to military sites but the JCPOA makes no distinction between military and non-military sites. There are also numerous undeclared sites that have not been inspected yet. That’s a problem.”
Unlike the case of Iraq and the Bush administration, where there were deep divisions in the US intelligence community over the evidence for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, there is now a general consensus among US intelligence and foreign intelligence agencies, the state department, the IAEA and the other five countries that signed the JCPOA, as well as the European Union, that there is no significant evidence that Iran has violated its obligations under the deal. Tehran scaled down its nuclear infrastructure and its nuclear fuel stockpiles soon after the deal was signed in Vienna.
However, Trump, who denigrated the agreement throughout his election campaign, has appeared determined to torpedo it.
On 17 July, the latest deadline for presidential certification of the JCPOA deal required by Congress, the announcement was postponed for several hours, while Trump’s senior national security officials dissuaded the president from a last-minute threat not to sign.
“If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal on 25 July. He hinted it was his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who had persuaded him to certify the agreement.
“Look, I have a lot of respect for Rex and his people, good relationship. It’s easier to say they comply. It’s a lot easier. But it’s the wrong thing. They don’t comply,” the president said. “And so we’ll see what happens … But, yeah, I would be surprised if they were in compliance.”
Trump said his administration was doing “major” and “detailed” studies on the issues.
Richard Nephew, who was principal duty coordinator for sanctions policy in the Obama administration state department and a member of the team that negotiated the JCPOA said government agencies were producing such studies all the time. He said the difference under the Trump administration was that they were being told the conclusions should be.
“Behind the scenes, there is a huge machine that is pumping up reports and updates and status checks for the administration and Congress,” Nephew, now at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, said. “You have intelligence officers and analysts in a bunch of agencies who spend literally every day scrubbing every single report they have got of what is going on inside Iran trying to find instances of non-compliance.
“What I suspect is happening now is that those intel officers have been asked to go to the cutting room floor, [and are being asked:] ‘What have you forgotten? What have you discounted? What have you said doesn’t really fit and not really relevant?’
“I actually think that’s healthy if it’s an honest question,” Nephew said, but he added: “It seems there is a faction within the administration that is trying to lay the basis for getting out [of the agreement] on the basis of cooked books.”
He predicted that intelligence analysts would resign if they were pushed too hard.
“The intelligence community learned the lessons of Iraq hard,” Nephew said. “And the analysts I know who are attached to this effort I am quite convinced would resign and resign loudly before they would allow … their words to be twisted and turned the way it happened with Iraq.”