Stratfor: “Two Leaks and the Deepening Iran Crisis”

Two Leaks and the Deepening Iran Crisis“, George Friedman, Stratfor, 5 October 2009 — Reprinted in full with permission.  Links to other posts about Iran appear at the end.

Two major leaks occurred this weekend over the Iran matter.

In the first, The New York Times published an article reporting that staff at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear oversight group, had produced an unreleased report saying that Iran was much more advanced in its nuclear program than the IAEA had thought previously. According to the report, Iran now has all the data needed to design a nuclear weapon. The New York Times article added that U.S. intelligence was re-examining the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of 2007, which had stated that Iran was not actively pursuing a nuclear weapon.

The second leak occurred in the British paper The Sunday Times, which reported that the purpose of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s highly publicized secret visit to Moscow on Sept. 7 was to provide the Russians with a list of Russian scientists and engineers working on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

The second revelation was directly tied to the first. There were many, including STRATFOR, who felt that Iran did not have the non-nuclear disciplines needed for rapid progress toward a nuclear device. Putting the two pieces together, the presence of Russian personnel in Iran would mean that the Iranians had obtained the needed expertise from the Russians. It would also mean that the Russians were not merely a factor in whether there would be effective sanctions but also in whether and when the Iranians would obtain a nuclear weapon.

We would guess that the leak to The New York Times came from U.S. government sources, because that seems to be a prime vector of leaks from the Obama administration and because the article contained information on the NIE review. Given that National Security Adviser James Jones tended to dismiss the report on Sunday television, we would guess the report leaked from elsewhere in the administration. The Sunday Times leak could have come from multiple sources, but we have noted a tendency of the Israelis to leak through the British daily on national security issues. (The article contained substantial details on the visit and appeared written from the Israeli point of view.) Neither leak can be taken at face value, of course. But it is clear that these were deliberate leaks — people rarely risk felony charges leaking such highly classified material — and even if they were not coordinated, they delivered the same message, true or not.

The Iranian Time Frame and the Russian Role

The message was twofold.

  • First, previous assumptions on time frames on Iran are no longer valid, and worst-case assumptions must now be assumed. The Iranians are in fact moving rapidly toward a weapon; have been extremely effective at deceiving U.S. intelligence (read, they deceived the Bush administration, but the Obama administration has figured it out); and therefore, we are moving toward a decisive moment with Iran.
  • Second, this situation is the direct responsibility of Russian nuclear expertise. Whether this expertise came from former employees of the Russian nuclear establishment now looking for work, Russian officials assigned to Iran or unemployed scientists sent to Iran by the Russians is immaterial. The Israelis — and the Obama administration — must hold the Russians responsible for the current state of Iran’s weapons program, and by extension, Moscow bears responsibility for any actions that Israel or the United States might take to solve the problem.

We would suspect that the leaks were coordinated. From the Israeli point of view, having said publicly that they are prepared to follow the American lead and allow this phase of diplomacy to play out, there clearly had to be more going on than just last week’s Geneva talks. From the American point of view, while the Russians have indicated that participating in sanctions on gasoline imports by Iran is not out of the question, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev did not clearly state that Russia would cooperate, nor has anything been heard from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on the subject. The Russian leadership appears to be playing “good cop, bad cop” on the matter, and the credibility of anything they say on Iran has little weight in Washington.

It would seem to us that the United States and Israel decided to up the ante fairly dramatically in the wake of the Oct. 1 meeting with Iran in Geneva. As IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei visits Iran, massive new urgency has now been added to the issue. But we must remember that Iran knows whether it has had help from Russian scientists; that is something that can’t be bluffed. Given that this specific charge has been made — and as of Monday not challenged by Iran or Russia — indicates to us more is going on than an attempt to bluff the Iranians into concessions. Unless the two leaks together are completely bogus, and we doubt that, the United States and Israel are leaking information already well known to the Iranians. They are telling Tehran that its deception campaign has been penetrated, and by extension are telling it that it faces military action — particularly if massive sanctions are impractical because of more Russian obstruction.

If Netanyahu went to Moscow to deliver this intelligence to the Russians, the only surprise would have been the degree to which the Israelis had penetrated the program, not that the Russians were there. The Russian intelligence services are superbly competent, and keep track of stray nuclear scientists carefully. They would not be surprised by the charge, only by Israel’s knowledge of it.

This, of course leaves open an enormous question. Certainly, the Russians appear to have worked with the Iranians on some security issues and have played with the idea of providing the Iranians more substantial military equipment. But deliberately aiding Iran in building a nuclear device seems beyond Russia’s interests in two ways. First, while Russia wants to goad the United States, it does not itself really want a nuclear Iran. Second, in goading the United States, the Russians know not to go too far; helping Iran build a nuclear weapon would clearly cross a redline, triggering reactions.

A number of possible explanations present themselves. The leak to The Sunday Times might be wrong. But The Sunday Times is not a careless newspaper: It accepts leaks only from certified sources. The Russian scientists might be private citizens accepting Iranian employment. But while this is possible, Moscow is very careful about what Russian nuclear engineers do with their time. Or the Russians might be providing enough help to goad the United States but not enough to ever complete the job. Whatever the explanation, the leaks paint the Russians as more reckless than they have appeared, assuming the leaks are true.

And whatever their veracity, the leaks — the content of which clearly was discussed in detail among the P-5+1 prior to and during the Geneva meetings, regardless of how long they have been known by Western intelligence — were made for two reasons. The first was to tell the Iranians that the nuclear situation is now about to get out of hand, and that attempting to manage the negotiations through endless delays will fail because the United Nations is aware of just how far Tehran has come with its weapons program. The second was to tell Moscow that the issue is no longer whether the Russians will cooperate on sanctions, but the consequence to Russia’s relations with the United States and at least the United Kingdom, France and, most important, possibly Germany. If these leaks are true, they are game changers.

We have focused on the Iranian situation not because it is significant in itself, but because it touches on a great number of other crucial international issues. It is now entangled in the Iraqi, Afghan, Israeli, Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese issues, all of them high-stakes matters. It is entangled in Russian relations with Europe and the United States. It is entangled in U.S.-European relationships and with relationships within Europe. It touches on the U.S.-Chinese relationship. It even touches on U.S. relations with Venezuela and some other Latin American countries. It is becoming the Gordian knot of international relations.

STRATFOR first focused on the Russian connection with Iran in the wake of the Iranian elections and resulting unrest, when a crowd of Rafsanjani supporters began chanting “Death to Russia,” not one of the top-10 chants in Iran. That caused us to focus on the cooperation between Russia and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on security matters. We were aware of some degree of technical cooperation on military hardware, and of course on Russian involvement in Iran’s civilian nuclear program. We were also of the view that the Iranians were unlikely to progress quickly with their nuclear program. We were not aware that Russian scientists were directly involved in Iran’s military nuclear project, which is not surprising, given that such involvement would be Iran’s single-most important state secret — and Russia’s, too.

A Question of Timing

But there is a mystery here as well. To have any impact, the Russian involvement must have been under way for years. The United States has tried to track rogue nuclear scientists and engineers — anyone who could contribute to nuclear proliferation — since the 1990s. The Israelis must have had their own program on this, too. Both countries, as well as European intelligence services, were focused on Iran’s program and the whereabouts of Russian scientists. It is hard to believe that they only just now found out. If we were to guess, we would say Russian involvement has been under way since just after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, when the Russians decided that the United States was a direct threat to its national security.

Therefore, the decision suddenly to confront the Russians, and suddenly to leak U.N. reports — much more valuable than U.S. reports, which are easier for the Europeans to ignore — cannot simply be because the United States and Israel just obtained this information. The IAEA, hostile to the United States since the invasion of Iraq and very much under the influence of the Europeans, must have decided to shift its evaluation of Iran. But far more significant is the willingness of the Israelis first to confront the Russians and then leak about Russian involvement, something that obviously compromises Israeli sources and methods. And that means the Israelis no longer consider the preservation of their intelligence operation in Iran (or wherever it was carried out) as of the essence.

Two conclusions can be drawn.

  1. The Israelis no longer need to add to their knowledge of Russian involvement; they know what they need to know.
  2. The Israelis do not expect Iranian development to continue much longer; otherwise, maintaining the intelligence capability would take precedence over anything else.

It follows from this that the use of this intelligence in diplomatic confrontations with Russians and in a British newspaper serves a greater purpose than the integrity of the source system. And that means that the Israelis expect a resolution in the very near future — the only reason they would have blown their penetration of the Russian-Iranian system.

Possible Outcomes

There are two possible outcomes here.

  1. That having revealed the extent of the Iranian program and having revealed the Russian role in a credible British newspaper, the Israelis and the Americans (whose own leak in The New York Times underlined the growing urgency of action) are hoping that the Iranians realize that they are facing war and that the Russians realize that they are facing a massive crisis in their relations with the West. If that happens, then the Russians might pull their scientists and engineers, join in the sanctions and force the Iranians to abandon their program.
  2. That the Russians will continue to play the spoiler on sanctions and will insist that they are not giving support to the Iranians. This leaves the military option, which would mean broad-based action, primarily by the United States, against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Any military operation would involve keeping the Strait of Hormuz clear, meaning naval action, and we now know that there are more nuclear facilities than previously discussed. So while the war for the most part would be confined to the air and sea, it would be extensive nonetheless.

Sanctions or war remain the two options, and which one is chosen depends on Moscow’s actions. The leaks this weekend have made clear that the United States and Israel have positioned themselves such that not much time remains. We have now moved from a view of Iran as a long-term threat to Iran as a much more immediate threat thanks to the Russians.

The least that can be said about this is that the Obama administration and Israel are trying to reshape the negotiations with the Iranians and Russians. The most that can be said is that the Americans and Israelis are preparing the public for war. Polls now indicate that more than 60 percent of the U.S. public now favors military action against Iran. From a political point of view, it has become easier for U.S. President Barack Obama to act than to not act. This, too, is being transmitted to the Iranians and Russians.

It is not clear to us that the Russians or Iranians are getting the message yet. They have convinced themselves that Obama is unlikely to act because he is weak at home and already has too many issues to juggle. This is a case where a reputation for being conciliatory actually increases the chances for war. But the leaks this weekend have strikingly limited the options and timelines of the United States and Israel. They also have put the spotlight on Obama at a time when he already is struggling with health care and Afghanistan. History is rarely considerate of presidential plans, and in this case, the leaks have started to force Obama’s hand.


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Posts about a strike by the US at Iran:

  1. 4GW at work in a community near you , 19 October 2007 — Propaganda warming us up for war with Iran.
  2. Will we bomb Iran, now that Admiral Fallon is gone? , 17 March 2008
  3. More post-Fallon overheating: “6 signs the US may be headed for war in Iran” , 18 March 2008
  4. A militant America, ready for war with Iran , 6 May 2008
  5. “War With Iran Might Be Closer Than You Think”, 13 May 2008 — About Philip Giraldi’s 9 May story in The American Conservative (see below).
  6. The most expensive psy-war campaign – ever!, 13 July 2008
  7. ISIS: “Can Military Strikes Destroy Iran’s Gas Centrifuge Program? Probably Not.”, 8 August 2008
  8. Proposed legislation prepares the way for war with Iran!, 25 August 2008
  9. Will trade sanctions work against Iran, as they did against Japan in 1941?, 27 August 2008
  10. Is the War on Terror over (because there are no longer two sides)? Part 1, 3 September 2008 — Rumors of covert ops by us against Iran.
  11. Update on the prospects of war with Iran, from Stratfor, 6 September 2008
  12. Psywar, a core skill of the US Military (used most often on us), 26 November 2008
  13. Iran’s getting the bomb, or so we’re told. Can they fool us twice?, 16 February 2009
  14. Another general advocating war with Iran, 18 August 2009
  15. “Iraq Endgame” by George Friedman, 22 August 2009

18 thoughts on “Stratfor: “Two Leaks and the Deepening Iran Crisis””

  1. Patrick Cummins

    “The New York Times article added that U.S. intelligence was re-examining the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of 2007, which had stated that Iran was not actively pursuing a nuclear weapon.”

    US intelligence is alway checking and reassessing. But has there really been a change in assessment? Not according to this Newsweek report of Sept 16 ( which states that two counterproliferation

    ‘officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said that U.S. intelligence agencies have informed policymakers at the White House and other agencies that the status of Iranian work on development and production of a nuclear bomb has not changed since the formal National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s “Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities” in November 2007.’

  2. First, I thought the IAEA denied the report that Iran has or once had a covert atomic bomb program: “IAEA denies report it is sure Iran seeking atom bomb“, Reuters, 17 September 2009.

    Second, I thought Iran was in compliance with the NPT over its new facility since it was not going online for another 6 months.

    Third, the leak about Netanyahu’s reason to visit Moscow is news to me, but after the leaks about Iraq seven years ago, I am not 100% convinced it’s true.

    Finally, I am disappointed if the poll results that show 60% support an attack on Iran are true. When will this stop? After Iran how many nations are left on the neocon’s hit list?
    Fabius Maximus replies: All good points. For more on these things see Update: war watch – Iran, 29 September 2009.

  3. This is a just another in a long line of attempts by Israel and friends to get regime change in Iran by fomenting war with the US.

    They are very unlikely to succeed because attacking Iran makes Afghanistan and Iraq look like acts of a genius. But at the end of the day I wouldn’t put it past the Israelis to try a military provocation (limited strike) to make it happen.

    >Sanctions or war remain the two options

    Nonsense there are many options including actually putting together a working strategy rather then the currently inherently contradictory one.

    Does anyone really believe that Iran would drop their nuclear program just because they were facing petrol queues – what are they Californians ? Even more bizarre is the idea that it would drop the one program that would make it’s regime safe from attack because of threats of regime change.

    The US is wasting a lot of time, money and political capital in the pretense that the Iranian nuclear program can ultimately be stopped. It is a stupidity that is being exploited by the Israelis, Russians and Chinese. The sooner they get over it the better US interests will be served.

  4. Patrick Cummins

    Juan Cole has a compelling article today on Iran’s quest for ‘nuclear latency’. He draws the important distinction between Iran building a nuclear weapons capacity, as opposed to a drive to build a nuclear bomb. The evidence, including the leaked NY Times report, is consistent with this position. The Stratfor article, on the other hand, implicitly assumes that there is a drive to nuclear weapons.

    It’s worth noting the language here of Susan Rice, US Ambassador the UN. From the CSM: ‘Regardless she said, the US’ “whole approach is predicated on an urgent need to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons capacity.”

  5. It says a lot that despite two disastrous wars which the majority of the US public think were a mistake, the majority still want another one with Iran. Solving problems through war is deeply embedded in American culture.

    The problem with the ‘nuclear latency’ argument is that it has a greatly diminished deterrence effect. The reason why Japan uses it is because it doesn’t need the deterrence right now – it’s simply a backup plan – and it is more important to smooth relations with the US.

    ‘nuclear latency’ is unlikely to elicit a different response from the west to what Iran experiences right now. If anything the response may be harsher.
    But a nuclear capability changes everything. History shows well what having an actual nuclear capability does – it forces the US to take the military option off the table.

    The idea that any country could transform a ‘nuclear latency’ into a nuclear weapon in response to the build up of a US invasion force is quite impractical. It takes much longer.

  6. “The US is wasting a lot of time, money and political capital in the pretense that the Iranian nuclear program can ultimately be stopped. It is a stupidity that is being exploited by the Israelis, Russians and Chinese. The sooner they get over it the better US interests will be served.”

    This is likely true for every option short of outright war. So yhe question becomes “Is the worst case outcome of Iran acquiring nuclear weaponry better or worse than the the worst case outcome from a war with Iran?” (i.e., the minimax solution).

    I don’t know the answer, but the worst case outcome (note: worst case, not just expected case) of a nuclear armed Iran is pretty bad. But if you assume that’s still better than the worst case outcome of a war, then we should just drop the issue.
    FM Note, from Wikipedia:

    Minimax (sometimes minmax) is a decision rule used in decision theory, game theory, statistics and philosophy for minimizing the maximum possible loss. Alternatively, it can be thought of as maximizing the minimum gain (maximin). Originally formulated for two-player zero-sum game theory, covering both the cases where players take alternate moves and those where they make simultaneous moves. It has also been extended to more complex games and to general decision making in the presence of uncertainty.

  7. allow me to be the devil’s advocate..
    Patrick… Juan Cole tends to see no evil in the middle east.. so.. what if he is wrong? what if iran isn’t going for nuclear latency as Cole thinks but going straight for the bomb? are we supposed to ignore evidence of their weapons program? to what end would that achieve for us or the arab middle east?

    SG.. let’s not dance around the verbiage.. the worst case of iran having the bomb is that they nuke israel and get nuked back by israel. millions will die but iran will survive.. israel won’t. in a society that accepts martyrdom for their religion.. we can’t discount this might happen.
    Fabius Maximus replies: This is a quibble (with which I suspect you’ll agree), but Cole sees lots of evil in the ME — the US and Israel.

    (2) What’s the basis for your “worst case” fears? From memory, the official position of Iran’s gov is stronger than ours — nukes are wrong, and no first use. There have been wild statements from some in Iran — just as there have been from folks in Russia, America, Pakistan and probably others.

  8. This is all based on isreael’s fear of losing their nuclear advantage in the region. They think that it will lead to their destruction, but it will only be the end of their being able to act with impunity in the region.

    If we allow their fear to initiate a war, we will sign our national economic death warrant. $300 a barrel oil would probably just be the first stop on the road to great depression II, and that might be the least of the unpleasant scenes to unfold. I hope china and russia show enogh teeth to make the US back down on this before it is too late.

  9. Tulsa,
    $300/barrel of oil is nothing compared to the ruin of the middle east unchaining oil to the dollar and using a basket of currencies as proposed by china et al. we can survive high oil prices for a while and if it becomes a threat we can drill more or put real pressure on the producers of oil.

    keep in mind that the arabs don’t want iran to have nukes either. don’t assume that the arabs won’t make a deal with israel to help them stop iran from getting nukes.

  10. “They think that it will lead to their [Israel’s] destruction, but it will only be the end of their being able to act with impunity in the region.”

    Given history, I have a hard time distinguishing the two. It’s only been Israel’s (oft-contested) military superiority in the region that has kept it from destruction. What distinction are you making?

  11. Nicholas Weaver

    Actually, a latency strategy is far more dangerous AND far more effective, so I understand why Iran is pursuing it:

    Its more dangerous because the program does have real civilian uses. Its not a cover for a weapons program, but a feature. The US and Israel may be happy bombing things, but Europe, Russia, and China matter, and have deliberate qualms in attacking Iran for a program which really does follow the letter of the NPT treaty.

    Its also more dangerous because you don’t need to design as sophisticated a weapon.

    If you want something you can fit on a missile, or a bomb made out of plutonium, you need explosive lensing and similar technologies, which is very very secret, and rather sophisticated. Its doable, mind you, but its not easy.

    But if you have HEU, and don’t mind a bomb which weighs 4 tons (deliver by truck or plane), the technology for the bomb itself is almost trivial: litteraly banging two hunks of Uranium together in a design which you test by dropping on the target.

    And it is more effective because it works! Build a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor in the Middle East and it gets bombed by Israel. But Iran has been developing its fuel cycle for years, and its still intact.

    If Iran had attempted to build a Yongbong-style plutonium-producing plant, it would have already been reduced to a crater long before any fuel could be added.

  12. >“Is the worst case outcome of Iran acquiring nuclear weaponry better or worse than the the worst case outcome from a war with Iran?” (i.e., the minimax solution).

    minimax doesn’t apply, a nuclear exchange does not sum to zero.

  13. a nuclear exchange does not sum to zero.

    True, but I don’t believe it’s relevant.

    In 1944 John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern proved that any zero-sum game involving n players is in fact a generalized form of a zero-sum game for two players, and that any non-zero-sum game for n players can be reduced to a zero-sum game for n + 1 players; the (n + 1) player representing the global profit or loss.

    I think minimax still applies. At the very least, it’s not clearly inapplicable and it provides a well-defined and provably optimal (in some circumstances) strategy. I’ll take that over wishes and hope.

  14. Fascinating. I wonder how this will affect Netanyahu supporters at home in Israel? Who was it who said, “All politics is local?”

  15. Why not sort out Israel first , through tough sanctions. I cannot see that Israel has any ‘ right ‘ to exist . But a start might be made by pointing out that it ‘does ‘exist , the moving finger has writ and cannot erase , and there are now 4 generations who have known no other home . Enter a single secular state of Isrelestine , its subdivisions represented in an EU type organisation of the whole area .Then Isrelestine and Iran could be on the same side , just as Germany, France and Britain within the EU .
    And then in 2030 , a shrivelled and toothless FM could speculate on whether the US should attack the New Caliphate .

  16. >non-zero-sum game for n players can be reduced to a zero-sum game for n + 1 players

    They you need to add the +1 to your characteristation of the problem which makes it not so straight forward a question.

    Anything that gets Americans thinking about strategy as more than a one player game should be applauded though. There is an interesting article in the small wars journal that basically points out what I have been saying for years that the US doesn’t do strategy and instead substitutes methods from other areas:

    For instance the McCrystal report is basically an operational plan sold as a strategy. The forces and dynamics at the operational an strategic levels are quite different. (It’s also a pretty wishful operational plan but thats a separate issue). Read the comments in SWJ and will see that many people are unable to recognize the difference.

    There are more than enough articles floating around that claim that even confuse tactics with strategy.

  17. All: For ‘nother view at the calculus of nuclear strategy — “The Stability of MAD“, David Habakkuk, posted at Sic Semper Tyrannis, 30 September 2009.
    Fabius Maximus replies: An interesting article! Thank you for posting it.

  18. Iran should not arouse concern. Georgia is the most dangerous flashpoint in Russia’s tense relations with the West. The Bible says: “At the appointed time [the king of the north = Russia] will return back [will regain the influence, which it lost after the break-up of the Soviet Union] and come into the south [many indicate that this might be Georgia], but it will not be as the former [1921] or as the latter [2008]. For the dwellers of coastlands of Kittim [the West] will come against him, and he will be humbled, and will return.” (Daniel 11:29,30a) Then Iran will be humbled also. “But ships will come from the direction of Kittim, troubling Asshur [Russia] and troubling Eber [inhabiting on the other side the Euphrates].” (Numbers 24:24a, BBE)

    At that time, peace will be taken from the earth and the “great sword” – nuclear sword – will be used. (Revelation 6:4) However, it will be neither the great tribulation nor “the end of the world” (Armageddon). As Jesus foretold, that will be “the beginning of birth pains”. (Mathew 24:7,8)

    If the Heavens planned a full return of Russia (and much suggests this) the present economic crisis will deepen. Then also the European Union and NATO will not stands.

    In the same way the earlier prophecy had fulfilled: “And (he) [the king of the north = Russia] will go back (to) his land with great wealth [1945]; and his heart (will be) against the holy covenant [state atheism]; and will act effectively; and turned back to his own land [the break-up of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, the return of Russian troops to country].” (Daniel 11:28)

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