Coverage of Shahram Amiri’s departure from the United States and his return to Iran has focused, rather superficially, on the question of whether he was kidnapped or defected and then changed his mind. Frankly, we are more interested in what reports that the CIA tried to pay Amiri $5 million say about the current political and policy environment in Washington with regard to Iran-related issues.
We warned, in April, that Amiri could not possibly be the highly valuable intelligence source that some Western officials and the National Council for Resistance in Iran (an affiliate of the MEK, which the U.S. government has designated as a foreign terrorist organization) claimed him to be — a source who “had worked on sensitive nuclear programs for at least a decade” and was now revealing the inside story on Iran’s alleged clandestine nuclear weapons program. We were appalled that the Washington Post was reporting these claims without the most minimal, common-sense follow-up questioning. As we wrote in April,
[H]ow could it be that Amiri, who would have been 31 years old at the time of his defection, would have had meaningful access to anything sensitive about Iran’s nuclear program — much less to have had such access “for at least a decade”? Unless Amiri completed his doctorate as a teenager and was given a senior position in Iran’s nuclear program with high level access at the age of 20 or 21, this claim literally does not add up.
Now we learn that the CIA apparently tried to pay Amiri $5 million. Along with trying to figure out the details of Amiri’s trajectory over the last year, journalists ought to be focusing on what the Agency’s willingness to pay $5 million to a hyped-up source signals about the U.S. Intelligence Community’s desperation to make a prosecutor’s case against the Islamic Republic. Indeed, the CIA and the rest of the Intelligence Community seem sufficiently desperate to make their case that they will pay taxpayer dollars to gotten-up defectors who might be prepared to say — for the right price — what Washington elites want to hear. As we noted in our April piece, if the CIA and its partners in the Intelligence Community are unable to make a case against Iran, “how could Washington argue for intensified sanctions against the Islamic Republic — much less keep the military option ‘on the table’?”
Sadly, there is nothing new or unprecedented about this. The Iraq war was sold to the American people and to U.S. allies on the basis of manufactured intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. And much of that manufactured intelligence was based on stories from “defectors” — including the notorious “Curveball” — who were paid significant sums of U.S. government money to help the George W. Bush Administration manufacture a case for invading Iraq. The U.S. Intelligence Community largely failed to act as a critical filter against bogus intelligence, and major media outlets, including the New York Times as well as the Washington Post, passed on the Bush Administration’s manufactured case for war without, in most instances, exercising appropriate scrutiny on officials’ claims.
Some have speculated that Amiri may have helped the United States learn more about Iran’s second enrichment site near Qom — a site which, in any event, Tehran disclosed to the International Atomic Energy Agency last September, well before the introduction of any nuclear material. But it would seem that the U.S. Intelligence Community, even in the wake of Shahram Amiri’s return to Tehran, continues to have no evidence validating claims that there is a secret, parallel, military nuclear program in Iran, aimed ultimately at the fabrication of nuclear weapons. If the United States ends up attacking Iranian nuclear targets, it will do so because the Islamic Republic is enriching uranium — something Iran is permitted to do under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Whatever information the CIA obtained from Amiri is supposedly being incorporated into a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program — an estimate that was supposed to be released earlier this year but which, according to Newsweek, will probably be delayed for several more months. The delay strongly suggests that the Intelligence Community cannot reach a consensus on whether and how to revise the previous NIE on Iranian nuclear matters, released in December 2007 — which famously concluded that Iran had stopped working on purely weapons-related aspects of its nuclear program in 2003.
Why is no journalist from a major media outlet in the United States asking why the Obama Administration drove the P-5+1 to push a new sanctions resolution against Iran, when there is such clear disarray, disagreement, and desperation in the U.S. Intelligence Community regarding Iran’s nuclear program?
This time around, before the United States initiates a military confrontation with the Islamic Republic, we need to ask the hard questions that were not asked before the invasion of Iraq.
Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow. Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs. Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy. In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 15 July 2010 under a Creative Commons license.