Predictions of Israeli Attack on Iran Hit Traditional Media–How We Got There

In late November of 2007, the world–and especially the progressive blogosphere–was shocked when the George W. Bush administration released a National Intelligence Estimate that came to the firm conclusion that Iran had suspended work on its nuclear weapon program back in 2003.  This was the same Bush intelligence community that had produced the fraudulent NIE in 2002 that came to the false conclusion that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and intended to restart development of nuclear weapons. The progressive blogosphere had made a regular habit of predicting new dates for when Israel, or even the US, would attack Iran under the guise of stopping its development of nuclear weapons.   The rate of new predictions for attacks slowed considerably in the face of the 2007 NIE.

In September of 2009, speculation on plans to attack Iran got a new impetus, as the US announced the discovery of a previously secret uranium enrichment facility being built by Iran deep inside a mountain near Qum.  Rhetoric from the US heated up considerably in response to this discovery:

Mr. Obama’s aides and a raft of intelligence officials argued that the small, hidden plant was unsuitable for producing reactor fuel that might be used in a peaceful nuclear program. Moreover, its location, deep inside an Iranian Revolutionary Guards base about 20 miles from the religious center of Qum, strongly suggested it was designed for covert use in weapons, they said.

Late Friday afternoon, preparing to return to Washington, Mr. Obama issued a stark warning about the nuclear negotiations that are to begin next week, the first direct talks between the two countries in 30 years.

“Iran is on notice that when we meet with them on Oct. 1 they are going to have to come clean and they will have to make a choice,” he said. The alternative to giving up their program, he warned, is to “continue down a path that is going to lead to confrontation.”

Shortly after the discovery of the Qum facility was announced, the Stuxnet worm was released.  Iran confirmed in November, 2010 that uranium centrifuges had been damaged by the worm. Follow-up in January of this year indicated that the worm may have destroyed up to 1000 of Iran’s centrifuges at its large Natanz facility and that effects began as early as February, 2010, only five months after the announcement of the Qum discovery:

Everything appeared to be going well for the Iranian program up through Nov. 16, 2009, the date of a quarterly report by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. At that point, there had been a “steady increase in the number of centrifuges” at Iran‘s Natanz plant, reaching a peak of 8,692 installed centrifuges.

But by Feb. 18, 2010, the quarterly reports issued by IAEA inspectors began registering problems there, according to a little-noticed analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), released Dec. 23. By then, Iran had pulled the plug on about 1,000 centrifuges it had previously installed, ISIS concluded.

With very little fanfare, the US developed a new NIE on Iran that was completed in February of this year.  It remains classified, but here is how Josh Rogin reported on how the new NIE likely walked back the key 2007 findings:

The U.S. intelligence community has completed and is circulating a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear weapons program that walks back the conclusion of the 2007 NIE, which stated that Iran had halted work on its covert nuclear weapons program.

Significantly, Rogin obtained sabre-rattling quotes from both a Republican and a Democrat regarding the assessment:

House Foreign Affairs ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) told The Cable he had heard the new NIE would walk back the controversial conclusions of the 2007 version, but that he hadn’t read it yet. Regardless, he said, the 2007 Iran NIE was now obsolete and discredited.

“Nobody had been paying attention to the older NIE. A few people on the outside focused on it because they didn’t want us to go down the sanctions route but neither the administration nor the Congress paid it much attention,” Berman said. “I thought the NIE estimate then was a faulty one because it focused on some aspects of weaponization — even as Iran was continuing to enrich.”


Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), a former intelligence officer for the U.S. Navy, told The Cable, “The 2007 NIE was a mistake,” and this document appears to be more realistic. He urged the intelligence community to take a less technical and more comprehensive look at the Iranian leadership’s actions when making such judgments.

“My hope is that the current leaders of the intelligence community look not just at technical details and also comment regularly on Iran’s leaders,” Kirk said. “In Intelligence 101 we are taught to measure both capability and intent politically, and the intent here on the part of the Iranian regime is pretty clear.”

Last month, the Scary Iran Plot emerged, with the US accusing Iran of plotting to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the US.

With all that as background, the sport of predicting an attack on Iran has now moved from the progressive blogosphere to the traditional press.  Last night, Mad Dog found an alarming number of articles from the mainstream press, all predicting an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.  See comments 10 through 16 of this post for the links and Mad Dog’s excerpts.

Obama even joined the fray this morning, making a comment on Iran’s nuclear program while at the G20 Summit in France:

“We had the opportunity to talk about a range of security issues,” Obama told reporters following talks with Sarkozy ahead of a G20 heads of state summit in the French resort of Cannes.

“One in particular that I want to mention is the continuing threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA is scheduled to release a report on Iran’s nuclear program next week and President Sarkozy and I agree on the need to maintain the unprecedented pressure on Iran to meet its obligations.”

Oh.  There’s just one small technical detail (yes, Mr. Kirk, technical information DOES matter!) that should be taken into consideration in all this talk of Iran developing a nuclear weapon. In this article from August, where Reuters reported that Iran had begun moving centrifuges into the Qum facility, we got this rare reminder of where the Iranian enrichment program stands with regard to the level of enrichment that is needed for a weapon:

The Islamic Republic also said in June that it aimed to triple its capacity to enrich uranium to a higher grade — 20 percent fissile purity — which it says will be used to replenish the fuel stock for a medical research reactor.

Western officials and analysts say that by producing 20 percent enriched material Iran has taken a significant step closer to the 90 percent threshold suitable for atom bombs.

It would appear that Iran having a stated target of tripling its output of 20% enriched uranium is close enough to 90% that we need to give Israel the all-clear for attacking Iran now.  That sort of conclusion leads one to wonder whether the Obama administration’s 2011 NIE will go down in history alongside the Bush administration’s 2002 NIE as blatantly manipulated to provide a basis for war.  While Mark Kirk is busily telling us to look strongly at Iran’s intentions regarding a nuclear weapon, the best available technical information indicates they are still not on the cusp of developing one.


13 replies
  1. WilliamOckham says:

    I’m reading all these articles a little differently. I think they are providing cover for the Duqu phase of the Stuxnet 2.0 operation. The Europeans have to be really pissed off that we’ve been running the Duqu APT against companies in the EU. It seems a little too coincidental that the day after the Hungarians discovered that Duqu was using a zero-day flaw in the Windows kernel (which put the final nail in the coffin of the idea that Duqu wasn’t related to Stuxnet), all of these stories show up.

    This is the CIA’s way of telling all the Europeans to shut up about the problems that Stuxnet/Duqu is causing because if we (the CIA) doesn’t do this), then we’ll have to let the Israelis bomb Iran.

    Duqu is really gathering intel on the new version of the Iranian centrifuges that will be in production some time soon (for somebody’s definition of soon). You really need a lot of info about the materials, design, and normal operations of the centrifuges if you want to do Stuxnet 2.0. We won’t have a testbed of the new ones unless we get all the design docs and materials specs in time to build one.

  2. Jim White says:

    @WilliamOckham: I sure hope you are right. I think an actual attack would escalate into such a bad situation, especially with the closing of the Straits of Hormuz, that we all would regret it for a very long time.

  3. Mary says:

    Makes for a good distraction from discussions about Israel’s settlement expansion (that may cause Germany to cancel a sub sale to Israel) and the Obama decision to punish UNESCO by pulling funding because it allowed Pastinian representation. Bombing Iran is always more fun for American Presidents to talk up than criticisms of Israeli settlement policies. Btw, which army flash card explained the US culture aspect of taking its toys and going home when votes don’t go it’s way.

  4. emptywheel says:

    @Jim White: I think it is more than just Duqu, but they are using similar threats with the Scary Iran Plot. Three different people have told me I have to shut up about the holes in the Scary Iran Plot or else I’ll cause a war with Iran.

  5. b says:

    as the US announced the discovery of a previously secret uranium enrichment facility being built by Iran deep inside a mountain near Qum.

    That is repeating a rather stupid Obama administration lie.

    That facility, still empty then, was announced by the Iranian government to the IAEA on a Wednesday. The FOLLOWING Friday Obama declared it had discovered the “secret” facility.

    See “Iran tells IAEA it is building 2nd enrichment plant”

    Please do some research before providing propaganda on this blog.

  6. Jim White says:

    @b: That’s why it says “announced the discovery” rather than “discovered”. The linked article has a description of the American claim that they had known about the facility for some time and that the Iranians then rushed out their admission of it when they felt the “discovery” was to be announced.

    This whole post is written as a descriptive timeline with an underlying assumption that lots of claims are made that aren’t necessarily true. It would get hopelessly long if I had to point out for each one that the claim should be taken with a grain of salt.

    Posts here are also written with an assumption that the reader is capable of independent thought and the ability to even look at other sources when historical events are discussed.

  7. orionATL says:

    that obama would go out of his way to comment on this relatively inconsequential (in the great scheme of things, especially things economic) matter of iran’s “nuclear program” is not encouraging at all.

    i still feel confident he will not provoke a war directly,

    but this public action by the president leads me to believe he will be happy to exploit this issue politically thru nov, 2012.

    the problem with presidents playing games like this is that the games, and the players, can get out of hand.

    the best that can be made of this “shut down iran” policy is that it is part of a “steely barrack” campaign that will have positive consequences for american foreign policy in the middle east and the south-central part of the old soviet union.

    the worst is it is a fairly desperate domestic political ploy that may get out of hand in an area of the world seething, absolutely seething, with resentment toward the u.s.

  8. GKJames says:

    Does Sen. Kirk realize how amusing he is? “In Intelligence 101 we are taught to measure both capability and intent politically, and the intent here on the part of the Iranian regime is pretty clear.” Given that the US, out of pique, hasn’t had diplomatic relations with Iran for 30 years, I suggest that the US is utterly clueless about the internal workings of the place. The result will be the classic Washington circle-jerk intended to create a narrative intended to justify yet more killing.

    (Which is why the work of this site will continue to be vital: Americans will never be able to say they didn’t know.)

  9. klynn says:


    Btw, which army flash card explained the US culture aspect of taking its toys and going home when votes don’t go it’s way.

    Mary, you are a gem. Thank you.

  10. Kathleen says:

    And over the last eight years Diane Rehm, Neil Conan, Terri Gross (repeats unsubstantiated claims about Iran herself and often), Christiane Amanpour, George Stephanapolous, Joe Scarborough, Rachel Maddow, etc etc have allowed quest to repeat unsubstantiated claims about an alleged Iranian nuclear weapons program over and over again. Never ever challenging those claims. They say history repeats itself but this is simply insane.

    Jon Stewart’s interview with Condi “mushroom cloud” Rice is also insance. He allows her to spin away. No substantive challenges out of Stewart. Just “um hum, right, yes, right” I have heard Jon Stewart be harder on Chris Matthews. Then Stewart opens up the door to Iran with no substantive facts. Weak really weak
    Video 1 of 3
    Condoleezza Rice Extended Interview

    i have heard and seen Stewart do these wienie interviews with Rice in the past, Donald Rumsfeld, Bill Kristol. Really makes me wonder about what is up with Stewart. Harder on Chris matthews when he was on his program

    She says that inspectors never went back into Iraq after 1998. She lied again. Stewart let her get away with this.
    “As a result of the U.S. and British campaign, and after prolonged negotiations between the United States, Britain, France, Russia and other U.N. Security Council members, the United Nations declared that Iraq would have to accept even more intrusive inspections than under the previous inspection regime – to be carried out by the U.N. Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – or face “serious consequences.” Iraq agreed to accept the U.N. decision and inspections resumed in late November 2002. On December 7, 2002, Iraq submitted its 12,000 page declaration, which claimed that it had no current WMD programs. Intelligence analysts from the United States and other nations immediately began to scrutinize the document, and senior U.S. officials quickly rejected the claims. (Note 2)”

    Condi Rice “I would not call this preemptive” Stewart allows her to get away with this hogwash.


    He does not ask her about taking out inspectors, Niger Documents, El baradei coming out and saying that the Niger Documents were false.

    Then Stewart give her every opportunity to “harp” on Iran because Stewart opens the door wide. She spins that there would be a arms race between Iraq and Iran.

    Hope the Leveretts dissect this interview with Rice. Stewart was not prepared, did not really challenge her in a substantive way at all. Stewart “right, umhum, yea, right, sure, right, yes” Stewart rolled over and gave a war criminal another opportunity to spin the lies

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