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Despite Progress on Iran-IAEA Talks, US Envoy Emphasizes War Plans

Both Bloomberg and the AP’s George Jahn reported yesterday that the second session of talks in Vienna between the IAEA and Iran produced progress and that additional talks are now scheduled for May 21 in Vienna. But don’t look for news of this progress in the New York Times, because it’s not there. And don’t look for statements from the US praising the progress (although China did praise it) and urging further progress at Monday’s talks in Vienna or the P5+1 talks later in the week in Baghdad. Instead, US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro chose to emphasize in an interview on Army Radio in Israel that US plans for war with Iran are ready to be put into action.

First, the good news on the progress. From Bloomberg:

Iran and International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors extended a round of negotiations over the Persian Gulf nation’s suspected nuclear-weapon work after both sides said progress had been made.

IAEA inspectors will meet again with their Iranian counterparts on May 21 in Vienna. They ended today two days of talks in the Austrian capital.

“We discussed a number of options to take the agency verification process forward,” IAEA chief inspector Herman Nackaerts told reporters. “We had a good exchange of views.”

/snip/

“We had fruitful discussions in a very conducive environment,” Iran’s IAEA Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh said. “We have had progress.”

More details on the progress are reported by Mehr News:

Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency have agreed to develop a modality for further cooperation, the Mehr News Agency has learnt.

The responsibilities and commitments of each side will be determined by the modality and the measures necessary will be taken based on the agreement.

In his report on the progress of negotiations, George Jahn couldn’t resist a partial reprise of his report over the weekend in which he breathlessly released a cartoon purporting to depict an explosives chamber where nebulous “Western diplomats” have leaked to Jahn that work to develop an explosive neutron trigger for an atomic bomb has been carried out. In an interesting development, Jahn has put a new accusation into this scenario. On Tuesday, I pointed out that if the accused work has been carried out in the chamber, then the steel walls of the chamber will be radioactive due to neutron activation and that this radioactivity will be dispersed throughout the entire thickness of the steel. That means the chamber cannot have its radioactivity removed by the cleaning process claimed by David Albright:

The process could involve grinding down the surfaces inside the building, collecting the dust and then washing the area thoroughly.  This could be followed with new building materials and paint.  It could also involve removing any dirt around the building thought to contain contaminants.

Jahn now allows for the possibility that Iran could not leave a chamber that is radioactive due to neutron activation in the building for an IAEA inspection:

 Some fear that Iran may even dismantle the explosives containment chamber believed to be inside the suspect building, taking it out in small pieces, if given enough time.

Why has Jahn’s language evolved from “scrubbing” the chamber to removing it? Read more

Amid Cautious Optimism for P5+1 Talks, Iranian, Israeli Spies Arrested in Azerbaijan

As we approach the re-start of the P5+1 international talks on Iran’s nuclear technology this weekend, there are multiple signals that Iran may be planning to make a major move aimed at reducing tensions. As CNN pointed out yesterday, Iran suggested last weekend that it may halt its enrichment of uranium to the 20% level and return to only enriching to 3.5%:

“Based on our needs and once the required fuel is obtained, we will decrease the production and we may even totally shift it to the 3.5%,” Iranian nuclear chief Fereydoun Abbasi said in a televised interview, according to state-run Press TV.

Iran does not plan to produce 20% enriched uranium for long, Abbasi said, according to Press TV.

Uranium enriched at 20% is typically used for hospital isotopes and research reactors, but is also seen as a shortcut toward the 90% enrichment required to build nuclear weapons. Nuclear experts say Iran’s supply is far greater than it would need for peaceful purposes.

Iran says there is a medical purpose to its nuclear program.

Further signaling that a big move is in the works, we have this today on PressTV:

“Iran’s representatives will participate in the negotiations with new initiatives and we hope that the P5+1 countries will also enter talks with constructive approaches,” Jalili told reporters in Tehran on Wednesday, IRNA reported.

“The language of threat and pressure against the Iranian nation has never yielded results but will lead to more seriousness in the attitude of the Iranian nation,” he added.

He emphasized, “We are ready to hold progressive and successful talks on cooperation.”

At the same time that we are seeing hints of progress on the diplomatic front, it appears that a number of Iranian and Israeli spies have been taken out of action from their operations bases in Azerbaijan.

Back in the middle of March, Azerbaijan announced they had arrested 22 spies working for Iran:

The authorities in Azerbaijan have arrested 22 people on suspicion of spying for Iran, accusing them of links to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

The undated arrests were confirmed in a brief statement by the Azerbaijani national security ministry.

/snip/

“Firearms, cartridges, explosives and espionage equipment were found during the arrest,” the Azerbaijani national security ministry said.

The 22 detainees are said to have received orders from the Revolutionary Guards to “commit terrorist acts against the US, Israeli and other Western states’ embassies and the embassies’ employees”.

Yesterday, Iran announced the arrests of a number of Israeli agents, some of whom are presumed to have been in Azerbaijan and some of whom were in Iran. From Mehr News: Read more

Iran: Parallel to 2003 Rhetoric, Senate War Lobby Objects to Negotiations, IAEA Visit Controversial

Writing on the front page of today’s New York Times, Scott Shane finally states what should have been obvious to anyone paying attention to the steady drumbeat from the war mongers over the last couple of years:

Echoes of the period leading up to the Iraq war in 2003 are unmistakable, igniting a familiar debate over whether journalists are overstating Iran’s progress toward a bomb.

Shane notes that this time, as opposed to 2003, the Obama administration is trying to calm the war rhetoric instead of inflaming it as the Bush administration did in 2003.

However, the the bellicose Israel  war lobby in the US Senate is more than willing to take up the cause of war as the only answer. A “bipartisan” group consisting of Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Pat Toomey (R-PA),  Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), John McCain (R-AZ), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), James Risch (R-ID), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Charles Schumer (D-NY) has penned a letter to President Obama, trying to take away the major negotiated settlement which could avert war. In the letter, they state:

Second, we believe it is absolutely essential that the United States and its partners make clear to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran that we intend to continue ratcheting up this pressure-through comprehensive implementation of existing sanctions as well as imposition of new measures-until there is a full and complete resolution of all components of illicit Iranian nuclear activities. This must include, at a minimum, the full, verifiable, and sustained suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities and heavy water-related activities, as required by multiple UN Security Council resolutions.

This is a pre-emptive strike by the Israel war lobby in the Senate to prevent a negotiated settlement in which Iran suspends its work enriching uranium to the 20% level. From an editorial in today’s Washington Post:

 In fact, it appears likely that Tehran perceives talks as an opportunity to undermine sanctions. Mr. Jalili’s letter referred to negotiations “based on step-by-step principles and reciprocity,” language that could describe a proposal originally put forward by Russia last year. Moscow outlined a sequence of steps in which Iran would receive relief from sanctions in exchange for incremental actions to satisfy the IAEA. Iran rejected the idea, but now the P5+1, urged on by the Obama administration, is discussing a modified version. Reportedly, it could grant some sanctions relief if Iran suspended only its higher-level enrichment of uranium, and surrendered material enriched to that 20 percent level.

Clearly, the war mongers in the Senate are demanding that sanctions be ratcheted up substantially, with complete capitulation by Iran being the only way to remove any sanctions. In other words, the Senate group is demanding that negotiations be structured in a way that they are doomed.

Yesterday’s second visit by an IAEA delegation to Iran is being reported widely in the press as a failure. For example, Reuters says: Read more

The Impending Intelligence Games

After the Israelis attacked a flotilla carrying humanitarian aid the other night, and particularly after the US quietly stated it would wait to learn all the details of the attack, I knew the US and Israel would claim to have had intelligence about the flotilla that would somehow “justify” violations of international law.

Sure enough, Israel told other countries that members of Hezbollah were on the flotilla.

Israeli officials are privately telling their international counterparts that they had intelligence that Hezbollah operatives were hidden among the crew and passengers of several ships. The initial plan was to board all the ships, separate the alleged terrorists, bring the flotilla to Ashdod, and then deal separately with the Gaza activists.  But the intelligence was apparently non-specific, the commandos were trigger-happy and tense (unusually so for the Israelis) and they did not anticipate that passengers and crew on one of the ships would turn against them. A cascade of failures, unclear rules of engagement and a climate of tension –> a tragedy. [emphasis Marc Ambinder’s]

And, as Max Blumenthal reports, they even tried to make–then backed off of–a claim that some flotilla participants were members of al Qaeda.

In a special meeting of the Security Cabinet it was disclosed that a group of 40 people on board the Mavi Mamara with no identification papers belong to Al Qaeda. The terrorists were equipped with bullet proof vests, night-vision goggles, and weapons.

Hey, Israel?!? You should check for those members of Hezbollah-I-mean-al-Qaeda inside those aluminum tubes over there. Right. Right over there, next to that fancy letter from Niger.

Mind you, I have absolutely zero doubt that the US, if not Israel itself, has detailed intelligence on the planning and make-up of the participants in the flotilla. The flotilla has been planned very publicly for months, flotilla members openly challenged Israel and its blockade of Gaza, and presumably planners used email and phones to plan the trip. The US government would require no warrant to wiretap all but the few American participants in the flotilla. Plus, the IDF has openly admitted it sabotaged five of the six ships in the flotilla (though I wonder whether they did this with some kind of electromagnetic pulse).

During his briefing on the operation to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Colonel Itzik Turgeman hinted that the IDF had sabotaged the engines of the other five ships, saying that “they took care of them.”

But that’s why the described vagueness of the intelligence, the release of very limited, edited videos by Israel, and the immediate preference on the part of both the US and Israel for an Israeli-led, um, “investigation” stinks so much. If the evidence really justified killing civilians, Israel would state as much and show the proof it assuredly does have. But thus far, at least, rather than show proof, they’re making unsubstantiated and changing claims.

Maybe they have proof, but they’re not showing it.

Then again, if I were a Turkish activist hoping to incite Israel into doing something really stupid and I had reason to assume I was being wiretapped, I might plant a vague suggestion Israel (and the US, with its trigger-happy weak intelligence analysis) might overreact to.

Which is why I expect we’re in for some months of claims and counterclaims about intelligence relating to this flotilla.

Syriana

Aurora Borealis (ionization of the upper atmosphere)(While I have been trying to find a resolution to MI’s DNC delegation in the last few days, the Admin put on their nukes in Syria dog and pony show. Partly because I didn’t have the time to do the Syria presentation justice, and partly because Professor Foland–whom you know from his great comments–has a lot more expertise on this area than I, I asked him to do a post assessing the presentation. Thanks for the really informative post, Prof! -ew)

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the course of this Administration, it’s that if Dana Perino one day announces that the sky is blue, I will be forced to assume that an alien invasion has commenced with the total ionization of Earth’s upper atmosphere.

With that in mind, there’s an awful lot of cognitive dissonance for me in analyzing the evidence on the raid (apparently named "Operation Orchard" by the Israelis) on a Syrian desert site (apparently named "Al-Kibar"). Having started my own blog motivated by "the incredible amount of lies & hyperbole on the Iran situation of early 2006", I don’t find it easy to accept anything this Administration puts forth as evidence. I’m having all this difficulty because the pictures they showed last Thursday are clearly pictures of a nuclear reactor.

In what follows, I will lay out the history of what we’ve known about Operation Orchard and al-Kibar, what the latest photographs show, and what questions we should probably be asking.

Read more

Elliott Abrams Gave the Israelis a Hall Pass

The Israelis say that George Bush gave them written permission to expand settlements in the West Bank.

A letter that President Bush personally delivered to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon four years ago has emerged as a significant obstacle to the president’s efforts to forge a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians during his last year in office.

Ehud Olmert, the current Israeli prime minister, said this week that Bush’s letter gave the Jewish state permission to expand the West Bank settlements that it hopes to retain in a final peace deal, even though Bush’s peace plan officially calls for a freeze of Israeli settlements across Palestinian territories on the West Bank. In an interview this week, Sharon’s chief of staff, Dov Weissglas, said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reaffirmed this understanding in a secret agreement reached between Israel and the United States in the spring of 2005, just before Israel withdrew from Gaza.

The part of this story that you’ll really like, though, is that Colin Powell says he never made such an agreement.

Weissglas said that the letter built upon a prior understanding between then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, which would allow Israel to build up settlements within existing construction lines. But Powell denied that. "I never agreed to it," he said in an e-mail.

Whereas Weissglas admits that the final settlement came in an agreement with Iran-Contra alum Elliott Abrams.

Weissglas said he then negotiated a "verbal understanding" with deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams that would permit new construction in those key settlements; Rice and Sharon then approved the Weissglas-Abrams deal. "I do not recall that we had any kind of written formulation," Weissglas said.

Would it surprise anyone that Elliott Abrams concluded some super-secret, cross-my-fingers, Neocons-only deal with the Israelis? Or that Condi Rice, agreed to that settlement, but now pretends she didn’t?

There’s one part of this purported settlement, though, that is especially lovely. In true Neocon fashion, they used "market demand" as their fig leaf to rationalize the new settlements.

Israel could add homes in settlements expected to keep, as long as the construction was dictated by market demand, not subsidies.

It sounds like a remarkable piece of Elliott Abrams work: the West Bank for Gaza, in another freelance, off-the-books act of foreign policy, all the while enshrining the sanctity of the market.

How Did They Find Mr. Kadish?

Since Hillary apparently needs a reminder that Israel has nukes–some of the technology for which they stole from us–yesterday’s charging of Ben-Ami Kadish for spying
ought to provide her a useful reminder.

An 84-year-old former Army engineer in New Jersey was charged on Tuesday with leaking dozens of secret documents about nuclear arms, missiles and fighter jets to the Israeli government during the early 1980s, federal prosecutors said.

While I’d be interested in Israel’s nukes attracting more attention in discussions of Middle East policy, at the moment I’m more curious how the government suddenly discovered Kadish’s alleged spying … more than 20 years after the events in question?

The NYT admits it doesn’t know the answer to that question.

Federal officials said authorities became aware of what they called Mr. Kadish’s spying activities only in recent months but would not say how they learned of his efforts more than 20 years later.

Mr. Kadish admitted to an F.B.I. agent last month that he had shown 50 to 100 classified documents to the Israeli official, according to prosecutors’ court filings on Tuesday.

It also reminds readers that Israel had assured us that they had revealed all of the spying Yosef Yagur–the science attache who appears to have solicited Kadish’s spying and who also was the Israeli agent handling Jonathan Pollard–had engaged in.

Though Mr. Kadish is suspected of having operated at the same time as Mr. Pollard, and not afterward, another conviction would be embarrassing for Israel because its officials were supposed to have disclosed to the United States all relevant information about Israeli intelligence gathering at the time of Mr. Pollard’s arrest.

So how did the US uncover Kadish’s spying?

One possibility is that Larry Franklin disclosed Kadish’s spying to the government. While the AIPAC trial is increasingly likely to be dismissed rather than have Condi reveal her A1 Cut-Out methods under oath, Larry Franklin’s plea deal did require his ongoing cooperation with the government–so presumably, if he knew of other Israeli spying, he revealed it to them. But Kadish was charged in relation to a grand jury investigation out of SDNY, not EDVA (Kadish committed the alleged acts in New Jersey).

Read more

The Gazan Jail-Bust and Middle East Dynamics

While we were all glued to CSPAN on the FISA fight yesterday, Hamas engineered a massive jail-break, breaking down the wall between Gaza and Egypt so Palestinians who have been under siege could go into Egypt to get food and supplies. The jail-break may have redefined the dynamics of Middle Eastern politics. While the jail-break had obviously been planned for some time, it occurred at a time when Israel was intensifying the Gaza siege, even while Bush had just traipsed around the Middle East claiming he was serious about seeking peace between Israel and Palestine. While it’s still early, the jail-break has the potential of dramatically altering dynamics in the Middle East.

As Jonathan Edelstein notes, the siege was really more of a joint Israeli-Egyptian siege.

I’ll close by questioning received wisdom, noting a legal paradigm shift, and indulging in some wild speculation.

Questioning received wisdom: I think we’ve been wrong all along in describing the siege of Gaza as an Israeli siege. In fact, ever since Israel left the Philadelphi route, it’s been an Israeli-Egyptian siege, and Egypt has maintained its end for its own reasons. Hamas correctly perceived Egypt as the military and political weak link, and chose to break the siege at the Egyptian border. I’ve actually wondered why it took so long; there have been partial breaches of the wall before, and I remember thinking at the time that Hamas would gain an advantage by widening them. Maybe it wasn’t yet ready, but I think it’s now very clear that they and Israel were never the only players.

Adelstein wonders whether this jailbust might lead to increasing influence from Hamas in Egypt, something Egypt can ill afford.

As for Bob Spencer’s speculation that Gaza might “become some sort of loosely associated part of Egypt,” I wonder if it might end up more the other way. I did some speculating of my own about the Gaza-Sinai relationship in late 2005, at the time the Rafah crossing reopened and before the rocket-closure-raid cycle started developing its own logic. The key points were that Gaza has six times the population of North Sinai governorate, that there was more money in Gaza than in that part of Egypt, that Egyptian security control in that region was tenuous and that the ports of al-Arish and Port Said had the potential to become a key Palestinian import-export route. All these, except possibly the second, remain true, and given that it will be a political impossibility for Mubarak to re-close the border (although he has built walls against his own Bedouin citizens), Sinai al-Shamaliyya might end up becoming a de facto Palestinian economic appendage. Interesting times. Read more

Bush’s Empire: Making His Own Reality, NIE Edition

I’m interested in Michael Hirsh’s report that Bush trashed the key judgments of the NIE while in Israel for two reasons. First, WTF was the SAO who leaked the story trying to accomplish?

That NIE, made public Dec. 3, embarrassed the administration by concluding that Tehran had halted its weapons program in 2003, which seemed to undermine years of bellicose rhetoric from Bush and other senior officials about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But in private conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week, the president all but disowned the document, said a senior administration official who accompanied Bush on his six-nation trip to the Mideast. "He told the Israelis that he can’t control what the intelligence community says, but that [the NIE’s] conclusions don’t reflect his own views" about Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, said the official, who would discuss intelligence matters only on the condition of anonymity. [my emphasis]

The same article quotes Stephen Hadley, one of a limited number of Senior Administration Officials accompanying Bush on the trip, as saying that Bush said only that Iran remains a threat, regardless of what the NIE says.

Bush’s national-security adviser, Stephen Hadley, told reporters in Jerusalem that Bush had only said to Olmert privately what he’s already said publicly, which is that he believes Iran remains "a threat" no matter what the NIE says.

Was Hadley’s on the record quote a continuation of the earlier anonymous comment to Hirsh or, more likely, a response to the earlier leak, an alternate view of what the anonymous SAO was spinning to Hirsh? That is, did some SAO spin Bush’s fairly innocuous comment (at least as Hadley interpreted it) as a repudiation of the NIE, contrary to the official stance of the Administration? And if so, to what end? To support Dick Cheney’s campaign for war (Stephen Hadley is often considered a Cheney operative, though he was stuck playing the interlocutor between Cheney and the CIA leading up to the Plame leak)?

But I’m also struck by the timing of this quote. If I were one of the analysts who worked on this NIE–or even, say, one of the senior intelligence officers who threatened to go public with the key judgments of the NIE–I’d be pretty peeved to know that Bush was bad-mouthing my handiwork to allies, particularly after the apparent confrontation to get it declassified in the first place. Read more

NIE Timeline, Take Three

This is a compilation of the several timelines I–and others–have done so far on the NIE.

November 2006: NIE "completed"

January 5, 2007: John Negroponte resigns as DNI, reportedly because of fight over NIE; Negroponte would move to become a top official at State

January 11: US takes six Iranians in custody after a raid on a diplomatic building in Irbil, Iraq

February 2007: NIE completed; Cheney objecting to content

February 7: Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Ali Reza Asgari arrives in Turkey; he disappears there, and is presumed to have defected or been kidnapped; in March he was reported to be cooperating with western intelligence

April 26: Thomas Fingar announces NIE will be delayed due to Ahmadinejad’s demagoguery

May 12: Cheney meets with Saudi Arabia

July 2007: Intelligence community intercepts communications that verify claim Iran’s nuclear program remains suspended; Senior Administration Officials briefed

August 2007: Bush claims he learned new intelligence exists

August 9: Bush substitutes the claim that Iran was seeking nuclear technology for earlier claim that they were seeking nukes. (h/t Froomkin)

They have expressed their desire to be able to enrich uranium, which we believe is a step toward having a nuclear weapons program. That, in itself, coupled with their stated foreign policy, is very dangerous for world stability. . . . It’s a very troubling nation right now.

August 29-30: Six nuclear warheads "accidentally" get flown from Minot AFB to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana

September 6: Israel strikes site in Syria

October 2007: BushCo considers spiking the NIE Read more